Review: “Unplanned”

This is not an unbiased review. I have met and been profoundly impressed by the woman who inspired this movie. I’ll say this much, in case one paragraph is all you have time for: Unplanned is worth viewing. Whatever your belief about abortion – especially if “trust women” is your visceral response to pro-life messages – take the time to watch Abby Johnson’s story. Trust her. This dramatization of her book of the same name might seem unbelievable, but it is faithful to the true story.

The film’s R rating is a puzzler. Violence is apparently the issue, which is odd in a world where an ad for a television show about zombies is more violent than anything in this movie.

About ten years ago, Johnson quit a Planned Parenthood job she had once loved and at which she had excelled. She had no clear idea of what was to come next. What she was certain about was that her commitment to women’s health and her job at PP were no longer in sync. Abortion had become a bottom-line concern for her agency even as her own understanding of abortion had evolved.

At the same time, over a period of many months, past the barrier of a tall fence, the sidewalk outside Johnson’s PP facility was the scene of peaceful prayer by people committed to public witness to the value of life. (This was the first location of what later became 40 Days for Life, now a twice-yearly worldwide pro-life event.) They slowly built relationships by engaging in conversations with the workers at the clinic whenever they could. They offered assistance to women willing to consider alternatives to abortion. They were undeterred by the occasional spray from sprinklers on the clinic’s property, set off to discourage their presence.

Pro-life prayer outside abortion clinic
Scene of a 40 Days for Life campaign, from “Unplanned.”

Johnson was not naive about abortion, having had two of her own. Her facility provided abortions in the name of “health care.” While her husband and parents were pro-life and uncomfortable with her work, she deliberately chose not only to work at Planned Parenthood but to rise to the level of facility manager. So what happened?

One little thing after another over a long period, a word here, an observation there, along with prayers from people she barely knew, came together for Johnson one day. She was asked to assist at an ultrasound-guided abortion. As the film’s tag line says, what she saw changed everything for her. The humanity of the preborn child, no less than the humanity of the woman undergoing the abortion, hit her with full force.

Scene from movie "Unplanned"
The fateful sonogram and the “aha” moment. Photo from unplannedfilm.com.

The people praying outside her clinic gave her a place to land and catch her breath. Eventually, she joined them at the fence.

To this day, years later, the real-life Abby Johnson is calling on people to pray outside clinics. “Abortions aren’t happening in the halls of Congress,” she likes to say.

I wish the film had more room for Johnson’s more recent work: she founded an organization called And Then There Were None, dedicated to abortion workers seeking to leave the abortion industry. She and the team working with her have helped about 500 people make the transition away from abortion and toward life-affirming work.

Stories told in broad, bold strokes don’t always translate well to film. A pair of experienced filmmakers, Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman (God’s Not Dead)  nonetheless took on the job with Unplanned. The film is as blunt and forthright as the woman whose story it relates.

Abby, as played by Ashley Bratcher, stands out in such sharp relief that the supporting characters in some scenes are overshadowed. One exception is Robia Scott, in the role of a Planned Parenthood supervisor ferociously protective of abortion as an integral part of her organization’s mission.

Robia Scott in "Unplanned"
Actress Robia Scott as a Planned Parenthood supervisory staffer, from “Unplanned.”

Planned Parenthood does not come off well in this story. Since leaving PP, Abby Johnson has been outspokenly critical of the organization and its financial reliance on abortion. Her own experience led her to conclude that women’s health was not PP’s core value. As anyone can discover who has examined Planned Parenthood and its influence on public policy, PP is the largest abortion provider in the nation, with the help of about half a billion dollars annually in taxpayer funding.

Two scenes may be responsible for the film’s R rating. Had the directors left them out, they would have left inexplicable holes in the story.

The first is the opening scene, showing the a-ha moment that drove Abby Johnson from her job. A grainy image on a sonogram screen (simulated but not exaggerated by special effects) shows what happens during a suction abortion.

The second scene is more extended and difficult to watch. One of Johnson’s abortions was “medical,” a sanitized term for a chemical abortion induced with drugs and completed at home. The counseling Johnson received did not prepare her for the pain and protracted hemorrhaging she experienced at home, alone, with no one from the clinic there to help her.

But an R rating? Why would anyone set up a barrier between a teen and Abby Johnson’s story? Not to protect the teen, that’s for sure.

I won’t dodge the inevitable comparison between Unplanned and the recent Gosnell movie. Gosnell was in essence a police procedural about horrific crimes, and its power was due in part to its understated tone. There is nothing understated about Unplanned. It’s personal. It’s the story of a woman with vivid memories, passionate commitments, and dramatic experiences. The mood is urgency. There’s no room for subtlety.

