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CLIFTON, N.J. -- It was a rare packed house for a weeknight in the suburbs and when the movie was over the sold-out crowd of about 100 on April 3 spilled haltingly into the light.

A few -- a gaggle of nuns in their habits, at least one collared priest -- wore their dispositions on their sleeves. Others communicated in muted gestures, dabbed at tears, or lingered for long stretches in the popcorn-strewn vestibule at the AMC multiplex here, as if still processing the deliberately provocative movie they had just seen.

Since March 29, similar scenes have played out across the country as faith-based groups and many others have gathered en masse to see Unplanned, a new movie that paints a scathing portrait of abortion rights in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.

Molly Livingstone, a social media marketer in Dallas, organized about 170 people from her church to attend an early screening of the movie. It so struck her, she said, that she was moved to volunteer for an anti-abortion pregnancy center.

FELT COMPELLED

In Davenport, Iowa, the St. Thomas Aquinas Guild of the Quad Cities, an anti-abortion medical organization, raised $4,000 to buy tickets for members and civic leaders. Maggie Schoonmaker, a fertility educator who was involved in the effort, said she felt compelled to spread the word about the film.

"The movie provides a way for people to learn the truth about abortion and reproductive rights outside of a church," she said.

Unplanned has banked on its ability to draw such motivated crowds, despite what the filmmakers -- Christian anti-abortion advocates hoping to make a dent in Hollywood -- described in interviews as a torrent of adversity.

First, they said, came the denial letters from companies holding the rights to songs they had hoped to include on the film's soundtrack. Then it was an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, normally a kiss of death in evangelical, Mormon and other religious communities.

Television networks, too, rejected the film's trailer as too political to touch. The official Unplanned Twitter account, erroneously linked to online trolls, was temporarily suspended on opening weekend and the star of the movie, Ashley Bratcher, has struggled to book TV interviews outside Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network.

Of course, no film is entitled to media exposure. And in each of the above cases, the companies and networks denied singling out Unplanned. But the belief among anti-abortion communities that powerful forces have arrayed against the film has kindled long-smoldering claims of liberal and anti-religious bias in the media and Silicon Valley. And it has animated high-profile conservatives -- including Vice President Mike Pence; Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Donald Trump Jr. -- who have risen to the movie's defense, seeking to turn it into the latest battlefront of the culture wars.

For now, writer-directors Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon can console themselves with a hit. Unplanned exceeded box-office expectations on its opening weekend, earning more than $6 million -- and recouping its budget -- from just 1,100 screens. It expanded that figure this weekend, earning $3.2 million after spreading to 500 more theaters.

The movie comes as conservatives are feeling emboldened to roll back abortion rights, including potentially overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, after the confirmation in October of Justice Brett Kavanaugh solidified their majority on the Supreme Court. Another anti-abortion film, Roe v. Wade, starring conservative actor Jon Voight, was promoted at the annual March for Life rally in Washington in January, but has yet to announce a distribution partner or release date.

Solomon said he hoped the film would help trigger "the cultural moment that overturns Roe v. Wade."

"That would absolutely be a victory for us," he added.

OTHER FAITH-BASED FILMS

The success of Unplanned follows that of other faith-based films, such as last year's I Can Only Imagine and an earlier Konzelman and Solomon effort, God's Not Dead, which have demonstrated the box-office power of a passionate demographic that often says it is overlooked, if not persecuted, by left-leaning Hollywood.

The filmmakers said they want the same treatment as that given to films favored by the abortion-rights movement, such as RBG, the documentary about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Konzelman also referenced an announced film that will star Sandra Bullock as former Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis, who has campaigned against restrictions on abortion rights.

"Would any of the places that turned us down for advertising turn down Sony, or Paramount, or Universal with a Sandra Bullock movie from the other side?" he asked. "I dare say not."

Unplanned is based on the memoir of the same name by Abby Johnson, a former director of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Bryan, Texas, who became a celebrity of the anti-abortion movement after what she said was a crisis of conscience. The film dramatizes her conversion narrative and includes three unflinching portrayals of abortions, the first and most explicit of which occurs in the first 10 minutes. (Reports in Texas Monthly and Salon have raised questions about the details of Johnson's story, and Planned Parenthood said in a statement that the movie adaptation "promotes many falsehoods.")

EARNED AN R RATING

The abortion scenes earned the movie its R rating, for "some disturbing/bloody images," which meant that its trailers could not run in front of non-R-rated films, or even on some Christian radio stations, such as K-Love and Air1. But the filmmakers said they were not willing to compromise on the graphic portrayals, which are central to the film's appeal to viewers as a self-proclaimed exposé that promises hard truths.

In that first scene, teased in the trailer and on posters as "the moment that changed everything," Abby, played by Bratcher, witnesses an ultrasound-guided termination of a pregnancy at 13 weeks. The ultrasound, as depicted on screen, shows a fetus with a discernible head, torso and limbs frantically squirming away from a doctor's probe -- an action that Abby later describes as "twisting and fighting for its life" -- before being liquefied by suction.

Given a description of this scene, Jennifer Villavicencio, a fellow with the nonpartisan American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists who performs ultrasound-guided abortions but has not seen the film, said that while an ultrasound of a 13-week-old fetus may show a visible head and body, the notion that it would be "fighting for its life" is misleading.

"If you watch an ultrasound, certainly there is movement, but it's not kicking its legs or recoiling," Villavicencio said. She noted broad scientific consensus that fetuses cannot experience pain and therefore would not recoil from it until well after 13 weeks.

"There is no neurological capability for awareness of danger -- that part of the brain is simply not there yet," she said.

Konzelman and Solomon defended the scene as faithful to Johnson's personal account and said it had been vetted by Anthony Levatino, a retired obstetrician-gynecologist and longtime anti-abortion activist, who also plays the doctor in the scene.

Ultimately, Unplanned may not need scientific consensus to be effective with its most critical base of support. At the sold-out AMC theater in New Jersey, several attendees, who identified as being against abortion rights, said they were moved by a film that addressed what they said was the deeper truth of a subject few are willing to face head on.

"This movie tells the truth and a lot of times we don't get an opportunity to see that," said Cheryl A. Riley, director of the Respect Life office for the Archdiocese of Newark, who organized the viewing and works with women who have had abortions.

Describing herself, like Johnson, as formerly in favor of abortion rights, Riley choked up while recalling her own experience terminating a pregnancy at 19: "I know that story and I know that pain."

MovieStyle on 04/12/2019

Print Headline: Anti-abortionists go Hollywood

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