'Birthright: A War Story': Film Review

Illuminating and enraging but marred by heavy-handed aesthetics.

Civia Tamarkin's doc shows how even women who don't want an abortion can get caught in the web of America's pro-life laws.

A rundown of the many ways current battles over abortion can wreck the lives of people not enlisted in this particular culture war, Civia Tamarkin's Birthright: A War Story aims to motivate those who, wearied by decades of shouting and protest, would like to tune the whole thing out. Even viewers who pay attention may be shocked at some of the stories here, in which women suffer at the hands of anti-abortion laws despite having no desire to terminate a pregnancy voluntarily. But the film's sometimes heavyhanded aesthetics will be an obstacle in communicating with the very bystanders it hopes to inform. Though it will rally the troops at gatherings of pro-choice advocates, its broader theatrical prospects are more dim.

The movie's biggest "Holy shit!" moment comes somewhere in the middle, as short on-the-street interviews find seemingly normal young women who have no idea what Roe v. Wade even is. Little wonder, then, that Tamarkin is moved to take dramatic measures — like the use of a score by jazz musicians (and, evidently, first-time film composers) Joel Futterman and Ira Levin: Though their music is attractive on its own, Tamarkin uses it manipulatively, washing it liberally over stories that don't need her help to move us.

Take, for instance, Danielle and Robb Deaver, a Nebraska couple who already had a 2-year-old and were more than eager for another child. When Danielle's water broke at 22 weeks, they were told that the much-too-premature fetus had nearly no chance of surviving, and keeping it inside presented a growing threat to Danielle's own health. But a recently passed law said that "any elective delivery of a baby that will be nonviable" was an abortion, and banned after 20 weeks. Though they sought legal workarounds, her doctors were forced to wait 10 days until she naturally delivered a baby that died minutes later.

Legislatures around the country, it turns out, have made laws that can turn everyday tragedies like stillbirth into crimes. Birthright offers a smart rundown of how we got here, looking at how a matrix of political calculations made anti-abortion crusaders out of politicians with no moral convictions of their own on the matter. Eventually, the most zealous activists realized they could team up with moderates by speaking of their proposed laws (all of them designed to chip away at Roe v. Wade until it could be overturned) as measures designed to protect the health of women, not the unborn.

In reality, the laws have had the opposite effect: We're told that in the U.S., the health risk of pregnancy and childbirth is increasing over time, not dropping as it has in other countries. Tamarkin offers little reason to think this trend will reverse in the current political climate.

Production company: Tamarkin Productions
Distributor: Abramorama
Director: Civia Tamarkin
Screenwriters: Luchina Fisher, Civia Tamarkin
Producers: Ingrid Arnesen, Steve Filmer, Suzanne D. Johnson
Executive producers: Ruth Shaber, Civia Tamarkin
Director of photography-editor: Brad White
Composers: Joel Futterman, Ike Levin

100 minutes