Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Absence of Malice (1981)

The Miami Herald wants a reporter this clueless as an editor?

That's about the biggest laugh I've had watching a film since that idiot Jar Jar Binks was made a diplomat in the dreadful Star Wars reboot.

Said reporter, Megan (Sally Field), doesn't have the brains to write for a big city paper. She also has no empathy for the persons she interviews for a story. Oh, and sleeping with the person she's writing stories on? Unbelievable. Said scribe should be punted out the door for all these breaches of duty.

Films dealing with reporters, especially print, always interest this film fan because I write for a daily newspaper.

A union boss is missing and there's no leads. Prosecutor Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) is desperate for some type of thread leading to who's responsible.

He finds a mark - Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), a legitimate businessman who has family ties to organized crime. When reporter Megan drops by, he conveniently leaves a file pointing to Gallagher on his desk, then excuses himself shortly after Megan drops by for comment.

Why isn't Megan's editor McAdam (Josef Summer) asking more questions about the source of the story. Gallagher has no criminal record, except for slugging a federal agent at a family member's funeral. Most would cut hims some slack for prying eyes at such a time.

Gallagher's life is turned upside down when the story makes print. His workers are suspicious, then walk off the job at the suggestion he had something to do with the labour leader's disappearance. Here's where Absence of Malice works - showing how the innocent are affected when a newspaper messes up.

Gallagher's friend, Teresa (Melinda Dillon), can offer an alibi clearing him of any wrong-doing. But she's reluctant to go public with her support because she was doing, with Michael's help, something the Catholic Church has a major problem with. She works at a Catholic school. But Megan brushes aside those concerns with a chipper, 'hey it's 1981 now' attitude - completely out-of-touch with how this woman's life will be damaged by the revelation becoming public. Teresa doesn't agree with Megan's take on the situation. She doesn't to be named, but Megan proceeds.

This leads to another very hard-to-swallow aspect of this story. There's no romantic chemistry between Megan and McAdam, yet they end up bunking down even after he understandably freaks out for what her story did to Teresa's life.

Best part of this film is when Department of Justice rep Wells (Wilford Brimley) shows up. He's cheesed off at the stories he's reading - wondering what prompted the probe into Gallagher's life and what the prosecutor and district attorney are up to. Brimley is only on the screen for only about 15 minutes, but what a scene with his folksy, but tough manner. Great stuff!

Dillon shines in her supporting role. This is a woman who has issues. She earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress, as did Newman and Kurt Luedtke for best screenplay.

About that editing job - McAdam suggests - even with all Megan's mistakes on this major story, that she make the move from reporter to the desk. What? And get sued on a regular basis?

Newman made this film between Fort Apache The Bronx and The Verdict. Make The Verdict your viewing priority. It's a powerful work and one of his finest performances.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Luedtke wrote scripts for three films Sydney Pollack directed - Out of Africa, Random Hearts and Absence of Malice.

Wilford Brimley, still alive at 80, made his debut in True Grit.

Bob Balaban went on to appear in several films with the This is Spinal Tap gang including Waiting for Guffman and A Mighty Wind.

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