Judge Mina Rhodes wanted to think of an abortion joke, but Sarah Silverman already came up with all the good ones.
Don't be mislead by the sensationalistic tagline on the DVD cover ("How the Pro-Lifers are Winning!"); Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion is a (mostly) even-handed portrait of the pro-life (or anti-choice; whichever terminology you prefer) movement in America.
Facts of the Case
Unborn in the USA presents interviews with several of the key figures of the pro-life movement, interspersed with news broadcasts and footage of protests out on the streets, at college campuses, and (naturally) at abortion clinics. Directors Stephen Fell and Will Thompson traveled across 35 states (while still in college) to film their documentary, gaining unprecedented access into the workings of the pro-life movement. Their work is commendably impartial, making no explicit statements about the subjects' beliefs, opinions, or methods; it simply lets them talk. The anti-abortion viewer will most likely nod in agreement with what is being said by the interviewees. The rest of us will probably view it as a case of, metaphorically speaking, giving them just enough rope to hang themselves.
Unborn in the USA (let's just drop the sensationalistic subtitle) is a documentary in the vein of 2006's Oscar nominated Jesus Camp, although not nearly as disturbing—there are no crying children here, babbling in "tongues" and being baptisted by Nestle brand bottled water. Both films overlap a bit in their content (Christian fundamentalists protesting abortion clinics), and mostly just sit in on their subjects, quietly capturing the action at hand. However, whereas Jesus Camp had a subtle, but detectable point of view (that eerie music underscoring some scenes certainly tips one off as to what side of the fence the filmmakers were on), Unborn in the USA has no such tip-offs. The musical score lacks elements of darkness, and there's no running counter-argument to the things the interviewees say. When opposing viewpoints do show up, they're only from people on the street during the protest sections of the film. Much like Jesus Camp, however, the film lets its right-wing extremist subjects talk uninterrupted, and this is what brings the film its moments of power, but also its frequent moments of unintentional hilarity.
The documentary opens with a group of college kids at Focus on the Family's Colorado Springs institute, watching a video of pro-lifers berating a young woman who had an abortion at thirteen, after she was raped. Their young, hip, charasmatic Christian instructor, Steve Wagner, then instructs his students in how to properly fake empathy when approaching rape victims, and other women who have had abortions. The students then go out to Colorado State University, erect giant photo stands of bloody, aborted fetuses, and infiltrate the crowd of actual CSU students by donning backpacks to help them "blend in" to spread their anti-abortion pamphlets. Here, the film's first instance of counter-argument is presented; pro-choice students show up and begin shouting at the Focus on the Family group, coming across as belligerent and confrontational. It would seemingly be a biased presentation of pro-choicers, if it were not for the fact that the Focus on the Family students come across as the creepiest kind of pod people imaginable, blandly sneaking in among the crowd, disguised as students, trying to convert the actual CSU students to their side. The pro-choice students shout to get their point across, true, but it is all they can do to have their voices heard, when behind them is a bloody, dismembered 15 foot-tall aborted fetus. Later, a Focus on the Family student summarizes his group's CSU efforts thusly: "I was just so stoked! Like, you guys are just gnarly…your answers, and what you're saying, you're just not backin' down and bein' 'pansy Christian!' You're steppin' it up—that was awesome!" Julie A. Parton, director of Focus on the Family's "Pregnancy Resource Ministry," drops in to praise the students, citing figures such as "a third, to possibly even a fourth of their generation is not here!," apparently unaware that a third is actually a greater percentage than a fourth.
By far, the opening Focus on the Family sections are the film's creepiest, and the only instances where it goes into Jesus Camp territory. The students' older teacher, David Lee, when asked whether Jesus would use graphic images to get his point across, starts reverently babbling about Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, and firmly insisting that yes, Jesus would.
Following the Focus on the Family segments (which take up the film's first half-hour), the focus shifts to a variety of other sections of the pro-life movement; pregnant women going into abortion clinics are ambushed by pro-lifers, who yell "don't kill your baby, mom!"; Rev. Don Spitz of the Army of God rants about how it is perfectly justified to murder an abortion doctor in front of his wife and children (followed by an interview with an actual convicted abortion clinic bomber). Catholic Priests for Life's Father Frank Pavone weighs in on the issue, and shows us his love for children by showcasing a hilariously disturbing photo of him sitting amidst a swarm of infants (pictured above).
The street and protest footage scattered throughout offers some of Unborn in the USA's more memorable images. Self-proclaimed "real women" (as opposed to fake women?) hold up signs saying "I Regret My Abortion" (so because of their mistake, it should be banned for every other "real woman"?). In the documentary's climactic street confrontation, Pastor Matt Trewhella (who is mysteriously missing half of his mustache) accuses a pro-choice woman of being "a daughter of Satan!" She reacts by bitch slapping him; he reacts by tackling her to the ground, and she is eventually carted away by the police. After you have been numbed by the endless barrage of aborted fetus photos being hurled at you (the pro-lifers interviewed wonder why some people seem not to be taken aback when faced with such photos nowadays, while they themselves passively look at them, and in one instance, even start calmly handling the actual remains of aborted fetuses), the scene comes across as genuinely shocking, and is the film's most haunting moment.
First Run Features' DVD presentation of Unborn in the USA is excellent. The film itself is anamorphically enhanced, and looks about as good as it possibly can—ditto for the sound. Shot on cheap, consumer grade digital video, and "spectacular" is not exactly a word that would describe the way the film looks and sounds. The filmmaking itself is not very engaging, although there is an attempt at artfulness when the directors crosscut a scene of Jesus' crucifiction with the Focus on the Family students erecting their giant bloody fetus billboards. The rest of the film simply tends to coast on its interview subjects. The most annoying fault, however, is the score, which is a perfect example of how grating cheap, treacly synthesized string music can be.
The special features are exactly what's needed; a series of follow-up interviews with Matt Trewhella, David Lee, Monica Miller (who is shown in the film digging around in dumpsters for aborted fetuses—Todd Solondz's Palindromes, anyone?), and Steve Wagner (Wagner's follow-up is textual, instead of a video interview) are enlightening and compliment the feature nicely. All, except Miller, react favorably to their portrayals in the film—Miller takes her follow-up as an oppurtunity to discuss how she read reviews of the film on RottenTomatoes.com, and then shows us more photos of aborted fetuses in a last ditch effort to try and get her message across. After the follow-ups are a few deleted scenes, showing an anti-abortionist outside of an abortion clinic, saying things to women such as "I'm out here because I care about you, and I don't want you to suffer the ravages of abortion" in a complete monotone. Aside from those, there are some short bios of the filmmakers, and a handful of trailers for other First Run Features titles, and in place of a booklet is a thick First Run Features catalogue.
First Run Features has given this fascinating little documentary a satisfying presentation on DVD, although their ruthless self-promotion is a bit off-putting.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
Review content copyright © 2008 Mina Rhodes; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.