Picks and Pans Review: Roe Vs. Wade
updated 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/15/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Here is a sign that free speech is alive and kicking. All around us these days, advertisers and programmers are running scared while some self-proclaimed protectors of American morals condemn any TV show that dares to mention a body part (Saturday Night Live) or bodily function (Married...With Children). So in the midst of this trivial yet dangerous crusade, it is especially remarkable that NBC should have the courage to make a movie about a subject the network acknowledges is "the most divisive moral issue facing America today." Here is a movie about abortion—an intelligent, mature, humane and sane movie at that.
In Roe vs. Wade we meet the plaintiff and the lawyer who in 1973 fought up to the Supreme Court, overturning laws that prevented women from choosing abortion. The magnificent Holly (Broadcast News) Hunter plays the case's anonymous "Jane Roe" (Norma McCorvey in real life and named Ellen Russell in the movie). She is a pregnant, drifting carnival barker who can't support her first child and doesn't want a second. But Texas law will not allow her to have a legal abortion. "I'm pregnant—I'm not trash," she complains. "Either I get myself cut up on a table top or I end up carrying a baby for nine months that I can't keep—all because I made a mistake." Her mother attacks her for having "the morals of a cat." Her father gives her sympathy. And Amy (Field of Dreams) Madigan, as her lawyer, Sarah Weddington, takes her case to court. Half the show is Roe's story; we see her mistakes, her regrets, her pain. But this also is the story of an inexperienced yet dedicated attorney; we see her continue on even after colleagues shy away from the heavy work and after professors accuse her of carrying on the fight because she is "too emotional." This is a movie about feminism as well as abortion.
The last time I remember seeing the subject of abortion handled by TV in a big way was in Choices, a 1986 movie in which—just to play absolutely safe—one woman had an abortion and one did not. TV wanted to take no chances; TV wanted to offend no one; TV was scared. But in Roe vs. Wade, NBC gives us much more credit for intelligence and maturity. This show is no video bumper sticker. It does not try to convince us that Roe was right or wrong. Nor does it try to numb us or neutralize the debate by cautiously balancing every minute with a pro for every con. No, this show simply tells us the true, human story behind this infamous case and acknowledges that we will decide what to think ourselves. On TV these days, that takes some courage.
As a drama, Roe is gripping and well-told. Hunter is simply great. She treats her character with respect but also blunt honesty. Thank goodness she hasn't become one of those actresses who thinks she's too good for TV. And Madigan is equally wonderful; she is frightened—as any green lawyer in her shoes would be—but also forceful.
It is rare that a movie this important is also this good.