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Abortion Pill Documentary Plan C Is an Affecting, Overwhelming Political Maelstrom

Movies Reviews Sundance 2023
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Abortion Pill Documentary Plan C Is an Affecting, Overwhelming Political Maelstrom

The pandemic scarred every American, sending many hurtling towards conspiracies, in part because it confronted a large section of the population with the country’s chaotic medical industry. The federal government recommended and, at times, mandated certain behaviors. State and local governments sometimes followed suit. Sometimes, they defied them, contradicting medical professionals as part of a political dick-measuring contest where the only large number was the death toll. At the heart of it all were the companies, figuring out the science while keeping an iron grip on the profit. Moderna, one of the key providers of the COVID vaccine, is planning to quadruple the price (from $26 per shot to $130) once it goes to the commercial market. Yet, if you’re a person who’s tried to get an abortion in the U.S., none of this is surprising. Everything’s working as designed, the snarled American gorgon of Christianity, misogyny and greed simply showing its face to more people.

This tangle is unfurled in infuriating detail by Tracy Droz Tragos’ Plan C, which provides a modern foil to last year’s The Janes. Where the latter dug into the local, grassroots, underground effort to provide clandestine abortions in ‘70s Chicago, the former digs into the decentralized, grassroots, underground effort to provide clandestine abortions to people all over the U.S.—this time over the internet and mail through the distribution of abortion pills.

How little has changed: The jaw-dropping hatred encoded into our laws, mostly but not exclusively in the south, the secretive struggle and legal gray areas civilly disobeyed by groups of like-minded women. But another illustrative comparison is one of history and context. Without the luxury of decades to reflect upon things, without new laws giving organizers the protection they need to share the details of some of their most moving stories, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush. Tragos and her brave, badass subjects spend almost all of Plan C zipping through explanations of a constantly evolving abortion landscape.

First, there’s the baseline level of cultural hardship. Providing care, access—even just information—puts a target on your back. There’s danger running through the film, as big white men circle clinics like sharks and southern lawmakers attack with soundbites. And that’s before things get Bad. There is the pandemic, which sees a supply shortage of pharmaceuticals but a lenience shown towards remote medical care—maybe not a net good, but at least a silver lining for those attempting to smooth out a distanced distribution network.

Then there was the death of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who left a vacancy filled just 39 days later by Amy Coney Barrett. Two years later, Barrett joined the majority in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturning the Constitutional protection of abortion established by Roe v. Wade and leaving its legality up to the states. And we all know how the states are.

Blistering through these massive social changes in just 99 minutes, Plan C struggles to keep us abreast of the current legality of what they’re up to. This is understandable, because most of its subjects are in conversation with lawyers trying to keep them abreast of how much hot water they or the people they’re helping are in if they get caught. Loopholes, not foxholes, define this war. What’s clear is that it’s a whirlwind, one buffeting the most experienced of pros. If that’s the case, then what chance do those in rural Texas have? Or those trying to hop into the state-crossing mobile clinics (read: unmarked vans) that local political leaders are putting on the news like the FBI’s most wanted?

It’s an information maelstrom, but a tonally effective one. Even if Plan C can sometimes show a lack of aesthetic conviction with over-the-top Serious flourishes—like fading out a block of text except for one or two words like “restricted,” “the abortion pill,” or “abortion networks grow,” or inelegantly staging certain interviews to maximize, say, the presence of an Army uniform—the constant buzz of shocking information and organizational verve strikes the right level of energy. Additionally, the way this country treats abortion is so blatantly evil and ridiculous that it’s hard to address it in a way that doesn’t feel obvious. The few specific, detailed anecdotes make the sinister tangible: Some of the abortion pills can be taken orally or vaginally; once they’re outlawed, the activists advise people not to use the pills vaginally, because they’ll be detectable by doctors if something goes wrong. Then you’ve got a medical emergency and a legal emergency on your hands, all while trying to accomplish an emotionally shattering procedure.

These harrowing pieces of narrative hit harder than the behind-the-scenes look at the organization, if only because the confusion and debate among the organization contributes to a non-fiction story that’s already a little jumbled and rushed. The evolution of civil disobedience is fascinating, but when your disobedience has the complexity of a large-scale business—with everything from acquisition and distribution to advertisement and safety documentation all being part of the criminalized activity—there’s enough difficulty in outlining its operation without the added hardship of laying out how intertwined this issue is with everything else going on in American culture.

One doctor calls abortion a canary in the coal mine of what’s going on in the country, and whether you’re under the boot of a red state or spreading information on social media from the safety of your blue state, it’s hard to ignore the stink of dead bird. As the general public has continued to polarize while becoming more and more disillusioned with the country’s medical apparatus, the densely packed shitshow of the past few years has given many the green light to fully go mask off. Republicans cracked down so hard that it was clear that they’d been pacing, waiting, to unleash pent-up cruelty. One Texas law allows you to sue anyone who helps a woman obtain an abortion. There’s a bounty of $10,000 for every successful lawsuit. That detail, that bloodthirsty piece of legislation threatening everyone ballsy enough to go on camera here, could sustain 99 minutes of analysis itself. Plan C is stuffed with these kinds of mind-blowing snippets, themselves blown by in service of sheer quantity. The film’s breaking news reporting is so raw and vital, that it’s hard to get a sense of much beyond immediate reactions. This double-edged sword cuts deep: Its filmmaking is too timely to be dismissed and its topic too important to be done full justice.

Director: Tracy Droz Tragos
Release Date: January 23, 2023 (Sundance)


Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

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