'Reversing Roe': Film Review | Telluride 2018

Solid and valuable but familiar.

Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg chronicle the history of the abortion debate in a cogent, straightforward documentary.

The Supreme Court declared abortion legal 45 years ago in Roe v. Wade, and the ruling has been under siege nearly as long. As Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg chronicle in Reversing Roe, over the decades legal challenges and restrictions have chipped away at women’s access to abortion, and the issue itself has become a hugely effective political tool. Those are the main, if unsurprising, take-aways from this solid, straightforward history of abortion rights in America.

Many documentaries about abortion rely on emotional, first-hand stories from women who have chosen, or been denied the choice, to end a pregnancy. Reversing Roe takes a more cerebral approach, using news footage and current interviews on both sides of the divide to try to illuminate the subject. Although the film makes no eye-opening revelations, it slowly gains power by conveying the weight of history that has led to the present moment, with abortion rights hanging in the balance of the Supreme Court.  

The doc is more cogent than artful. Establishing the background to Roe and the setup of the opposing arguments may have been necessary, but it wasn’t necessary to present this well-covered ground in a perfunctory, talking-head way. Gloria Steinem says that a woman’s right to control her own body is a matter of freedom and equality. On the opposite side, John Seago, of the group Texas Right to Life, believes abortion is murder and resisting it a moral imperative.

A few lesser-known details do emerge in these early sections of the film. Rev. Tom Davis was a member of the Clergy Consultation Service, a group of ministers and rabbis who helped women find sympathetic doctors before abortion was legal. As he recalls today, illegal abortions were rarely prosecuted. As soon as the laws changed, the backlash and political maneuvering set in.

The documentary quietly begins to accumulate its force as it follows that battle and its consequences. Among those interviewed, Dr. Colleen McNicholas is a central figure, not because she is historically important, but for what she explains and represents. Based in St. Louis, she travels several days a week to treat women in four states where restrictive laws have made abortion providers scarce. Dr. McNicholas emerges as a woman of science, compassion and calm determination even in the face of name-calling, anti-abortion protesters.     

Stern and Sundberg’s films include The Devil Comes on Horseback, a tough-minded doc about genocide in Darfur, and the engaging hit, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work. Both have a detached point of view yet create immediacy. Here, their strategy of looking at both sides was probably more effective on paper than on screen. The film’s voices from the political right sound wary, as if they are in some enemy territory where the directors never really earned their trust.

Troy Newman of Operation Rescue explains that his group’s name was inspired by a Bible passage, and points to their victories in shutting down abortion clinics. But his comments land with the flatness of talking points. Stern and Sundberg dutifully give the pro-life movement its screen time, but glean little insight.

The doc is far better at charting the politicization of abortion and how effectively the opponents of Roe have engaged in the fight. Starting in the 1980s, Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals made it the centerpiece of a social-religious-political nexus. As the film points out, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump were all, to different degrees, open to abortion rights early in their careers. They made hard-right anti-abortion turns before running for the presidency, the only acceptable view in contemporary Republican politics.

In one of the doc’s most effective strategies, small visual touches are often dropped in without comment, and register pointedly. There is a news clip of Reagan during the 1980 campaign saying, “This election is to make America great again.”

News clips of State Senator Wendy Davis’ 2013 filibuster in the Texas legislature against a bill restricting abortion are among the most vivid scenes, full of passion from the observers supporting her. Following those clips we see a Tweet from Barack Obama: “Something special is happening in Austin tonight. #StandWithWendy.”

There is one fascinating thread, which the film could have made much more of, about the use of language in the debate. Both Dr. McNicholas and Kathryn Kolbert, a reproductive rights lawyer who in 1990 argued before the Supreme Court, note that “partial birth abortion,” which the pro-life movement vehemently opposes, is not a medical term for a late-pregnancy procedure but a phrase invented as a political cudgel. And it’s conspicuous that Dr. McNicholas is the only person in the film to use the term “anti-choice” instead of “pro-life.” She doesn’t spell out that the “pro-life” label that Roe opponents have claimed demonizes the pro-choice movement as anti-life. Such brief but potent moments make the doc worthwhile.

It’s hard to say something new about abortion when there have already been so many films on the subject, not to mention television and the current news swirling around us. Some points in Reversing Roe, for example, will be familiar from Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal segments on TRAP rules (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) designed to make abortion clinics unable to survive.

In that cluttered landscape, Reversing Roe offers no more than a succinct overview. But viewers will bring their own knowledge to bear on the doc, enhancing its resonance. Kolbert, the reproductive rights lawyer, points out that only one thing finally matters in the abortion debate: “Are there five votes to overturn Roe?” Brett Kavanaugh’s name is never mentioned, but his pending nomination to the Supreme Court is a shadow that looms over the documentary, felt from start to finish.

Production company: Lincoln Square Productions
Distributor: Netflix
Directors-screenwriters: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Producers: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, Keli Goff
Director of photography: Charles Miller
Editor: Ben Gold
Music: Paul Brill
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

99 minutes