For two boyhood friends, a debt of honor becomes a badge of courage.
Winner of two Golden Globe Awards (Best Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television, 1991; James Garner, Best Performance by an Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television, 1991) and an Emmy (Ruby Dee, Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or a Special, 1991), Decoration Day serves as a poignant reminder that war truly is hell, even decades after the bullets stop flying. For some forgotten heroes even more than others.
Facts of the Case
Crotchety Albert Sidney Finch (James Garner, Space Cowboys, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood) is a retired judge—retired from the bench, retired from the practice of law, and pretty much retired from life since the death of his wife. Albert Sidney—always addressed by his first and middle names, in the quaint manner of the old South—putters away his time fishing, and grumbling about the state of world affairs to his loyal housekeeper Rowena (Ruby Dee, Do the Right Thing).
Nothing much interests Albert Sidney until the day his godson Billy (Norm Skaggs) tells him that the judge's childhood companion Gee Penniwell (Bill Cobbs, Enough, Sunshine State) has been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, but steadfastly refuses to accept it. Albert Sidney sets aside the three decades of estrangement separating himself and his former chum, and attempts to learn why "Uncle Gee" has rebuffed the nation's highest honor.
Along the rocky road to the bitter truth, Albert Sidney will contend with a zealous Defense Department bureaucrat (Laurence Fishburne from The Matrix, back in the day when he was still billed as "Larry") who's determined to see that Gee gets his just due, whether the old man wants justice or not. The crusty judge will also come to grips with his budding romance with a helpful law clerk (Judith Ivey, Rose Red), with a friend's terminal illness and his own advancing mortality, with the ugly stench of racism, and with a horrific secret that has kept two old comrades apart for most of their adult lives.
James Garner is one of filmdom's most underrated actors. This is due in large part, I believe, to the fact that his career has centered around two long-standing television characters (Bret Maverick in the 1950s comic Western Maverick, and easygoing private eye Jim Rockford in the 1970s classic, The Rockford Files) whom Garner played with a grace so effortless he never really appeared to be acting, and which he made famous at a time when acting for television was considered an inferior exercise of the trade. Garner's craggy face, weathered by the tempests of a life boldly lived, and his gravelly yet flexible voice can convey volumes with nary a hint of artifice. Henry Fonda once said the secret of great actors was that they never let the audience see the wheels turning. Garner's skill is so attuned that it's easy to forget there are wheels at all.
In Decoration Day, Garner proves—as if it needed to be proven—his place among the acting icons. From the moment he enters the picture, we don't see slick Bret Maverick or rough-hewn "Rockfish," but a unique character similar to some Garner has played before (particularly his small-town pharmacist in Murphy's Romance), but at his own level fresh and real. Judge Albert Sidney is a complex man—self-absorbed, wise and cantankerous, heroic but crippled by his flaws, in touch with his inner self yet in many ways still defining that self even in senior age. He is at once modern (at least as modern as one could be in the early 1970s Deep South setting wherein the story takes place) and a throwback to less complicated times when matters of law, race and chivalry seemed more clearly (if primitively) defined. It's a tour de force performance, made all the more brilliant by the fact that here, as throughout his half-century in Hollywood, Garner doesn't look in the least as though he's acting.
The star gets a lot of quality help from his supporting cast of exceptional character players. Ruby Dee elevates what could have been a stereotypical role—the brassy black housekeeper in the employ of the prosperous white man—into a model of subtle wisdom and luminous strength. Bill Cobbs is heartrending as the proud old war hero who has kept an agonizing anger bottled up for long years. Jo Anderson (Daylight, TV's Sisters) contributes a couple of pungent moments as a confused young wife. Both Judith Ivey and Laurence Fishburne are fine as the love interest and the stiff government lawyer, respectively, but their mannered acting styles clash somewhat with the more naturalistic approach of their castmates.
Screenwriter Robert W. Lenski (who used his Decoration Day success as the blueprint for a skein of Hallmark Hall of Fame masterworks that continued for a decade) skillfully adapted the novella by John William Corrington (The Omega Man, Boxcar Bertha), lending a gentle gravity to material that could easily have plunged into maudlin soap opera. Lenski's script never forgets that the people inhabiting it are flesh and blood, and the writer consistently treats the characters with humanity rather than as mere plot devices. For his part, veteran TV-movie director Robert Markowitz (The Big Heist, Nicholas' Gift) simply stays out of the way of the plot and his actors, and doesn't try to pull off anything fancy.
Artisan reaches back into its catalog to resurrect this made-for-TV classic. Unfortunately, the old gray vault doesn't protect 'em like it used to, because the source material from which this transfer was pulled is appallingly past its prime. Scratches and print defects abound, particularly at the beginning of the film. The transfer itself doesn't help matters any—it looks washed out much of the time, and suffers from the heartbreak of edge enhancement and other digital trauma. (A patterned shirt worn by Garner in several scenes shimmers like a special effect.) The audio track descends to a similar level as the picture, with the dialogue buried in the mix—odd, for a dialogue-dependent drama—and often difficult to hear over the score.
The extra content is limited to static text material. Well-crafted biographical sketches detail the accomplishments of every significant member of the cast and crew, twelve in all. An additional five screens reiterate the film's credits. Three pages of "production notes" actually encompass a short press-kit article featuring comments from stars Garner and Cobbs.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The contributions of African American servicemen during the Second World War have long gone unheralded by history. Though Decoration Day's story is fictional, it's gratifying to see this issue paid some serious attention. Director Robert Markowitz and co-star Laurence Fishburne would later expand on this theme with the impressive The Tuskegee Airmen for HBO cable.
Decoration Day offers a solid evening of family entertainment, handling serious subject matter with care and presenting a wonderful cast we'd like to wrap in a great big group hug by the end of the film's 99 minutes.
Does it hammer the moral home a mite vigorously toward the end? Does it tie up all the loose ends and relationships too neatly? Is it just a skosh too pat? I suppose the answer to all these questions is "yes"—this is, after all, a Hallmark teleflick, and you wouldn't expect anything different. But James Garner remains as comfortable as a well-worn pair of dungarees, and if you haven't brushed aside a tear or three by the closing credits, you probably can't see your reflection in a mirror, either. Cynics may scoff at the sentimentality—let 'em. Gather the relations, grab a box of Kleenex, and enjoy.
Maybe not worthy of the Medal of Honor, but definitely not guilty. The Court salutes Mr. Garner and the other participants in this fine production. We're adjourned.
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