“Unplanned” is exactly the movie you expect it to be, which is why it’s making healthy profits despite minimal advertising and overwhelmingly negative reviews. Like other faith-based films before it — the “God’s Not Dead” series, “Heaven Is for Real,” and “I Can Only Imagine” all come to mind — Cary Solomon and Chuck Konzelman’s anti-abortion drama is preaching to the choir. Pure Flix Entertainment knows that its self-selecting audience would rather have its existing views affirmed rather than challenged, a strategy they’re far from the first to employ. Christian moviegoers are hardly the only demographic guilty of wanting to see their ideals reflected back at them, as evidenced by the reception to any number of toothless prestige pictures.
But what about when viewers like a movie or TV series despite its values, not because of them? Do conservative “Game of Thrones” obsessives resent the fact that it’s turned into an increasingly overt allegory for climate change? Do left-leaning cinephiles still like “Dirty Harry” even if they agree with Pauline Kael’s assessment of it as a “remarkably singleminded attack on liberal values”?
The answer depends on the viewer, of course, and “Unplanned” isn’t the only movie in theaters that raises this particular question. Some have dismissed S. Craig Zahler’s “Dragged Across Concrete” as a right-wing fantasy while other liberal critics (like me, it’s worth pointing out) were impressed enough by its pacing, aesthetics, and performances to give Zahler the benefit of the doubt that depicting uncomfortable material isn’t tantamount to endorsement. The corrupt cops played by Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn make casually racist jokes and get suspended for police brutality, but that doesn’t mean Zahler condones his characters’ behavior — does it?
The filmmaker himself has addressed this, telling The Ringer in a far-ranging interview that he is “not looking for films to express values. That’s getting dangerously closer to an ‘agenda movie,’ which is a movie in support of its thesis statement.”
Everything that happens in “Unplanned” is in support of its thesis statement, especially its graphic depiction of an abortion that shows the fetus, via an over-the-top rendering of an ultrasound, struggling against the procedure as tubes connected to the would-be mother fill with blood. Based on the memoir of the same name by Abby Johnson, a former Planned Parenthood clinic director who later became an anti-abortion activist, it also features an evil higher-up at Planned Parenthood who compares the profit margin of abortions to those of fries and soda at fast-food joints and angrily informs Abby that the procedures pay her salary.
(Records from the Texas Department of Health do not match Johnson’s description of the abortion in question, and in fact show no such procedure being performed on the day she says this life-changing event took place.)
More to the point, at least for Zahler: “If the most important thing for you to get out of the movie experience is to see a reflection of your personal beliefs, you probably won’t get that with any of my movies because they don’t even consistently line up with themselves.”
Pointing to your work’s political incoherence as a feature rather than a bug is a rare strategy, and Zahler’s movies — “Dragged Across Concrete,” his third as writer-director, was preceded by the even-more-violent “Bone Tomahawk” and “Brawl in Cell Block 99” — are so all over the place that it’s almost plausible.
The makers of “Unplanned” have been less opaque about their own politics, giving credence to the baseless, absurd QAnon conspiracy theory that Donald Trump is engaged in a secret war to take down a global pedophile ring by liking and posting tweets about the depressingly widespread internet phenomenon. The film has, unsurprisingly, been endorsed by Mike Pence.
For a different perspective, I sought the opinion of Nathaniel Bell, a professor and film critic who represents the shaded area of the evangelical Christian/devout cinephile Venn diagram. “I’m a bit of a weirdo since I teach at a conservative Christian school and write for LA Weekly without losing any sleep,” he told me. “I guess you could bill me as a regular ol’ evangelical, albeit one who prefers the Dardennes brothers over the brothers Kendrick.”
“People who go see movies just to have their views affirmed are robbing themselves of the ways in which movies challenge and strengthen us,” Bell said. “I find that when I push slightly past my comfort zone as a viewer I enter into a dialogue not only with the artist but with myself.”
Some are less tolerant, of course. The recent “Star Wars” movies, “Captain Marvel,” 2016’s “Ghostbusters,” and other blockbusters that dare depict anyone but straight white men as heroes have all been subjected to sustained bad-faith attacks by trolls so offended by their push for diversity that they’ve tried, sight unseen, to bring these movies down. Those efforts have been largely unsuccessful — “Captain Marvel” has made more than $1 billion worldwide — but that doesn’t mean they’re likely to stop anytime soon.