Events surrounding development of the birth-control pill, along with the scientific breakthrough's sexual and sociological ramifications, get once-over-lightly treatment by co-helmers Chana Gazit and David Steward in their briskly informative but hardly exhaustive documentary. "American Experience" project is set to air Feb. 24 on PBS.

Events surrounding development of the birth-control pill, along with the scientific breakthrough’s sexual and sociological ramifications, get once-over-lightly treatment by co-helmers Chana Gazit and David Steward in their briskly informative but hardly exhaustive documentary. “American Experience” project is set to air Feb. 24 on PBS.

Interweaving archival material and talking-heads interviews, “The Pill” takes a mostly admiring view of Gregory Pincus, the maverick scientist who — with a little encouragement from activist Margaret Sanger and a lot of money from philanthropist Katherine McCormick — developed a reliable oral contraceptive using female hormones during the 1950s. Pic also notes contributions by an unlikely supporter: Dr. John Rock, a Massachusetts physician who, despite being a devout Catholic, readily agreed to prescribe the pill for control studies.

Gazit and Steward provide cogent historical context, explaining how uncontrolled pregnancies unduly burdened poor families and limited career opportunities for women in the pre-Pill era. At the time Pincus made his breakthrough, many states (including Massachusetts) outlawed distribution and/or discussion of contraceptive devices, fearing the fallout from female “sexual promiscuity.” The pill, pic persuasively argues, wasn’t merely a means to no-risk sex — it also played a major role in the advancement of women’s equality.

Even so, final 10 minutes or so of “The Pill” focus on troublesome side effects of the innovative contraceptive, suggesting that Pincus, Rock and others ignored or underestimated data from early testing in Puerto Rico. Pic seems to end just when it’s getting most interesting, as feminist activists noisily raise complaints at a 1970 Senate hearings on the pill’s efficacy.

Rushed-through wrap-up informs viewer that today’s birth-control pills are significantly safer. Still, some provocative questions about financial imperatives and political agendas remain teasingly unanswered.

The Pill

Production

An American Experience presentation of a Steward/Gazit Prods., Inc. production. Produced by Chana Gazit. Executive producer: Margaret Drain. Co-producers, David Steward, Hilary Klotz. Associate producer, Amy Brown. Directed by Chana Gazit, David Steward.

Crew

Camera (color, HD video), Joel Shaprio, Stephen McCarthy; editor, Steward; music, Tom Phillips; sound, Judith Karp. Reviewed on videocassette, Houston, Jan. 12, 2003. (At Sundance Film Festival -- Documentary Competition.) Running time: 55 MIN.

With

Narrator: Blair Brown.
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