As the most fully-realized character in the story, Abby has to be just as believable as a college student as she is as a clinic director and later an ex-director. We have to stick around after that startling early scene to find out how she got from point A to such a distant point B. In portraying her, in persuading us to wonder what’s next, Ashley Bratcher carries the film.

Unplanned is such a cause célèbre among pro-life activists that people who consider abortion to be a facet of health care might be put off from seeing it. Go anyway. Something might strike a chord.

There’s no need to encourage viewing by the legions of people who have already been influenced by Abby Johnson’s books and activism. They’re already in line to see the movie, and they’ve probably already read Johnson’s books. (Look up Unplanned and The Walls Are Talking, available in print and as e-books.)

What can Unplanned offer a wider audience? Something they won’t find on any other screen: a chance to learn about Abby Johnson, who is a true American original; an invitation to walk with her on part of her still-unfolding journey; and a challenge to trust her and her witness to the value of all human life.

(All images in this post courtesy of unplannedfilm.com)

“Unplanned” Gets “R” Rating

The dramatization of Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned, scheduled for theatrical release in March, has been given an R rating by the MPAA, the folks who hand out ratings. That means a 16-year-old won’t be admitted to a film depicting abortion unless she brings along a parent or guardian, but she could get an abortion without parental consent (or even knowledge).

Go figure.

I think the MPAA just ensured that when the film goes to video and on-demand, it’ll get plenty of attention from the teenagers the MPAA is pathetically trying to “protect.”

From the Facebook page for the Unplanned movie: “Unplanned has received an “R-Rating” from the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) because they said there is “disturbing images” – We agree… that’s why we made a movie about it. (there is no nudity, no foul language, no gun violence no sex… so #MPAAThinksAbortionIsViolent) …”

Featured image photo credit: Facebook/@UnplannedMovie

Abby Johnson’s Story “Unplanned” in Theaters March 2019

Unplanned coverThe first book I ever bought when I acquired an e-reader was Unplanned by Abby Johnson. I had never heard of her before. I knew that the book was by an ex-Planned Parenthood worker, and I’d never met such a person, so I thought I might have something to learn by reading her book.

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. Abby’s story forced a course correction on the work I’d been doing my entire adult life. If not a correction, then an expansion. I had known abortion workers only from public hearings and press conferences. I’d certainly never known one who had left the industry.

My horizons have been expanded since the book was published in 2010. Unplanned nudged me out of my comfort zone.

Unplanned has been made into a movie, and it’ll be released in theaters next month, March 2019. I’m looking forward to it. Here’s the official trailer.

This brings to mind the first time I met Abby, when she spoke at Dartmouth College a few years ago. Recall her words:“What’s your standing appointment?”

From a photographer at the Gosnell trial, a look at coverage of the movie

Photographer J.D.Mullane took an iconic photo in 2013 at the trial of Kermit Gosnell: rows and rows of empty benches set aside for media. “Failure to cover [the trial] was an embarrassment for American journalism, and I will always take satisfaction helping to cause that embarrassment.”

He sees another cause for embarrassment for journalists and media gatekeepers like Facebook, as he sees how the movie Gosnell is being received, or not received. His essay is worth reading in full, at the following link:

http://www.buckscountycouriertimes.com/opinion/20181014/mullane-with-gosnell-another-media-blackout

Gosnell (Film Review)

Gosnell is subtitled the Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, signaling a true-crime story. The film is that, and more. For all the horror and injustice inherent in the crimes of Dr. Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, this movie is about ordinary people and how they went about clearing away the horror and bringing justice to victims.

In Gosnell, the focus is on people, not on issues or causes. Therein lies the film’s strength.

The real-life Kermit Gosnell is serving life in prison after being convicted in of three counts of first-degree murder, one count of manslaughter, and a host of lesser charges. He got away with murder and a filthy clinic for many years, as authorities in Pennsylvania – Republican and Democrat alike – determined that regulation and oversight of abortion facilities was bad for women. Politics collided with women’s health.

The result at Gosnell’s abortion “clinic”: women died, women suffered, and children who survived attempted late-term abortion were ghoulishly murdered. Body parts from aborted children were kept like trophies; leaking bags of medical waste littered the facility. Gosnell’s crimes were discovered by authorities only by accident, as police raided the clinic as part of a drug investigation.

In the hands of an inept screenwriter or the wrong director, this true-crime story could have gone badly awry.  The makers of Gosnell got it right. The script leans heavily on trial transcripts and a grand jury report, yet dialogue flows naturally. The filmmakers thankfully manage largely to avoid melodrama; the sensational subtitle of the film is an exception.

