Margaret Sanger has oft been the subject of several documentaries and depicted in various biopics. This series seeks to find all available film and to review them.

Format: TV Movie
Year: March 8, 1995
Length: 92 minutes
Director: Paul Shapiro

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Dana Delany stars as Margaret Sanger

“Choices of the Heart” shows its age mostly in its production values, overlaid with solid but only average performances. The film explores only the very beginning of Margaret Sanger’s career, focusing on the inspiration for her crusade in 1913 and ending when government dropped federal charges against her for the 1914 publication of the Woman Rebel.

Much of the movie’s drama comes from the conflict between Sanger and Anthony Comstock and the law named after him which banned contraceptives or contraceptive information from the mails.   At an hour and a half, the made-for-television movie is too short to explore other events in Sanger’s long career, but instead offers an insightful glimpse at her motives and life experiences during the time period.

The dramatization of Sanger’s life in Choices of the Heart tends to be exaggerated as it attempts to portray the pressures on Margaret Sanger: she was a nurse unable to provide pertinent contraceptive information to her patients; a wife to a socialist-liberal husband who was losing patience with her activities; a mother to three neglected children; and the focus of opposition to Anthony Comstock.   The storylines are black and white — Sanger’s laudable quest to provide women with choices attracts opposition from Comstock, whose efforts to imprison Margaret Sanger stir trouble in her household.  But while the conflicts are presented in a chronological framework, the key moments in the film are often interspersed with vignettes that are relevant but ultimately detract from the main drama.

Rod Steiger’s portrayal of Anthony Comstock is as shallow as that of Sanger, but in his case, he is a one-dimensional villain who has no redeeming qualities. While the historical Anthony Comstock was no less authoritarian and close-minded, his point of view could have been presented in a way that led us to understanding the opposition rather than treating him as a ludicrous exaggeration.

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Rod Steiger is Anthony Comstock, the villainous moral enforcer that introduced the Comstock Act, which forbade the dissemination of “literature and articles of immoral use,” including references to abortion or contraception.

One of the films goals is to depict the turmoil and eventual recovery of the Sanger family, and here the story is harmed because the on-screen chemistry of Dana Delany, who portrays Margaret Sanger, and Henry Czerny, cast as Bill Sanger, is lukewarm at best. An incredibly unnecessary and overdrawn love scene only leaves the viewer with distaste, and the various displays of affection and irritation with the other spouse become increasingly grating. Sanger’s children barely contribute to any heartfelt moments; they’re silent objects, staring sadly as their mother flees to Europe.  As history, this is likely the weakest portion of the film, as the Sangers separated in December 1913, with Margaret Sanger and the children returning to the United States while Bill Sanger remained in Paris. The family never lived together again.

Not everything about “Choices of the Heart” is awkwardly done. At times, the storytelling is poignant and efficient. Near the beginning of the film, a harrowing scene between Sanger and her patient dramatizes the results of the lack of knowledge about birth control that fueled Sanger’s campaign.  Such moments (and there are a few) are visceral and well-done. But in general the Margaret Sanger depicted in Choices of the Heart is not the one that we find in her papers. The balance between her personal and activist lives was unequal; there was a tendency to focus on the romance between Sanger and her husband. The conflict that was the centerpiece of the film came to an unfulfilled conclusion; it was a resolution, but not as triumphant as expected. It’s unfortunate that “Choices of the Heart” is the only easily accessible and recent film depiction of Sanger; the parts it accomplished well couldn’t hide the flaws. Ultimately, there wasn’t too much in the film that couldn’t be found in a ten minute web search about Sanger’s earlier activist days.

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