Desolation Canyon (2006, directed by David Cass)


After robbing a bank in a small western town, an outlaw stops by the home of his estranged wife and takes his own son hostage.  The town’s aging sheriff (Patrick Duffy) teams with the boy’s grandfather (Stacy Keach) to take the outlaw down and save the child’s life.  Accompanying them is the bank president, Edwin Bornstein (David Rees Snell).  Edwin may be a city boy who talks about how much he’s always wanted to say “I reckon,” but it turns out that there’s more to him than meets the eye.  He’s also good with a gun.

I probably should have given up on Desolation Canyon as soon as I saw that it was a “Hallmark Presents” film but I like westerns and Stacy Keach has always done well whenever he’s been cast as a gunslinger so I decided to give it a try.  Starting with a bank robbery and endings with a duel, Desolation Canyon is about as old-fashioned as an old-fashioned western can be.  Because it was made by Hallmark, there’s nothing dangerous or edgy about the film.  A few people do get shot but there’s no blood.  The shoot outs in Red Dead Redemption are more violent and suspenseful than anything to be found in this film.  (Of course, that’s because most of the shootouts in Red Dead Redemption occur because the play pushed the wrong button while trying to greet someone.  I still feel bad for accidentally shooting the kindly old homesteader who just wanted someone to help him collect some flowers for his wife.)  This is the type of western that you can safely watch with your grandparents, since that’s who the film was made for.  That’s not bad because grandparents need movies to but if you’re looking for a complex or an unpredictable western in the style of a Larry McMurtry novel or a later Eastwood film, I reckon this ain’t it.

Giving some credit where credit is due, Stacy Keach, David Rees Snell, and even Patrick Duffy are credible in their roles.  Stacy Keach is especially convincing a former gunfighter who can still outdraw anyone.  Stacy Keach is 81 years old and still working.  Someone needs to write a great Stacy Keach role and they need to do it now.

The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972, directed by John Huston)


During the lawless day of the old west, a drifter named Roy Bean (Paul Newman) wanders into the desolate town of Vinegaroon, Texas.  When he enters the local saloon, he meets the vagrants who run the town.  They beat him, they rob him, and they tie him to the back of his horse and leave him to die.

Bean, however, does not die.  Instead, he’s nursed back to health by a beautiful young woman named Maria Elena (Victoria Principal).  Carrying a gun, Bean reenters the saloon and promptly kills nearly everyone who previously attacked him.  (“I’m not done killing you yet!” Bean yells at one fleeing woman.)  Bean sits down in front of the saloon and waits for justice.  Instead, he’s visited by a lecherous traveling preacher (Anthony Perkins), who buries the dead and gives Bean absolution.  Bean declares that he is now the “law of the West Pecos.”  As the preacher leaves, he looks at the audience and says that he never visited Bean again and later died of dysentery in Mexico.  He hasn’t seen Bean since dying so the preacher is sure that, wherever Bean went, it wasn’t Heaven.

Judge Roy Bean dispenses rough and hard justice from his saloon and renames the town Langtry, after the actress Lillie Langtry.  Bean has never met Langtry or even seen her perform but he writes to her regularly and pictures of her decorate the walls of his saloon.  Bean hires outlaws to serve as his town marshals and sentences prostitutes to remain in town and marry the citizens.  Lawbreakers are left hanging outside of the saloon.  Bean enters into a common law marriage with Maria and, for a while, they even own a bear, who drinks beer and helps Bean maintain order in the court.  Bean may be crazy but his methods clean up the town and Langtry starts to grow.  As Langtry becomes more civilized and an attorney named Arthur Gass (Roddy McDowall) grows more powerful, it starts to become apparent that there may no longer be a place for a man like Judge Roy Bean.

The real-life Judge Roy Bean did hold court in a saloon and he did name the town after Lilly Langtry.  It’s debatable whether or not he was really a hanging judge.  Because he didn’t have a jail, the maximum punishment that he could hand out was a fine and usually that fine was the same amount of however much money the accused had on him at the time of his arrest.  Because of his eccentricities and his reputation for being the “only law west of the Pecos,” Roy Bean became a legendary figure.  The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean acknowledges from the start that it’s not a historically accurate, with a title card that reads, “Maybe this isn’t the way it was… it’s the way it should have been.”

Based on a script by John Milius and directed by Hollywood veteran John Huston, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is one of the strangest westerns to ever be released by a major studio.  Featuring multiple narrators who occasionally speak directly to the camera, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is an episodic mix of low comedy, graphic violence, and syrupy romance.  (The film’s sole Oscar nomination was for the song that played over scenes of Bean and Maria going on a romantic picnic with their pet bear.)  Familiar faces show up in small roles.  Along with Perkins and McDowall, Tab Hunter, Ned Beatty, Jacqueline Bissett, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Zerbe all play supporting roles.  Even a heavily made-up Stacy Keach makes an appearance as an albino outlaw named Bad Bob.

