Judge Clark Douglas will trade you his George Wallace card for your Strom Thurmond card.
"I ain't responsible for all that."
You have probably heard of George Wallace. He is remembered by history as being one of the primary opponents of the civil rights movement. You have probably heard the story of the time that Wallace symbolically barred the door to the University of Alabama in order to prevent black students from entering. You may also recall Wallace's most famous words, from his inaugural speech as Governor of Alabama in 1963: "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever."
John Frankenheimer's 1997 television biopic George Wallace makes an attempt to examine the life of this controversial political figure, and does so by employing the sort of "factual" pop-psychology that was used to mixed effect in Oliver Stone's recent W. (and to a lesser degree in Stone's Nixon). The film begins with a mystery of sorts by showing us two slices of George's life. We begin during the mid-1950s, when George (Gary Sinise, Ransom) is a young, semi-progressive liberal who was regarded as a moderate on racial issues. He is married to a very sweet woman named Lurleen (Mare Winningham, Swing Vote), and has several young children. Fast forward to the early 1970s, and George is bitter and vehement segregationist who is paralyzed from the legs down. He is married to a young trophy wife named Cornelia (Angelina Jolie, Wanted), and is a candidate for President of the United States.
Frankenheimer offers us these very different portraits of Wallace, and then proceeds to fill in the details in a non-linear manner. His portrayal of George Wallace as a human being is a surprisingly kind and understanding one, and I have somewhat mixed feelings about it. I'm okay with the Frankenheimer's portrayal of Wallace's rationalizations. The film seems to indicate that racism never really served as Wallace's primary motivation. It suggests that Wallace was a man who loved the adoration of the public, and loved being a politician who had a feel for "the common man." However, as time went by, Wallace became convinced that "the common man" wanted segregation, and found that segregation would bring him political attention. This idea seems credible, according to what we know about Wallace. Once Wallace told a supporter, "You know, I tried to talk about good roads and good schools and all these things that have been a part of my career, and nobody listened. Then I started talking about n—-- rs, and they stomped the floor."
However, George Wallace plays some tricky guessing games when it comes to understanding some of George's deeper emotions. In order to try and give viewers a perspective of race relations during the Wallace years, Frankenheimer creates a fictional character named Archie, played by Clarence Williams III (Reindeer Games). Archie is a convicted murderer serving as a trustee in the governor's mansion. He meets Wallace during the '50s, and eventually becomes Wallace's personal servant. There's nothing wrong with the performance, but the inclusion of the character was a poor decision. The portrayal of the relationship seems dishonest and completely speculative, and never really manages to work on any sort of fictional dramatic level.
That crucial mistake aside, George Wallace is a fairly compelling film fueled by a dynamic lead performance from Gary Sinise. I've long felt that Sinise is one of America's most underrated actors, as he almost always manages to create a convincing and credible character. His turn as Lt. Dan in Forrest Gump was far and away the best thing in that film, and he's given very strong performances in just about everything he has participated in. Here he gets the opportunity to bite into a complex and colorful character, and he really delivers. Sinise accurately captures the Wallace that the public saw, and becomes genuinely frightening when delivering his bile-filled speeches promoting segregation. The characters develops and changes quite a lot over the course of the film, and Sinise handles each aspect of Wallace's life with considerable subtlety. He's backed by a strong supporting cast, including a young Angelina Jolie, who radiates star quality here.
The ending is undoubtedly the most controversial portion of the movie. Wallace is wheeled into the home church of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and requests to say a few words to the congregation. The request is granted. Wallace offers a sincere apology for the mistakes he has made in his life, and asks everyone in the congregation to forgive him. The congregation grants Wallace forgiveness, and so does the film, which goes on to describe what a good man Wallace was during his later years. Some will be moved by this. Others will be offended, and say that Wallace is not deserving of forgiveness. Frankenheimer's feelings on the matter are without question: we should forgive all those who seek redemption, and work together to create a more harmonious world. I was surprised by how touched I was by the conclusion, considering that I regarded Wallace with nothing but disgust before viewing the film.
The transfer here is disappointing. The film suffers from lots of noise, and there is notable color bleeding all over the place. The opening title sequence, featuring lots of red, white, and blue, looks simply awful. The flick is watchable, but looks absolutely no better than it would if you caught it on television. Audio is okay, but sometimes the score and sound design overwhelm the dialogue just a bit. The only extra on the "two-disc special edition" is a featurette on the making of the film. Gary Sinise, Angelina Jolie and others talk about making the film and offer memories of Frankenheimer. It's a nice featurette, but hardly enough to make this set qualify as a "special edition." The film has a running time of 184 minutes, with each disc offering one half of the film. You would think this would serve to enhance the video quality, but that is not the case. The film is not guilty, but due to the poor transfer and a minimum of supplemental material, I'm going to recommend a rental.
Note: This film was made in 1997, and concludes with some of the details of
Wallace's later years, including with the fact that he was still living in
Alabama. Wallace died in 1998. A rather fitting epilogue to this story that
brings us into the present day can be found in the "accomplices"
section. It is an article by Wallace's daughter, Peggy Wallace Kennedy, written
the day after Barack Obama was elected President.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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