“The 1920’s in America: jazz music, girls who smoke, and the wing walkers. Like a giant party, only without the booze. Change was in the air. Skyscrapers displaced family farms, and revolutionary ideas challenged time-honored traditions.”
Of course, one of those “revolutionary ideas” was the theories of Charles Darwin with the publication of his book On The Origin Of Species. The book had been out since 1859 and Darwin was long dead, but some of the ideas presented in his theories were about to cause a maelstrom across the United States when John Scopes was arrested for violating a new Tennessee law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in public schools. The resultant Scopes, or Monkey Trial, would be the first court procedure carried live by radio and would put the ideas of religion and science on a collision course.
“Clarence Darrow, legendary defense attorney, made headlines defending murderers and railing against fundamentalist Christianity. Williams Jenning Bryan, the leader of the Democratic Party for 30 years, fought for the Bible, the working man, and women’s rights. Covering them both in the pages of The Baltimore Sun was H.L. Mencken, the most influential and most feared writer in America.”
And so we set the stage with three of the principals of the trial. Darrow (Dennehy) would represent the prosecution of Scopes, and Bryan (Thompson) would defend the teacher. The story has already been told on film with the classic Inherit The Wind which has been made several times. Spencer Tracy played Darrow in the original with such names as Jason Robards and even Jack Lemmon both playing a fictionalized version of the famous lawyer named Henry Drummond. The 1960 version of the film is compelling drama and has more than earned its place in American cinematography. The same can’t be said of Alleged.
“They called them the roaring twenties, but not every town in America was roaring. Take my hometown in Dayton, Tennessee for instance. In Dayton in 1925 big news for us might have been a win for the last-place Dayton Miners. Unfortunately, the first big story for us that year was the closing of the Cumberland coal mine, the lifeblood of Dayton. But, the second bigger story would turn out to save us. Well… save us and ruin us at the same time.”
The first problem here is that the Scopes Trial is almost a secondary element while all the while professed as the cornerstone of the film. The movie makes it appear as though the entire trial was dreamed up by the Dayton city fathers as a way to put their little town on the map. I don’t deny there was certainly an element of that in the original case. Here the case itself is played without any jeopardy to either side. The city’s district attorney appears in on the plot and is only pretending to prosecute Scopes, who didn’t even teach the class that he was arrested for. I’ll admit that my knowledge of the original trial could be lacking, but I find it hard to believe that it is this deficient.
Then there is the focus on fictional character Charles Anderson (West) and his fiancée Rose Williams (Johnson). Charles is a reporter for the local paper which was founded by his father. He’s tired of the small-town reporting and living under the shadow of his deceased and lionized father. He views the trial as a chance to impress the editor of the Baltimore Sun, Mencken (Meaney) who has arrived in town to personally oversee coverage of the trial. He has a horse in the race and intends to support Darrow’s side of the trial. He convinces Charlie that they have the power to create a much better story than is actually there, while at the same time they can beat down the Christian fundamentalist folks. At first Charlie follows his lead to get the big-city job. It causes friction between him and Rose as he begins to sacrifice his own ethics to win over Mencken.
The film has an agenda here, and it is too evident throughout. The story is quite harsh on the characters that fall on the wrong side of the film’s message. The idea of the religious persecution here is a club that director Tom Hines uses to beat us over the head relentlessly and without mercy. The story repeats the concerns of the time that Darwin’s idea of “survival of the fittest” will lead to forced sterilizations and mistreatment of people deemed inferior and unworthy of survival. Of course, the decades of these laws never really materialized, and the film doesn’t fairly represent the point.
The cast provides the only real plus to the film. Star Trek’s Colm Meaney has never been better as the editor Mencken. His does a wonderful job of displaying his contempt for the country “bumpkins” in Dayton. He’s really the only believable character in the bunch. Both Fred Thompson and Brian Dennehy add subtle nobility to their characters even if the script does not. Nathan West, however, always appears to be floundering in his role and can’t carry this picture. He always appears overmatched by the talent that surrounds him here. That includes Ashley Johnson as Rose.
Alleged is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 15-20 mbps. The image is actually pretty solid in parts. There are moments of exceptional black levels that provide clear and distinct shadow definition. There is a good texture to the image as displayed in the dusty air injected with rays of sunlight. Colors are warm and a bit soft, obviously to reflect the period piece nature of the film.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is pretty simple. This is completely a dialog-driven piece. The score is intrusive at times and sounds more like it should be part of a sweeping western film rather than this rather static period piece.
Alleged is a faith-based film that feels like it must take a harsh stand on this particular historical event. I’m not sure that faith-based meant fairness here at all. I’ve enjoyed many films in this vein, but there’s too much preachin’ and not enough good film going on here. The point will be lost, because very few will take the time to watch. I’m sorry that I did. I consider myself a Christian and was educated in a Catholic school, where we learned creation in religion class and evolution in science class. I was taught that these two ideas are not mutually exclusive at all. I do find that Alleged and good filmmaking do appear to be mutually exclusive. “And you can quote me on that.”