Well-made 'Sanger' suffers from too much Good vs. Evil

March 08, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Lifetime's "Choices of the Heart: The Margaret Sanger Story" has the quality look of something that might air on A&E or PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre."

It also has a solid performance from Dana Delany as Sanger, a turn-of-the-century pioneer in family planning.

And, give Lifetime bonus points for wading into controversial subject matter without flinching. "Choices of the Heart," airing at 9 tonight, is one of the best films ever produced by the self-described "cable channel for women."

But that doesn't mean the film is flat-out terrific. It is history as morality play, with characters who are either all good or all evil. Viewers are forced to spend too much time on the great plain of one-dimensional, docudrama storytelling.

It is also a little disappointing -- in terms of all the important issues connected to family planning -- that the women's cable channel is offering in 1995 what is essentially a remake of another made-for-TV docudrama on Sanger done by a commercial network. Is this the great promise of cable?

In 1982, CBS won an Emmy for "Portrait of a Rebel: The Margaret Sanger Story," starring Bonnie Franklin. There's not a lot of difference between the two biographies of the nurse and mother who dared to print information on birth control and pregnancy starting in 1914.

Lifetime's production is more graphic. It opens, for example, with Nurse Sanger visiting a bedridden, impoverished woman in the woman's home. When Sanger pulls back the bedding, the sheets are red with the blood of a self-induced abortion. You did not see such vivid imagery in the CBS version.

The cable film also has a couple of lines that were too explicit for network television in the 1980s. The lines, from Sanger, involve a detailed explanation of one method of birth control.

The photography and direction are of a higher caliber, too. The staging, blocking and images of the funeral of Sanger's child are as striking as the visuals of any of the better British imports.

But what both Lifetime and CBS have failed to deliver is a rounded, balanced portrait of Sanger.

She called herself a socialist and a reform-er, but she was also troubled by the fact that the lower classes seemed to have a higher birthrate than the white-collar and professional classes. She thought society could best be managed by people of her class controlling the birthrate of the lower classes. Some historians say that's more the thinking of a fascist than a socialist.

We get none of that from Lifetime. Like CBS, the cable channel shows Sanger -- whose birth control clinics became Planned Parenthood -- only as loving wife, mother, nurse and eventually a writer on what was labeled "maternity" 80 years ago.

Playing Evil to Delany's Goodness is Rod Steiger as Postal Inspector Anthony Comstock, a government-appointed censor. The real-life Comstock saw himself as the defender of virtue, godliness and what we might today call "family values."

Steiger's Comstock gives new meaning to the term sanctimonious. As usual, Steiger's Method-acting performance seems so far over the top that he's a delight to watch. His Comstock is a raging bull in a world that's beginning to change around him.

Perhaps the worst sin of "Choices of the Heart" is that the filmmakers miss too much of the rich irony involved in the collision of Sanger and Comstock as a result of their radically different definitions of family values.

Abortion, birth control and sex education remain three of the most controversial topics in America today. In that sense, little has changed since Sanger went to jail 80 years ago for distributing "pornography" on women's reproductive systems and reproductive rights.

The more things change. . . .

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