Few political debates are as messy, personal, or unwieldy as the abortion debate that continues to roil America, and so it’s only fitting that said debate has now inspired a similarly messy, personal, and unwieldy new documentary. Cynthia Lowen’s “Battleground,” a film so timely that the filmmaking team presumably had to slap on a final series of title cards long after it was accepted into this year’s Tribeca Festival (and, given the freight-train-fast way things are moving, may even have to update the damn things during its festival run), attempts to cover many facets of the abortion debate, and while that’s admirable, it often comes up short on the way to better understanding.
That may well be the point, however. As the film winds on into increasingly chilling territory, the sense that it will offer no hard and fast answers, no actionable solutions starts to feel more like a feature, rather than a bug. After all, isn’t that the case when it comes to the very debate it’s chronicling?
Billed in official festival materials as “focus[ing] on three women from distinctly different walks of life who are leading the charge in their quest to overturn Roe v. Wade,” Lowen’s doc actually offers far more than that, albeit in scattered servings. Yes, Lowen’s film features a trio of women who are dedicated to pro-life crusades, including Kristan Hawkins (the president of Students of Life for America, who is dedicated to building a “post-Roe” country) and Susan B. Anthony List president Marjorie Dannenfelser, but they hardly serve as the film’s binding.
Instead, the doc flips between those pro-life activists and others (including a metric ton of young ones), pro-choice leaders (including a number of Planned Parenthood higher-ups), women who had abortions, women tying to get them, government officials getting in the way, government officials not getting in the way, doctors, clinic employees, protestors, and more. All this is loosely bound together through interviews, on-the-ground footage (including a number of forays into pro-life events), plus a secret recording of Donald Trump taking a closed door meeting with leaders of the Christian Right in the days leading up to the 2016 election.
And while Lowen finds plenty of material to mine in the world of the Christian right, to the point that the film initially seems most concerned with that aspect, it eventually melts away as “Battleground” discovers just how much this debate has melted into other facets of American life. Still, the right’s love of Trump, who is often referred to as our “most pro-life president,” runs through the entire documentary. If the film is too steeped in anything, it’s Trumpism, typically at the expense of getting to better know the film’s many talking heads and subjects.
If we’re approaching the film objectively (and, yes, we should), surely we’d love to learn more about the women (and it’s mostly women) who populate it, but mostly, the pro-lifers only talk about their own ideology, totally removed from how it impacts others. Even the women who have made the turn from pro-choice to pro-life seem wholly unable to consider other people’s lives and choices, and why the, yes, choices, they are able to make are good for them but not others. But maybe that’s really all they have to offer: their own view, damn anyone else’s.
That’s one of the most unnerving elements of the doc, but one of its most weirdly realistic: personal passion is at the front of many minds. And while only one side seems to be focused on education and empathy for others, everyone is granted equal time. It’s “fair,” but it’s also uncomfortable. Many of the pro-lifers are allowed to spout misinformation or at least wildly skewed information — like that Planned Parenthood wouldn’t bother to care for women if abortion is made illegal, despite the fact that the vast majority of the org’s current programs are not abortion-based — and by the time the pro-choice contingent enters the fray, it’s too late.
Again, that seems like the point of this film, which feels destined to roil and rile and, one can only hope, push its viewers to step back and examine everyone’s ideas and politics with a critical eye. Messy, personal, timely, brimming with ideas, overflowing with pain, and without answers: that’s the debate, and that’s the doc.
“Battleground” premiered at 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.