Jacqueline Bisset in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean

Milius has gone on the record as calling The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean a “Beverly Hills western” and he has a point.  He envisioned the script as starring Warren Oates as a less likable and much more morally ambiguous version of Judge Roy Bean and he was not happy that his original ending was replaced by a more showy pyrotechnic spectacle.  Milius envisioned the film as a low-budget spaghetti western but Huston instead made a Hollywood epic, complete with celebrity cameos and a theme song from Maurice Jarre and Marilyn Bergman.  Milius said that his experience with The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is what led to him deciding to direct his own films.

Again, Milius has a point but John Huston’s version of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean has its strengths as well.  Though he may not be the madman that Milius originally envisioned, Paul Newman gives a good, grizzled performance as Roy Bean and the role served as a precursor for the type of aging but determined characters that Newman would specialize in during the final phase of his career.  Due to its episodic structure, the film is uneven but it works more often than it doesn’t.  The chaotic early scenes reflect a time when the west was actually wild while the later scenes are more cohesive, as society moves into Langtry and threatens to make formerly indispensable men like Roy Ban obsolete.  Even the cameo performances fit in well with the film’s overall scheme, with Anthony Perkins standing out as the odd preacher.  Finally, the young Victoria Principal is perfectly cast as the only woman that Roy Bean loved as much as Lily Langtry.

Though it’s impossible not to wonder what Warren Oates would have done with the title role, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean is a good end-of-the-west western.

The TSL’s Grindhouse: Body Bags (dir by John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper)


An odd but mildly likable film, that’s the best description of Body Bags.

Originally, Body Bags wasn’t even meant to be a film.  Instead, in 1993, Showtime wanted to do a horror anthology show, one that would mix comedy and chills in the style of HBO’s Tales From The Crypt.  Three episodes were filmed.  Two were directed by John Carpenter.  The other was directed by Tobe Hooper.  Robert Carradine, Stacy Keach, and Mark Hamill all agreed to appear on the show.  That’s an impressive collection of talent but, for whatever reason, Showtime decided not to pursue Body Bags as a series.  So the three episodes were strung together in an anthology film.  Linking the stories was a warp-around segment where Carpenter played a coroner and Tobe Hooper and Tom Arnold played morgue attendants!

Now, it must be said that John Carpenter probably made the right decision when he decided to become a director instead of an actor.  That said, what Carpenter lacked in acting technique, he made up for with unbridled enthusiasm.  Carpenter appears to be having a blast playing an old style horror host.  Who can blame him?  In fact, I would say one the most appealing things about John Carpenter as a personality is that he always seems to be truly enjoying himself, regardless of all the crap that he’s had to put up with in Hollywood.

As for the segments …. well, they’re uneven.  That’s not really a shock. Part of the problem is that, because they weren’t originally envisioned as all airing together, a lot of ideas and story points are repeated from segment to segment.  The first segment is about a serial killer.  The second segment is about a transplant.  The third segment is about both a transplant and a serial killer.  It gets a bit repetitive.

Carpenter directed the first two segments, The Gas Station and HairThe Gas Station is a bit too simple for its own good.  Robert Carradine is a serial killer who harasses a woman at a gas station.  That’s pretty much it.  Carradine gives a good performance ad Halloween fans will get a laugh out of a reference to Haddonfield but there’s not much else going on.  Hair is a bit better.  Stacy Keach plays a businessman who gets a hair transplant, just to discover that the hair is extraterrestrial in origin.  Hair is clever and playful, like an above average episode of The Twilight Zone.  Keach plays his role with the right mix of comedic outrage and genuine horror.

The third segment is called Eyes and it was directed by Tobe Hooper.  Mark Hamill plays a baseball player who is losing his eyesight as the result of a car accident.  He gets an eye transplant.  At first, everything seems fine but soon, he’s having visions of himself murdering people!  It turns out that the eye once belonged to a serial killer.  You can guess where this is going but Mark Hamill really throws himself into the role and Tobe Hooper’s direction is appropriately intense.

Body Bags is a pretty minor entry in the filmographies of two great directors but, at the same time, it’s enjoyable in its own silly way.  There’s a likable goofiness to John Carpenter’s wrap-around segment and it lets us know that we shouldn’t take any of this too seriously.  Watch it for your own amusement.

An Offer You Can’t Refuse #23: Gotti (dir by Kevin Connolly)


Few recent films have been as misunderstood as Gotti.