The film’s subject matter made conventional funding hard to come by. The team behind the movie resorted to crowdfunding, and 30,000 people donated a total of $2.3 million to bring Gosnell to the screen.

Individual human beings matter in this film, including the women who came to Gosnell for abortions. The only judgment that viewers are invited to make regarding the women is about the mistreatment to which they were subjected.

The film takes time to do something that Philadelphia health authorities never did: tell the story of Karnamaya Mongar,  who came to Gosnell for an abortion. She wound up dead from an overdose of drugs administered by a poorly-trained staff acting under Gosnell’s direction. Eventually, Gosnell was convicted of manslaughter in her death, no thanks to the state and local health authorities who failed to inspect Gosnell’s facility for more than a decade.

The first glimmer of justice for Gosnell’s patients came thanks to police, most of them indifferent to abortion, who carried out a drug raid and discovered much more than they bargained for. They had no political agenda. They simply did their jobs and followed the evidence.

Dean Cain portrays Detective James Wood, engaging and friendly. His laconic partner, Stark, is played by AlfonZo Rachel, better known for his social commentaries on various media platforms.

At times during the film, the scenes of investigation are so ill-lit as to be irksome. One strains to see what’s happening on the screen- can’t there be more light?  All that can be seen at one time is what’s illuminated by a single police officer’s flashlight: a dirty piece of equipment, bloody linens, quick (but never gratuitous) views of Gosnell’s “trophies.” No gore, no exaggeration, yet those glimpses pack a punch.

Evidence from Gosnell’s office and home landed on the desks of prosecutors in Philadelphia who harbored no illusions about the trouble that would accompany the prosecution of an abortionist. Lead prosecutor Lexi McGuire  – a composite character played by Sarah Jane Morris – is pro-choice, but she refuses to look the other way when investigators bring her evidence of children killed by Gosnell after they survived attempted abortion. Like the investigators, she’s an ordinary person who does her job, and in so doing finds herself changed.

Earl Billings is unsettling as Kermit Gosnell. Unflappable in the face of investigators, bizarrely concerned about the welfare of his cats and turtles, calmly playing piano as police and prosecutors search through his files, Billings’s Gosnell seems like an affable if slightly ditzy grandfather. His face gives no clue to his taste for carnage. The screenwriters’ version of the doctor tracks closely with the documentation of the actual case and with interviews Gosnell has granted since his conviction.

Ironically, the only over-the-top characterization in the film comes from the man whose direction keeps the film understated. Director Nick Searcy plays Gosnell’s attorney, an expensively-clad shark who defends Gosnell with fierce and noisy passion. He chips away at the numerous charges against his client, but he can’t quite make jurors forget Karnamaya Mongar or the photos of babies with their spines “snipped.”

Gosnell’s office was raided in 2010. The trial was in 2013. During all that time, the Philadelphia Inquirer covered the case as a local-crime story, while most other media outlets ignored it. Finally, during the trial, national reporters were goaded (shamed?) into covering the story as a few journalists called attention to Gosnell. In the movie, the intrepid few who covered the case from day one are blended to create the character Molly Mullaney, a blogger (or “citizen journalist,” as she crisply introduces herself), played with attitude by Cyrina Fiallo.

Gosnell is based in part on the book by the same name by Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, husband-and-wife authors who documented the trial and later teamed up to produce the film. In the book, McElhinney describes how her own views were affected by the doctor’s crimes.

I never trusted or liked pro-life activists. Even at college I thought them too earnest and too religious….

Fast forward to April 2013 and Kermit Gosnell’s trial in Philadelphia, when everything changed….[T]he images shown in the courtroom were not from activists, they were from police detectives and medical examiners and workers at the 3801 Lancaster Ave. clinic….What they said and the pictures they showed changed me. I am not the same person I was.

A story so powerful deserves to be told with care, and Gosnell meets the challenge.

After viewing the film, I went back to re-read the grand jury report that led to Gosnell’s trial. It underscores how much restraint was exercised by the makers of Gosnell as they brought the story to the screen.

Had state and local officials performed their duties properly, Gosnell’s clinic would have been shut down decades ago. Gosnell would have lost the medical license that he used to inflict irreparable harm on women; to illegally abort viable, late-term fetuses; and to kill innumerable babies outside the womb….Let us say right up front that we realize this case will be used by those on both sides of the abortion debate. We ourselves cover a spectrum of personal beliefs about the morality of abortion. For us as a criminal grand jury, however, the case is not about that controversy; it is about disregard of the law and disdain for the lives and health of mothers and infants. We find common ground in exposing what happened here, and in recommending measures to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.


Gosnell premieres nationwide on Friday, October 12, 2018. See gosnellmovie.com for a list of theaters.