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"It's the Faust legend, the story of a man who makes a deal with the devil."
In this Inaugural Week more than one digital video release has a political theme. Warners' new disc George Wallace is a biography of the controversial Alabama Governor whose commitment to segregation divided the country and helped ignite the racial violence that tore through America in the 1960s. The multi-part miniseries for TNT cable in 1997 is directed by the noted John Frankenheimer. The cast is also first-rate: Gary Sinise, Mare Winningham, Clarence Williams III, Joe Don Baker -- and a young Angelina Jolie.
Paul Monash's teleplay is based on a book by Marshall Frady. George Wallace, remembered most strongly as a demonic figure of the 1960s, was a glowering obstructionist who defied federal edicts to integrate Alabama schools. As much of the rest of the south complied with Civil Rights legislation, Governor Wallace became a highly-publicized holdout defending his policies on the basis of states' rights. Wallace's popularity grew among Americans that felt a figure like Richard Nixon was "too liberal".
George Wallace begins in 1972. We see the governor preparing to make a public appearance as a presidential candidate. Gary Sinise has Wallace's attitude down, even if he doesn't look much like the politician. The 21 year-old Angelina Jolie is both sexy and intelligent as George's second wife Cornelia. An assassin's bullet gravely wounds Wallace, triggering a series of flashbacks.
The script dutifully covers the main episodes in Wallace's career. In 1955 he's the campaign manager for Governor Big Jim Folsom (Joe Don Baker), a hearty glad-hander who wants to modernize the south. Folsom promises to support George's bid to become the next governor of the state. Wallace is the perfect candidate, a progressive with a sweet and supportive wife, Lurleen (Mare Winningham). Lurleen puts up with her husband's womanizing and watches as his values change. A rising Klan influence blocks George's candidacy until he does their bidding by speaking out in opposition to integration. His competitor John Patterson ran on a segregationist ticket, and Wallace feels he has no choice but to follow suit. To get elected, George Wallace compromises his core values.
Ironically, Hollywood had already played a role in Alabama politics. John Patterson was enshrined as a two-fisted hero in a 1955 docu noir directed by Phil Karlson. The Phenix City Story lauded Patterson's successful campaign to oust racketeers from his hometown; he later used the movie as a campaign tool in his run for the governor's mansion. Although movie has a civil rights theme, the real Patterson was a firm supporter of segregation.
George Wallace succeeds and becomes the governor who orders the cops to stop Martin Luther King's freedom marches with clubs, cattle prods and attack dogs. The show covers Wallace's famous showdown with Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Mark Valley) along with his school standoff against the National Guard and the Governor's hostile reception by Harvard undergraduates. Unable to extend the term limits of his office, Wallace persuades his faithful wife Lurleen to run as a substitute, even though she's succumbing to uterine cancer.
The episodic show uses extended montages of B&W news film to illustrate the police violence directed by Wallace against the Civil Rights marchers. Since the events pictured are already almost half a century in the past, most Americans have seen bits of this historical news film without understanding its context. The script follows events fairly faithfully but makes up the details of domestic squabbles between Wallace and his two wives. The movie opens with a sexy moment with Angelina Jolie, undoubtedly to get our immediate attention.
More questionable is a character invented by the screenwriters to give the story of George Wallace a black perspective. Clarence Williams II plays Archie, a prison trustee who serves as a butler and valet in the Governor's mansion. Archie must attend his mother's funeral in handcuffs. Wallace likes him and treats him fairly well, but Archie realizes that his Governor is evil and considers murdering him with an ice pick. A fly on the wall for key meetings and confrontations, Archie mostly stands around with a frozen look on his face, letting us know that the Conscience of the Civil Rights movement is always present. Although Frankenheimer handles this aspect with graceful good judgment, it will probably date the film very quickly. A film school class in 2040: "Political Correctness in the Millennial Years".
Some may feel that George Wallace is an extended apology for the controversial Governor. George survives the assassin's bullets but must live in a wheelchair. His politics are soundly rejected in the 1970s, and he eventually realizes that his racist policies were wrong. Old Jim Folsom refuses to see him, and in his isolation Wallace makes a number of attempts to publicly atone. The film ends with him apologizing to the congregation of an all-black church.
John Frankenheimer enjoyed critical success in the 1960s with The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, The Train and Grand Prix. His career soon fell apart in a welter of bad scripts, only to come back together again in the 1990s with TV productions like this one. Gary Sinise, Mare Winningham and Frankenheimer all won Emmys for George Wallace.
Sinise handles his role well, boldly spitting out Wallace's racist rhetoric. Mare Winningham's Lurleen Wallace holds the film's emotional center; more than a few critics remarked that she captured the lady's personality to perfection. Clarence Williams II is a solid presence as a man who must suppress all of his emotions, and Joe Don Baker is appropriately bluff and blustery as the effusive Big Jim. George Wallace has political drama, personal conflict, historical significance and a dash of sex, the perfect formula for a political biography.
Warners' 2-disc set George Wallace is a beautiful enhanced widescreen encoding of this handsomely produced cable feature. The presentation is split in two parts with only one title and credits sequence. Audio is listed as being in Stereo. A lengthy featurette docu, probably produced by TNT, allows the director and most of the actors to contribute their opinions about their experience on the film. We even hear from Frankenheimer's wife Evans Evans, a delightful actress most often remembered for her comedic turn in Bonnie & Clyde.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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