When it comes to the surreal cultural landscape of government power plays, few have been able to capture it with the vigor of John Frankenheimer. Best known for the 1962 head-trippy assassination thriller The Manchurian Candidate, he also presented a nightmarish coup in America in his 1964 follow-up Seven Days in May. With his wide-angle lens pushed right into the strained faces of politicians, and widescreen compositions that usually jam-packed the frame with characters intensely waiting for their turn to speak or locations that felt as lush with information as Chinese boxes, Frankenheimer was as strong a visual storyteller as Steven Spielberg, but with the healthy skepticism and downright paranoid distrust of authority you get from early John Carpenter movies.
The TNT television film George Wallace was made over 30 years after Frankenheimer’s 1960s masterpieces, yet it feels of a piece with those films, and teems with all the boundless energy of a youthful filmmaker. The opening credits blaze across in rapid jump cuts of an American flag, stock footage of brutal conflict from the Civil Rights era, gouts of blood oddly retreating back into a wound, and letters that restlessly seem to splinter together and apart. George Wallace (Gary Sinise) is introduced shouting out a window before moseying over to his sexy young wife Cornelia (Angelina Jolie) and finding himself curled up on the bed with her, trying to talk his way out of a sexual encounter because, as governor of the great state of Alabama, he’s got other things to do. The shot takes in both actors and their impatient tussle on the bed, and it’s not until Frankenheimer cuts to Wallace ambiguously looking into a nearby mirror that we realize he’s been holding on the master shot for several minutes, and during that time the camera has made a series of small movements to convey Wallace’s bold confidence as a cover for jittery nerves he’d rather not explore.
With an eye for details both small and large, it’s Frankenheimer’s taste for the grotesque that particularly engages. He’s not afraid of opening a scene with a low angle shot of Wallace lighting up a cigar, the embers glowing right into the lens, or of lingering on a close-up of the governor’s plate as he pours ketchup all over his breakfast—eggs, hash browns, sausage, while cheerfully asking what sort of devil the newspaper is calling him today. (This is the same director who, in what you could call an either brilliantly bold or comically misguided choice had Marlon Brando and a mini-me helper playing a piano duet together in The Island of Dr. Moreau.) He’s able to effortlessly bring in these moments that reveal character, make them cinematic (his camera, sometimes handheld, will linger on a detail before moving on), and weave them into a story that’s about ambition, political power, and changing times.
“Segregation now! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” is the way Wallace blazed himself into the history books. As Governor of Alabama, he took the stance of an unadulterated bigot, most famously attempting to prevent black students from attending the state university. While that piece of American history alone is worth dramatizing, George Wallace excels at presenting the backroom intrigues that allowed this controversial figure to rise. Throughout scenes of slick young Wallace mounting his gubernatorial campaign, you may ask: Was he a racist who was able to light the fire of public support, or an opportunist that saw an avenue straight to Capitol Hill.
Frankenheimer lived through the tumultuous 1960s and was a close friend and campaign filmmaker for Robert Kennedy, so his depiction of those places and times feels informed. More to the point, this vision is absolutely engaging because he captures the righteous burning anger of those times. Marches, picket lines, and rallies boil over with emotion, and the camera often feels like an extension of those larger-than-life feelings, observing people in action. (The techniques resemble the “direct cinema” of Albert Maysles, especially when Frankenheimer makes liberal use of black-and-white film stock.) But that tension spills over into the domestic scenes, showing how private moments influence public ones, such as when Wallace’s first wife Lurleen (Mare Winningham) packs her bags, saying she’s had enough, while the governor’s cronies sit anxiously in the other room smoking cigarettes and waiting for him to give them their code of action.
