Friday, March 15: I was chatting on the phone that evening with my good friend and former pastor, Fr. Darrin Merlino, CMF, about his upcoming venture—an interview series on SJEN.tv called “Hound of Heaven.” His first guests will be Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman, writers, producers, and directors of the new movie Unplanned, the Abby Johnson story, and Fr. Darrin mentioned how excited he was to be going to the world premiere in Hollywood on Monday the 18th. Then he casually asked if my wife Barbara and I would like to go. Is this a trick question? I thought.
Saturday, March 16: We moved all our schedules, I got us a room at the Loews Hollywood Hotel adjacent to the TCL Chinese Theaters where the premiere was set, and we ran around getting ready. This was going to be fun! Then I sent an email to my friend Carl E. Olson with the news. He phoned me within minutes, asking, “Has anyone ever said that you were the answer to a prayer?” He’d been trying to get someone to cover the premiere in Los Angeles for Catholic World Report but it hadn’t worked out. Would I be willing? Desperate times, desperate measures, evidently!
Sunday, March 17: An eight hour drive (which should have been 90 minutes shorter; how do people live with this kind of traffic?), from Prescott, Arizona, into the maw of L.A. Late dinner and room problems and finally got to sleep at 1:00 am.
Monday, March 18: Great breakfast in the hotel, wandered around the Walk of Fame area for a while. It was a summery 80 degrees and there were throngs of tourists and hustling locals everywhere. I’d camped out in Hollywood in the mid-seventies during my foray into the music biz—a shoebox apartment off Cahuenga Blvd., in the same courtyard where Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt were living—and I hadn’t been back to this spot since. Barbara is a California girl and had visited here a lot when she was younger. We were struck by the street’s grinning vulgarity, the blaring music everywhere, the glitzy exterior over the corroded reality. Think Gloria Swanson in Sunset Blvd. How appropriate that what might be the most important event in the history of the pro-life movement would launch right here.
5:45 pm: Fr. Darrin met us in the lobby and we strolled together to the red-carpet media scrum which was already mobbed. We watched and took photos as Abby Johnson, the stars, producers, and supporters of the movie were interviewed on camera by various outlets. Fr. Darrin introduced us to Chuck and Cary and other people involved with the film.
7:45 pm: There’s probably never been a Hollywood premiere quite like this one—opening with impassioned comments from Abby Johnson, the filmmakers, and the star, and finishing with prayers and a benediction from a Catholic priest. The VIP invitation-only audience was, not surprisingly, wildly receptive.
Unplanned, the film: Like many, I’ve been disappointed with most “preaching to the choir” Christian movies, and wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this one. I was, however, determined to give CWR readers an honest review. But, honestly, Unplanned almost transcends the medium, making it difficult to encapsulate. It felt like I was watching a Holocaust documentary, incongruously set in the leafy suburbs of modern-day Texas. Dappled sunlight, good people going about their everyday business, nice cars and houses, yet all of it floating on an unseen, roiling river of blood.
In this case, though, there are no death-camp smokestacks, belching the smoke of incinerated humanity. The death camp here is a Planned Parenthood clinic, from which nondescript blue barrels filled with butchered babies are rolled out and hauled away by a hazmat truck. Hannah Arendt, reporting in 1963 on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, coined the phrase, “the banality of evil.” This is that.
Don’t get me wrong, the film is well made; you won’t be jarred by poor lighting or by-the-numbers acting. The passion and dedication of everyone involved is evident throughout. The script is literate yet natural, the directing style straightforward and workmanlike—I thought of Clint Eastwood’s low-fat, high-protein formula for delivering a story—the cinematography, production values, and casting are top-drawer. Ashley Bratcher as Abby Johnson carries the film triumphantly; in a just world she would be showered with accolades and awards, but this is not a just world. I doubt she cares a whit. She immerses the viewer in Abby’s well-known story through her exceptional onscreen craft.
In fact, I imagine that this was the primary creative challenge Solomon and Konzelman faced: the fact that Johnson’s story is so well known. They structured the film to overcome that familiarity, to draw the viewer, step by step, lie by lie, into the heart of darkness, the same way Abby was drawn in as she became a superstar clinic director at Planned Parenthood. And they succeed. No matter what knowledge or viewpoint you have when you enter the theater, how repelled you are by abortion or how committed you are to “a woman’s right to choose,” you will experience first-hand and through numerous scenes the explicit horror of the act, all funneled into one singular, indelible moment—shown unflinchingly—that shattered Abby Johnson’s life and in turn altered the entire trajectory of the pro-life movement. And you will never forget it, try as you might.