When this film was first released in 2018, it was slammed by critics and it flopped at the box office.  On Rotten Tomatoes, it managed a score of 0% from the critics.  At the same time, the opening day audience score was 80%.  (Over subsequent days, the audience score would drop to 46%.)  This disparity was blamed on studio employees inflating the audience score, though I think it’s more likely that, after months of negative press about the film’s troubled productions, critics were already looking forward to slamming the film before they even had a chance to see it.  At the same time, the buzz on Gotti was so bad that the opening day audience was made up of a combination of John Travolta die-hards (whoever they may be) and people who were expecting such a trainwreck that all Gotti had to do to surpass their expectations was to occasionally be in focus.

Then again, it could be that some members of the audience understood what I instinctively understood when I first watched GottiGotti is not really a film about John Gotti, the flamboyant New York mob boss who ruled the streets with an iron fist and who eventually ended up dying of cancer in prison.  Instead, whether it was the filmmaker’s actual intention or not, Gotti is a film about the audience’s fascination with not only gangsters but also the movies that have been made about them.

It’s true that John Travolta may be playing someone namned John Gotti but the film goes out of its way to remind you that he’s not the real John Gotti.  The film is full of archival news footage of the real John Gotti, either laughing it up with reporters or smirking while sitting in a courtroom.  Every time that we’re shown footage of the real John Gotti, we’re reminded of the fact that, at not point during the film, does Travolta look anything like John Gotti.  Add to that, the real Gotti is always smirking whereas Travolta always looks somewhat grim.  At the time this film came out, many claimed that this was evidence of lazy filmmaking but I viewed it as being a Brechtian distancing device.  Whenever the real Gotti makes an appearance, we’re reminded that we’re just watching a movie and then we’re encouraged to ask ourselves why we would want to watch a movie about such a disreputable figure.

The movie opens with John Travolta standing next to the Brooklyn Bridge and speaking directly to the camera.  Though Travolta is meant to be speaking to us as John Gotti, the sight of him standing near a bridge in New York will automatically remind some viewers of a previous Travolta film, Saturday Night Fever.  The character that Travolta played in Saturday Night Fever, Tony Manero, has come to epitomize New York in the 70s.  The film suggests that, in much the same way, Gotti epitomized New York in the 80s and 90s.  Gotti, the film is saying, is as much of an icon of the popular imagination as Tony Manero dancing in a white suit.

Why is Gotti speaking directly to us in that scene?  It may seem like a framing device until, a few minutes later, we see a bald and sickly Gotti in a prison meeting room, telling his life story to his son, John, Jr. (Spencer LoFranco).  Gotti talking in prison is then established as the narrative’s other framing device.  So, why was Gotti speaking to us on the bridge and why did he look so healthy and have a full of head of hair when the film has made it clear that the newly bald Gotti is going to die in prison?  When I first saw the film, my initial thought was that the Gotti who speaks directly to the audience was meant to be a ghost.  But then it occurred to me that he’s actually not meant to be John Gotti at all.  Instead, the Gotti who talks to us on the bridge is meant to be our popular conception of what gangsters like John Gotti as like.  He’s what we imagine gangsters to be — i.e., tough-talking, well-dressed, and played by an iconic actor.  As such, the film’s narration is not being provided by John Gotti.  Instead, it’s being provided by the person that we imagine someone like Gotti to have been.

Is the imprisoned Gotti meant to be the real Gotti?  Perhaps.  However, it’s hard not to notice that, over the course of the film, Gotti’s son never ages.  Though several decades pass, Gotti’s son always looks like he’s in his mid-twenties.  When he visits his father in prison and talks about having teenage children of his own, it feels odd because he barely looks old enough to be out of high school.  That may seem like lazy filmmaking but again, I would argue that this is a distancing device.  It’s a reminder that we’re not watching reality.  Instead, we’re choosing to watch actors pretending to be gangsters.

Once you accept that Gotti is a film not about John Gotti but instead about those of us in the audience who are watching, the film makes a lot more sense.  The film’s cliches about life in the Mafia are revealed to be not so much the result of an uninspired script as they’re an homage to American folklore.  Of course, there’s going to be a scene where Gotti tells his children never to rat on their friends.  Of course, there’s going to be random shootings and burly men demanding respect.  This is a gangster movie, after all.  By populating the cast with people who you normally wouldn’t expect to see playing members of the Mafia — Stacy Keach, Chris Mulkey, Pruitt Taylor Vince — Gotti continually reminds you that you’re watching a movie.  The real mafia isn’t like this, Gotti is saying, but the mafia of the popular imagination is.  Why are we horrified by real-life crime and yet we flock to movies that claim to recreate it for our entertainment?  This is the issue at the heart of Gotti.

