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HOWARD ROSENBERG / Television

Abortion Debate Steeped in Melodrama

April 19, 1999|HOWARD ROSENBERG

That outstanding Showtime film "The Baby Dance" touched on abortion collaterally last year when engaging two couples in a volatile odyssey of class conflict and adoption that ended devastatingly with a mentally impaired newborn lying unnamed and unwanted in a hospital nursery.

The cash-strapped young birth parents couldn't afford adding another child to their brood, but had been opposed to abortion. Later, in a heart-wrenching U-turn, the wealthy, middle-aged couple hoping to adopt the baby left without it after learning of its condition.

Although mentioned only once briefly in "The Baby Dance," abortion as a concept was subtly present, and surely became less muted in viewers' minds as this story wound toward its unsparing conclusion.

When witnessing that poor, helpless, anonymous, bawling infant in its crib--in a row of more fortunate newborns soon to be scooped up by parents and taken home--some viewers may have thought about the multitudes of other unwanted children. And, pro or con, thought about the issue of abortion.

Curiously, "The Baby Dance," while only indirectly focusing on abortion, did so with more resonance and honest feeling than does tonight's head-on "Swing Vote," which smacks the issue like a pinata.

More than 25 years after the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe vs. Wade, now comes this oozy, schmoozy ABC story depicting a U.S. in which that landmark decision has been overturned, leaving states to write their own laws on abortion.

The result is chaos. But exactly why is unclear.

In Alabama, a woman who had an abortion is convicted of first-degree murder. That creates a test case for abortion-rights forces and a hook for this turgid, maudlin, self-important, claustrophobic movie written by Tom Bass and Jean Rusconi and directed by David Anspaugh.

The woman's appeal comes before the high court, setting the stage for a story that rushes freshly robed young Justice Joseph Michael Kirkland, a court newcomer played by Andy Garcia, to the epicenter of this raging controversy.

And melodrama.

When a dying former justice lies in his hospital bed feebly crooning "Danny Boy" to a choked-up court member, it's this movie you want to abort. The manipulation continues as oppressively when Kirkland's adopted 8-year-old daughter and her biological mother are illogically injected into the story like a hypodermic of tears and cheap emotion.

Which is unfortunate, for "Swing Vote" is about as relevant and topical as movies get.

It arrives at a time when the Vatican just recently criticized the U.N. Population Fund for offering "morning after" pills--which help cause abortions--to ethnic Albanian refugee women allegedly raped by Serbian forces.

And when abortion still sizzles as a moral and political issue with the potential to polarize the Republican Party and much of the U.S. electorate as Americans approach the 2000 election campaign.

Although GOP presidential front-runners in the anti-abortion camp are trying to downplay the issue, they're still coming under attack from some abortion rights activists. And a longshot GOP hopeful, Gary Bauer, has publicly questioned the anti-abortion commitment of top contenders Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Elizabeth Dole. Bauer and two other presidential wannabes, Republicans Steve Forbes and Patrick J. Buchanan, also say they would not name a running mate or Supreme Court justice who supports legal abortion.

The fictional Kirkland seemingly would pass that litmus test.

When we meet this moderate Republican with reported anti-abortion rights leanings, he has been named to the court just in time to become the swing vote in that pivotal case involving an Alabama woman appealing her murder verdict.

"If you believe the fetus to be a person, you must affirm conviction," argues the pragmatic chief justice (Robert Prosky), who has a splinter of ice running up his spine.

He spends much of the movie making colleagues deals he hopes they can't refuse, and his position on the appeal is indisputable. How could it be otherwise given the criminality of homicide? Yet what follows are several days of hand-wringing and horse-trading in this bastion of mostly male codgerdom, where only one court member (Kate Nelligan) is female. And where each leather-bound justice is allotted an abortion argument and set of platitudes, plus a wood-paneled suite and cozy fire conducive to quiet rumination.

To fill those digs, "Swing Vote" rolls in such veterans as Harry Belafonte, James Whitmore and Ray Walston like bottles on an assembly line.

Meanwhile, 500,000 angry demonstrators are arriving in Washington, and it's crunch time for Kirkland, a giant of integrity getting aggressively pressured by both sides, one unofficial lobbyist being his wife (Margaret Colin). Not to worry, though, for Kirkland has the look of an epic hero destined to walk on water.

"How are you leaning?" the chief justice asks. "Toward doing what's right," he replies. Best case scenario, real-life justices are as idealistic.

To its credit, "Swing Vote" clearly articulates arguments for and against abortion rights, granting each an equal stage and depicting advocates on both sides as operating from conviction.

Yet here is a movie that is hopelessly weepy, so in awe of itself that it lectures relentlessly, and so weighty in its presentation that you have the impression its script is gold-engraved.

Which way does Kirkland swing? Suffice to say he ultimately addresses America from the court-room in a withering crescendo of convoluted--say what?--passion. The good news: He doesn't sing "Danny Boy."

* "Swing Vote" airs at 9 tonight on KABC-TV.

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