Many issue-driven documentaries aim for timeliness, but the urgent message of “Trapped” is directly tied to the timing of its release this week. In the movie, which premiered last month at Sundance, filmmaker Dawn Porter (“Gideon’s Army”) targets a Supreme Court hearing taking place at this very moment, setting the stage for a historic ruling fraught with tremendous risk. On Wednesday, the court began to consider an appeal from Whole Women’s Health on the Texas law HB2, a series of ideologically-driven regulations designed to shut down abortion clinics across the state.
“Trapped” effectively chronicles the debilitating impact of HB2 on pregnant women seeking abortions across the state and well beyond it, because if the Supreme Court upholds the law, others like it will spring up nationwide. “Trapped” personalizes a dire scenario shockingly under-explored in the mainstream media, by putting the clinicians and patients impacted by the ruling front and center. It’s less focused on examining their situation than giving voice to their concerns.
“Trapped” is straightforward in its depictions of HB2’s destructive impact, with a mixture of alarming figures (in the absence of resources, over 240,000 women attempt to end pregnancy on their own in Texas each year) and snapshots of the passionate doctors struggling under its restrictions. As filmmaking, it never rises to the level of absorbing abortion clinic portraits “After Tiller” or “12th and Delaware,” both of which explore the tender, communal aspects of their settings in contrast to the belligerent stances of the pro-life radicals threatening the people who work there. “Trapped” moves along at a much faster clip, with glimpses of angry protestors, tense advisory sessions and devastated medical professionals emphasizing the same urgent points several times over — that abortion clinics are essential, and that many of them face the greatest threat to protection of abortion practices established by Roe v. Wade since the ruling happened over 40 years ago.
Among the galvanizing figures that “Trapped” offers up, the most powerful is Willie J. Parker, a black Christian doctor who shuttles between clinics in Alabama while dealing with absurd restrictions imposed by the local government. In one striking scene — recently sampled by John Oliver on a “Last Week Tonight” episode devoted to the court case — Parker briefs a group of pregnant women by admitting that he’s required to say abortion increases the risk of breast cancer before adding that there’s no scientific research to back up the claim. Elsewhere, “Trapped” finds clinics struggling to deal with restrictive laws surrounding consent, anesthesia and other convoluted demands blatantly designed to shut them down. As one administrator puts it, the HB2 bill has been designed “to regulate us out of business.” And in more than one instance cited throughout the film, that’s exactly what it does.
As with “After Tiller,” Porter includes snippets of visits featuring several anonymous pregnant women visit the clinics, by generally keeping the camera focused on their hands. But on the few occasions when the filmmaker does manage to capture their faces, “Trapped” obtains a more profound connection to the stakes at hand. When a young woman gazes into the camera to discuss her decision, it’s impossible not to experience the weight of her burden. Yet somehow the law not only persists, but threatens to spread across the nation.
In its closing scenes, “Trapped” outlines the successful efforts of Whole Women’s Health to appeal HB2 before the Supreme Court, though it falls short of presenting this stage as a compelling narrative, instead rushing through the events with a series of title cards and snippets of protests. Nevertheless, the collage-like quality of these scenes speaks to a story that’s unfinished by its very definition. The court — now more unstable than ever, with one empty seat that Republicans are eager to keep the sitting president from filling — appears unlikely to find an easy path to resolving the situation anytime soon (today’s reports of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s insistence on returning the case to Texas for further research suggests that a verdict could be delayed until next year).
No matter the limited scope of its perspective, the movie’s peek behind the current headlines gives its perspective a formidable edge. For the moment, “Trapped” carries the sense that history could change it at any moment. When the verdict is in, it will either capture the beginning of a triumphant movement or the stages before its crushing defeat.
“Trapped” opens in New York, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles on March 4.