“This motion picture is principally based upon the book “Wallace” by Marshall Frady and other historical sources. Certain events, characters, and dialog have, nonetheless, been created or altered for dramatic purposes”.
In other words, this should not be taken as an historical record of the controversial George Wallace. If anything, the film attempts to soften his personality some. One of those created characters is Archie, a trustee attending to the needs of the residents at Alabama’s Governor’s Mansion. We are meant to see Wallace and the events of the tumultuous era through his eyes. It’s not told from his perspective, mind you, but we are intended to share his reactions and emotions along the way.
One of the pet peeves that I carry about me is that we live in an era of political intolerance and prejudice. It’s not in the direction most of you appear to believe. There is this disgusting notion that conservatives and Republicans are, by their very nature, racists. It’s a misconception populated by the mainstream media and often by the outspoken liberal celebrities that dominate the entertainment industry. I remember watching Kelsey Grammer on a news show once talking about how there is an almost McCarthyesque movement in Hollywood to blacklist actors who are openly conservative. And so the myth is propagated and continues to thrive, while all the while the Republican Party is the party of Abe Lincoln. Meanwhile, some of the most blatantly racist politicians have been Democrats. People like Strom Thurmond, who set the filibuster record stalling civil rights legislation, and Howie Long, who appeared to hate just about everybody, and, of course, George Wallace, who once stood in the doorway of the registrar’s office at The University Of Alabama to bar two black students from entering. It took the full force of the United States Military to remove him. That is the man this TNT mini-series sets out to examine.
I have to give credit to director John Frankenheimer for at least attempting to present the facts fairly. There is no question that if Wallace had been a Republican and the film had been in the hands of the likes of Michael Moore or Oliver Stone, we would not have seen much to actually like about George Wallace. Frankenheimer treads a careful tightrope here, and he appears to do so with respect. He doesn’t pull any punches when depicting the man’s cruel and harsh judgments and in allowing us to see the terrible tragedy those actions led to. He gives him a bit of a pass by suggesting that Wallace wasn’t actually a racist, rather took on that stand to gain the governorship of Alabama. He also contradicts the point by allowing us to see that Wallace had precedent that a civil rights supporter could succeed in Alabama politics. It’s a chicken or the egg problem. Was Wallace merely turned by the people he wished to serve, or did Wallace himself incite the racial tensions, at least toward the surface? Frankenheimer appears to believe it was the former, but the film allows for the latter. The movie blends in well with actual archival footage of the racial events of the time. There are real scenes involving police beat downs on blacks, and of course plenty of footage of Wallace’s arch nemesis, Martin Luther King. Many of the recreated historical moments are as close to the way we remember them as I’ve seen in these historical dramas. Frankenheimer took great care in his presentation so that there are moments we are momentarily confused whether we are seeing real footage or merely the film.
The story actually begins where it nearly ended, the 1972 assassination attempt on Wallace in Maryland while he was running for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. While he wasn’t killed, he was paralyzed, and the attempt at least succeeded in stopping what some believe was an inevitable nomination. It is after he is shot that Wallace begins to have flashbacks to those pivotal moments in his life beginning with the 1955 Inaugural Ball for Big Jim Folsom as Alabama Governor, a man Wallace put there as campaign manager. From that point we travel back and forth from the past to 1972 and beyond. The contrast is effective and allows us to view the man’s life in its totality so that we may judge him for ourselves.
You can’t really talk about this film without talking about Gary Sinise. He brings the same dynamic performance that he brought to HBO’s Truman a few years earlier. I’m not sure that anyone alive could have played this part any stronger. Sinise adds layers of depth to this character that perhaps the actual man himself did not possess. No matter what your feelings for Wallace might be, Sinise captures your attention and makes it absolutely impossible to look away. This film is just over three hours long. It was my original intention to watch it over two nights. Sinise makes it so you just have to finish it all in one sitting. I dare you to try otherwise. Angelina Jolie has one of her earlier roles here as Wallace’s second and much younger wife. She’s not really on the screen for long, but you can see the potential here that would soon be realized very shortly after. Mare Winningham plays Wallace’s first wife, who eventually died of cancer. She plays a perfect companion to Sinise’s Wallace, and the couple is extremely believable. Playing rather quietly, but with a great amount of impact is the former Mod Squad detective Clarence Williams, as the fictional Archie. Archie doesn’t actually say a lot, which was totally appropriate considering his station. Still, Williams manages to say a lot with just a look or a gesture. Television actor William Sanderson adds the “good old boy” factor as one of Wallace’s advisors. What better guy in that role than the brother to two Daryls? Even Third Watch’s Skipp Sudduth gets into the act as a police advisor to Wallace who is the guy that hooks him up with the racist crowd. The end text indicates that Wallace lives pretty much bedridden, but he did die less than a year after the film aired.
The series is presented on 2 discs. The film is separated the way it was on TNT back in 1997. The first part deals mostly with Wallace’s rise to prominence in Alabama. The second part begins with his rise in the national scene. If you are willing to look beyond the fictional elements of the film, I think you’ll discover some quality work both from the late and great Frankenheimer and Gary Sinise. It’s an explosive combination. We learn in the extra feature that the two had formed a company to do more films together. Unfortunately Frankenheimer died before any projects could get off the ground. If this is any indication of what the two of them were capable of doing together, it’s a tragic loss, indeed.
George Wallace is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. For a television mini-series this has the look of a major motion picture. Credit Frankenheimer for that. The entire presentation has a decidedly dated and natural look to it. That means colors aren’t going to be bright flashes of spectacular imagery. It does look rather realistic. Some of the footage is in black and white, and some is deliberately aged to give us a feeling of authenticity all around. A smart decision was made here to allow for 2 discs so that there is almost no compression artifact to be found. Black levels are solid. It’s a pretty impressive mini-series presentation.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is here for dialogue and nothing more. It does its job well.
Vision And Conflict – Collaborating On The Wallace Saga: Gary Sinise drives this 20 minute feature. He has an obvious passion for the project and great admiration for Frankenheimer. It doesn’t take long for the feature to become a tribute to the great director, and there is some footage here of him on the film. You get a lot of input in a very short span of time. It was interesting to learn that Frankenheimer was a close friend to Bobby Kennedy and was the man who drove him on that fateful night at the Ambassador Hotel.
If you decide to check it out, make sure you clear the full three hours on your schedule. It’s a compelling film, oddly not as much for the subject matter. It’s the combination of Frankenheimer and Sinise that makes this everything it was. It’s a shame it was a little known production. I hope this DVD release will bring it the attention it deserves. It’s a character study of a complicated man. He was outspoken and divisive. No matter what the subject, you could bet that “George Corley Wallace sure enough got something to say about that”.