Robia Scott as Cheryl, the administrator who nurtures Abby’s career, deserves special mention. Meeting the actress in person, you could not imagine a nicer human being. But the industrial-strength yet restrained persona she creates, her dry delivery of the mind-bending inside corporate secrets of Planned Parenthood, her indoctrination of Abby into the techniques they use to manipulate women into abortions, her embodiment of the disdain and contempt with which that organization views children and motherhood, and the cold fury that she eventually levels at Abby are extraordinary, and absolutely critical to the verisimilitude of the film.
All civilized societies recoil at the monstrosity of the Nazi holocaust, the systematic genocide of six million Jews. Our own American holocaust counts sixty million slaughtered since Roe v. Wade, and still we wring our hands and wonder at the decline of our country and the coarsening of our culture. We stare into our devices, ignoring, or trying to forget about, the choking smoke of legal murder darkening our skies and our souls.
Yet Unplanned is, in the final analysis, a film about Christian hope, and the gentle but unstoppable power of prayer. Shawn Carney—beautifully portrayed here by Jared Lotz—who eventually becomes the founder of 40 Days for Life, starts off as a peaceful prayer warrior outside Abby’s clinic. Year after year, he and his wife and many others continue to pray, wondering if they are ever making a difference, but they also befriend Abby, despite everything that divides them. And when her life falls apart, who is there to pick up the pieces?
Abby Johnson’s former Planned Parenthood clinic has since closed, and the building is now the national headquarters for 40 Days for Life. Planned Parenthood clinics across the country have been forced to shut their doors because of the ceaseless prayers of those who keep vigil for the unborn. Abby Johnson’s personal ministry, “And Then There Were None,” has encouraged and helped more than 500 Planned Parenthood clinic workers to quit.
And now the movie Unplanned, because of the unparalleled impact of the visual medium, has the potential to forever change America’s, and perhaps the world’s, view of abortion. But will it?
After the premiere, I posed that question and others to co-writer/director Cary Solomon.
CWR: Unplanned is astonishing. What happens next? What about distribution? How will the film survive in an industry that’s so utterly opposed to everything it stands for?
Solomon: Thus begins the great battle. On March 29th we open across 1000 screens, and after the first weekend they will either get rid of us or we will have a powerful turnout and the exhibitors will be making money. If they make money, they won’t drop the film; it comes down simply to that. Now as we get closer to the 29th, the political opposition will likely start protesting and spouting all kinds of nonsense, trying to destroy us and the movie, but we will stand by it no matter what. This is truth.
So let the cards fall where they may; we’re on the side of the Lord, and this is it. This is what He told us to do and we did it.
CWR: One thousand theaters is actually an interesting release. Neither limited nor very wide. What’s the strategy there?
Solomon: We actually began with 800 and could have gone to 1500, but we kept it to 1000. We wanted to make sure that the theaters were filled because what happens is, the exhibitors are looking for a high PSA, which stands for Per Screen Average. So if we achieve, say, a $10,000 PSA, they’ll be thrilled and pump us up to 2000 or 2500 screens. It’s better to do it that way than to fight for that many screens from the start.
So we need to show them, on that first weekend, that there are a heck of a lot of people in America that want to see this movie. That’s what it’s all about.
CWR: And how is the marketing going; are churches getting involved?
Solomon: I will say that the word of mouth has been crazy, which is what’s needed in the environment we’re in.
On one hand, the mainstream media, the left—so far they aren’t dealing with us at all. They’re not bringing it up, they’re ignoring the film because they don’t want to give it free publicity. On the other hand, there’s a behind-the-scenes campaign to stop us cold. A lot of the cable companies and TV stations are not even taking our ad buys; here they are struggling for ad dollars and yet they won’t take our money, which is pathetic when you think about it. It’s insidious. So biased.
I mean, for example, we’re on Facebook yet a lot of our statistics haven’t been updated in six weeks. Many things like that. Bottom line is, we’re pro-life guys who made a pro-life movie in a pro-choice town. I hate to say it because I’m not a whiner, but it’s unfair, it’s un-American, and yet I don’t care because of one thing: I know that Jesus will do what he wants to do. They tried to suppress God two thousand years ago and look what it got them. I defy anyone to try and keep Him silent. The more they try to put Him back in the bag, the more He’s going to come out the other side and do whatever it is He wants.
So we think this is going to go over very, very well, and the word of mouth is going to lift it. Look, the Lord is really good at timing, which makes sense since He created time. We believe this time now is the right time for this movie, the Lord wanted it made, and it’s going to profoundly affect the world.
Trailer for “Unplanned”:
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