Absolute Strangers' is skillful, compelling look at abortion

Television

April 12, 1991|By Michael Hill

AN AUTOMOBILE ACCIDENT gives your wife a severe blow to the base of the brain that puts her into a coma. She is 14 weeks pregnant. Some doctors say that the pregnancy has no effect on her health or her ability to come out of the coma. Others disagree. Should you seek to have an abortion performed on her?

It sounds like a carefully designed quandary for a college ethics seminar. But it was a decision actually faced by Marty Klein, a Long Island accountant, in a case that made national headlines. It has been skillfully transferred to film in CBS' excellent "Absolute Strangers," which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) Sunday night at 9 o'clock.

Wading as it does into the emotionally charged, letter-writing, advertiser-boycotting area of abortion, "Absolute Strangers" carefully walks its thin line as it makes a fine and important distinction: It is in no way a pro-abortion movie, but it is a pro-choice movie.

It is also in no way a one-sided polemic. "Absolute Strangers" is a dramatic, compelling, interesting story that involves elements of personal tragedy, heroic struggle and the always-uncomfortable results when the judicial system, the medical system and the realities of individual lives meet on shaky ground.

"Absolute Strangers" also marks the return of Henry Winkler to television acting after years of success behind the camera, and he turns in perhaps the best work of his career. In most of his roles during, and just after, his days as the Fonz on "Happy Days," Winkler tended to wear his I-studied-at-Yale credentials on his sleeve. But, playing Klein, Winkler gives a subdued, mature performance with sensitive subtleties and sophisticated shadings.

He is surrounded by a superb supporting cast that includes Karl Malden as his wife's father, Richard Kiley as a sympathetic doctor, Patty Duke as a judge and Rene Auberjonois as a prosecutor.

The movie begins with the almost-obligatory scenes to paint this family as ridiculously happy. They have a nice house on Long Island. Marty's apparently a successful CPA, while Nancy (Jennifer Hetrick) thrives as a painter and designer. Their young daughter is surrounded by care and appropriate attention. All eagerly await the birth of their new baby.

One out-of-control car on a rainy night changes all that. It is explained to Klein that the coma is a mysterious state. Nancy might come out of it in a few weeks, a few months, a few years or never. She might awake one day in perfect health, or she may never be the same again. The medical profession doesn't know what will happen, nor can it recommend any treatment to effect the outcome.

The doctors at the Long Island hospital where his wife was taken assure him that the pregnancy is doing his wife no damage and say that it should be allowed to continue. But Klein is uncertain.

As he says at one point, he was present at the delivery of his first child and saw the kind of effort that took. He thinks his wife needs to marshal that kind of energy for her own recovery, but his decidedly non-medical, subjective opinion is dismissed by doctors, one of whom describes his comatose wife as "a perfect incubator."

Still, Klein comes to believe than an anti-abortion bias at the hospital might be behind these prognoses for Nancy's ability to deliver a full-term baby. And, indeed, a doctor at another hospital tells him that there is no doubt that she should have an abortion immediately.

But how? Since Nancy is still in the second trimester, under the Roe vs. Wade decision, she has a constitutional right to ask for an abortion. But, since she is comatose, she can't ask. Klein has to go to court to be declared his wife's legal guardian so he can ask for her.

It's at that stage that the case hits the press and two

anti-abortion activists get involved, one petitioning the court to be declared Nancy's guardian, the other the guardian of the fetus, claiming that they are in a better position to make the decision about Nancy's pregnancy in a dispassionate manner.

The title "Absolute Strangers" comes from the way Marty described the two in a courtroom outburst, a phrase then used by a judge in his decision in the case which made it all the way to a couple of Supreme Court justices.

Pro-lifers who object to the film have a point. Though their side of the medical question is adequately represented, those who try to intervene in the case are depicted as somewhat crazed zealots. But then again, it does take a kind of zealotry to file these kind of court actions. The question becomes is that zealotry misplaced.

More importantly, the movie is structured so that Marty is the protagonist. The viewer is supposed to identify with his struggle to get the right to decide if his wife should have an abortion. Those who try to interfere with that right -- be they doctors or pro-lifers -- are the antagonists.

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