Sometimes the best way to understand the present is to look at the past. As the debate over abortion spreads into every aspect of political life in this election year, HBO offers “A Private Matter,” an intelligent, moving study of one family’s difficult decision on this issue.
The year is 1962. Roe v. Wade is far in the future. Abortion is illegal except in a few instances but is performed secretly at hospitals, as well as in “back alleys.” And Miss Sherri, host of Phoenix’s “Romper Room,” has taken the birth-defect-causing drug Thalidomide early in her pregnancy with her fifth child.
Bob Finkbine (Aidan Quinn), a teacher, had trouble sleeping while leading his class on a summer trip to Europe, so he bought some tranquilizers. When his wife , Sherri (Sissy Spacek), had the same problem, she took the same pills.
Early in her pregnancy, however, the news broke that women in England were giving birth to severely malformed babies, and the common factor seemed to be the drug Thalidomide. Suspicious Sherri takes the tranquilizers to her doctor (Richard Venture), who confirms her fears and recommends a “termination.” He’ll do it, but it will have to be kept a secret.
William Nicholson’s effectively scripted story, based on the Finkbines’ true story, focuses on the effect of that decision on their relationship and their lives. Sherri, feeling that other women have to be warned that “it can happen here,” not just in Europe, talks to a reporter who promises anonymity.
However, her name is revealed through legal proceedings, and she ends up in front-page headlines, with the media camped on her doorstep. The family becomes the target of protests and hate mail containing the usual irrational threats (“We’ll kill your kids” is one example).
Spacek is extremely moving as a woman trying to do what she knows is right for her, even though she doesn’t particularly want to do it. She’s strong, for both herself and her family, which makes her eventual crumbling and recovery all the more believable.
As her husband, Quinn is stuck with the ’60s “man of the family” role. The paternalism of society and the men around her is another target of Sherri’s anger and another source of frustration. But Quinn conveys the confusion of a man trying to hide his emotions even as they overwhelm him. He and Spacek have great chemistry and make the relationship touching and believable.
Estelle Parsons impresses as Sherri’s sympathetic yet confused mother, and young actors Allison Mack and Trever O’Brien, as the Finkbines’ oldest children, also are excellent.
James Newton Howard provides subtle musical underpinnings to the dramatic story, and production designer Victoria Paul perfectly captures the early-’60s feel. Director of photography Paul Elliot shows off Phoenix with its glorious sunshine at every time of day, occasionally using it for emphasis, as when the sunset slants its blinding glare through a difficult discussion between the Finkbines.
Helmer Joan Micklin Silver draws strong performances from her large cast, avoiding melodrama in favor of straightforward storytelling.
Without preaching, the telefilm offers dramatic evidence of what life would be like without Roe v. Wade. It should be required viewing for those on either side of the debate.