Winningham chooses not to play that scene for histrionics, but instead invests Lurleen with an exhausted foreknowledge that things are broken. Sinise mostly absorbs the tension before venturing into the other room, and when he releases his pent-up aggression, he falls back on bigoted dogma: “Niggers hate whites, whites hate niggers—everybody’s always known that deep down.” But the scene clearly, effortlessly shows how xenophobia at its root comes from some twisted notion of inadequacy and powerlessness. George Wallace was produced for the small screen, but even in 1997 it was a reminder that some of the great roles, and great actors, could be found working in television—and how television was becoming a popular entertainment medium more suited for grown-ups than most mainstream movies. Sinise and Winningham’s fiercely committed, lived-in portrayals of complex and epic figures is reminiscent of the great acting demonstrated on Deadwood and The Wire.
Though the story of Wallace is classically told, with a rise and fall that culminates with an assassination attempt during his 1972 political campaign, Frankenheimer doesn’t gloss it up to what we’ve come to expect from Hollywood standards. His framing is extreme, with bold expressionistic angles from high or low, or extreme lefts and rights, or jaggedly handheld (even if it’s on the Steadicam, the camera bumps and wavers documentary-style). “I don’t like my movies to be neat,” Frankenheimer once said, and while there’s always a confidence in the point of view, it seems like he’s searching for crucial, revealing moments.
Everything in the frame is in focus all the time through his use of wide-angle lenses, so even if the camera is locked down, there’s usually a wide array to see. During Wallace’s meeting with Robert Kennedy, the center of the frame is a spool-to-spool recording device, with the Attorney General and his men forming a semi-circle around it, and in the far right background is Wallace’s servant Archie (Clarence Williams III), the simmering conscience of the film, forever watchful, plagued with his own self-loathing and confused feelings about what dignity means. Even in a scene as still as this one, when it cuts to Kennedy, the camera must be mere inches from his face, and when we get a reverse close-up on Wallace, there are ever so slight pans as he shifts in his seat while under pressure.
It’s been well documented that after Robert Kennedy was killed, Frankenheimer fell into a bleak period of drunkenness and made quite a few mediocre feature films. Nobody remembers the incomprehensible sci-fi parable 99 and 44/100% Dead, the schlock horror film Prophecy, the Don Johnson B-cop thriller Dead Bang, which is most notable for an on-foot chase scene that culminates with the Miami Vice star catching the bad guy, hurling him to the ground, then barfing on him. His career was given a much-needed reboot by television, shooting high-quality cable movies for HBO and TNT, and Frankenheimer swore if he were ever going to reinvent himself, it would be here. George Wallace is not a nostalgia piece about the good old days, but a bold retelling from the front lines of explosive times. It’s a project equal not only in quality to his ‘60s films, but also in its thematic weight.
We can only hope that HBO will rerelease Frankenheimer’s final film, 2002’s Path to War, a strong companion piece to George Wallace which charts LBJ’s first foray into Vietnam, and indeed features a Sinise cameo appearance, returning as Wallace. Frankenheimer’s strongly emotional, provocative, and informed political viewpoint seems to fit the climate of today, and it’s fitting to reexamine those places and times that defined America in the late 20th century, and explore the fissions that still define us today. “You can’t change what you’ve done before,” he once said, “And you have to live with that.”
The image quality occasionally suffers from shimmers and ghosts, but this never distracts from the viewing experience. The audio quality is clearly modulated.
A talking-heads documentary starring several of the film's lead actors sharing memories of working with the late, great Frankenheimer features a few good anecdotes about George Wallace's production, the most enjoyable being Gary Sinise's resistance to playing the role and having the filmmaker drive over to his house and basically insist, in no uncertain terms, that he had to do this role and couldn't say no. Their collaborative exchange and mutual respect is obvious from the behind-the-scenes clips. Frankenheimer's live television background found a fitting companion in Sinise's theatrical training-and, sadly, they were forming a production company to do many films together when the director unexpectedly passed away. Unfortunately, the documentary feels too short, and one wishes they devoted a longer featurette to the director's career, or delved deeper into the making of George Wallace. And so Frankenheimer remains one of the most frustratingly underappreciated and underpublicized great American directors. Don't be misled by the two-disc set-there aren't many special features, just the 185-minute film and one short, concise featurette.
One of the finest television films John Frankenheimer made during his final decade of filmmaking, George Wallace deserves a more substantial DVD treatment.