Richard Brooks's film of Wrong is Right (1982) is an ambitious satire of the news media, government conspiracies, U.S. / Middle East relationships, political campaigns, and covert arms dealing. It touches on a number of issues as relevant today as they were when the film was new. But ambitions and timeliness do not a good movie make, and Wrong Is Right is a long way from being a good movie. Indeed, it is astonishingly bad, and only slightly better than Americathon (1979), arguably the worst of this sub-genre.
The picture stars Sean Connery as ace TV reporter / media star Patrick Hale. Sometime "between now and later," Hale becomes entangled in a convoluted arms sale plot involving Arab King Awad (Ron Moody) and Islamic fundamentalist terrorist Rafeeq (Henry Silva), with whom he has inexplicably allied himself. Apparently, they intend to buy two atom bombs from arms dealer Helmut Unger (Hardy Kruger) and drop them on Jerusalem and New York City. On the advice of CIA head Philindros (G.D. Spradlin), hawkish General Wombat (Robert Conrad), and others, U.S. President Lockwood (George Grizzard) orders Awad's assassination, but this only further complicates matters, and the world spirals toward nuclear annihilation.
Probably owing to its ambitions, its left-of-center politics, and the pedigree of its writer-director, critics then as now have strained to avoid being too critical of Wrong Is Right. Brooks had been a respected if under-appreciated writer-director who had quietly pushed the envelope with films like Blackboard Jungle (1955), Elmer Gantry (1960), and In Cold Blood (1967). His previous film, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) had been a modest hit, but Wrong Is Right bombed and Brooks made just one more film before his death in 1992.
This sort of satire is extremely difficult to pull off, but Wrong is Right is misguided at every turn. Almost nothing works, and the film plays as if the studio wasn't behind it during production and knew they had a bomb by the time it wrapped. The finished film relies heavily on stock footage, lousy (even for 1982) special effects, and overall has the air of a TV movie. Credits playfully suggest the film was shot on location in "Hagreb," the fictional North African country where much of the story is set. In fact most of the picture looks like it was made on the cheap in the Arizona and California desert, and on the Warner Bros. backlot. The film's budgetary limitations frequently undermines its effectiveness. For instance, there's a subplot concerning a spate of suicide bombers, most of who are women. What might have been shocking doesn't work because of the inept effects. Instead of exploding into nothingness, the women light up like giant Fourth-of-July sparklers as they leap like acrobats into crowds of passersby.
Brooks's script (from Charles McCarry's novel, The Better Angels) is utterly unfocused. In trying to satirize so many targets, nothing is done well. Its criticism of the news media is superficial at best, done far better and more bitingly elsewhere, and singularly unreal here. Connery's Hale is a combination Mike Wallace, Edward R. Murrow, and Christianna Amanpour, but the film absurdly has him working alone, without a crew. He films his own interviews with a bulky camera that never needs focusing or reloading and miraculously conducts them without a microphone. When Connery delivers a tired "news = showbiz" monologue, the result is heavy-handed and squirmily embarrassing. The film can't decide if it wants its characters to play it straight or to camp it up. Connery plays it both ways and his performance suffers, though he does deserve credit for the film's single laugh, a throwaway gag acknowledging his toupee.
The script, at least as far as Connery's character is concerned, is structured as a mystery, with the reporter trying to unravel the suspicious death of King Awad and his relationship with Unger. Unfortunately, most everything is revealed to the audience long before Connery's Hale realizes what's going on. Always several steps behind, he's trying to figure out things the audience already knows, giving the film an unusually high "get on with it" quotient.
The satire is sometimes perceptive but never funny. Americans are ambivalent to foreign affairs when not downright ignorant. The picture opens with a confusing and clumsy spoof of Delos-type therapy resorts, with Jennifer Jason Leigh in a small role. Connery arrives in the desert while the theme from Lawrence of Arabia bursts onto the soundtrack, a gag already done with fellow Bond Roger Moore in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977). Robert Conrad's general is crudely imitative of George C. Scott's marvelous character in Dr. Strangelove (1964). And so on.
The Columbia/TriStar-owned Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe have long been catalog favorites. But the company's decision to release a film as terrible, unpopular, and dated as Wrong Is Right has a mild air of tastelessness. The film is replete with terrorist acts, kidnappings, suicide bombers, and a president who completely fouls up Middle Eastern relationships stirring anti-American sentiment. The film has a truly unsettling scene shot on the roof of the World Trade Center -- where Connery and several other characters attempt to retrieve two atom bombs, no less. All this may be timely as all get-out, but the picture remains abysmal.
Video & Audio
Presented in 16:9 anamorphic widescreen, Wrong Is Right looks about as good as an early eighties movie can, with that period's ugly color and high grain. The transfer and 2.0 stereo are passable but unexceptional. Optional subtitles include English, Japanese, French, and Korean.
There are no extras to speak of, other than 4:3 trailers for Dr. Strangelove (complete with text that's often missing, to the bewilderment of those who see it without) and Fail-Safe, and a 16:9 trailer for The Bedford Incident.
Sincerely made but interminable, Wrong is Right is well meaning but deadly, a dated misfire that lives up to its title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.