Gotti’s flaws are there to remind us that we’re just watching a movie.  They’re also there to make us wonder why we’re watching that particular movie.  Gotti asks us why audience idolize killers like John Gotti.  Why do we turn them into folk heroes?  Is it because we imagine them to be characters in films as opposed to actual human beings?  Whether or not one feels that the film succeeded in its goal, this is an offer that you cannot refuse.

Previous Offers You Can’t (or Can) Refuse:

  1. The Public Enemy
  2. Scarface (1932)
  3. The Purple Gang
  4. The Gang That Could’t Shoot Straight
  5. The Happening
  6. King of the Roaring Twenties: The Story of Arnold Rothstein 
  7. The Roaring Twenties
  8. Force of Evil
  9. Rob the Mob
  10. Gambling House
  11. Race Street
  12. Racket Girls
  13. Hoffa
  14. Contraband
  15. Bugsy Malone
  16. Love Me or Leave Me
  17. Murder, Inc.
  18. The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre
  19. Scarface (1983)
  20. The Untouchables
  21. Carlito’s Way
  22. Carlito’s Way: Rise To Power

Murder Me, Murder You (1983, directed by Gary Nelson)


When two employees of an all-female courier service are murdered, Private Investigator Mike Hammer (Stacy Keach) is on the case.  The service was owned by his ex-girlfriend, Chris (Michelle Phillips), and she wants him to protect her while she testifies in front of a grand jury.  It turns out that her courier service has gotten involved in some shady business, transporting deliveries between a helicopter company and a South American dictator.  Chris fears that she’ll be murdered to keep her from testifying.  Hammer agrees to protect her and she tells him that he has a 19 year-old daughter who he’s never met.

While Chris is testifying, she suddenly dies on the stand.  The doctors say that it was a heart attack but Hammer knows that it was murder.  Hammer sets out to not only get revenge for Chris but also to find his daughter, who has disappeared into the world of underground pornography.  It’s all connected though, as is traditional with Mike Hammer, it can sometimes be difficult to keep up with how.

Murder Me, Murder You was a pilot film for a brief-lived but fondly-remembered Mike Hammer TV series that aired in the 80s.  Murder Me, Murder You takes Mickey Spillane’s famous detective into what was then the modern age but it allows him to remain a man of the hard-boiled noir era.  Hammer’s narration is tougher than leather, he’s more interested in listening to swing music than new wave, and he still dresses like an old-fashioned private eye, complete with a fedora on his head.  As played by Stacy Keach, he’s also just as dangerous and quick to kill as Hammer was in Spillane’s original novels.  In the novels, Hammer was an unapologetic brute who often bragged about how much he enjoyed killing criminals and communist spies and whose closest associate was his gun, which he nicknamed Betsy.  When Spillane’s novels were filmed, the violence of Hammer’s character was often downplayed.  (A notable exception was Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, which suggested that Hammer was such a fascist that he would eventually be responsible for the end of the world.  The Mike Hammer of Spillane’s novels would probably dismiss Kiss Me Deadly as being red propaganda and set out to deliver American justice to the Hollywood communists who wrote it.)  In Murder Me, Murder You, Mike Hammer is just as brutal an avenger as Spillane originally imagined him to be.  With his hulking frame, grim eyes, and his surly manner, Stacy Keach is the perfect Mike Hammer.

Murder Me, Murder You is a convoluted and often difficult-to-follow murder mystery but with Keach’s bravura lead performance, a strong supporting cast (including notable tough guys Tom Atkins and Jonathan Banks) and good direction from TV movie vet Gary Nelson, this movie comes about as close as any to capturing the feel of Mickey Spillane’s original novels.  Murder Me, Murder You was released on DVD fourteen years ago.  Though it is now out-of-print, copies are still available on Amazon.

Robots With A Cause: Class of 1999 (1990, directed by Mark L. Lester)


The year is 1999 and John F. Kennedy High School sits in the middle of Seattle’s most dangerous neighborhood.  Teenage gangs have taken over all of the major American cities and just going to school means putting your life in danger.  However, Dr. Bob Forest (Stacy Keach!), the founder of MegaTech, has a solution.  He has taken former military androids and reprogrammed them to serve as educators.  JFK’s principal, Miles Langford (Malcolm McDowell!!), agrees to allow his school to be used a testing ground.  Soon, Miss Conners (Pam Grier!!!) is teaching chemistry.  Mr. Byles (Patrick Kilpatrick) is teaching gym.  Mr. Hardin (John P. Ryan) is teaching history.  When they’re not teaching, these robots are killing truant students and manipulating two rival street gangs into going to war.

Imagine mixing Rebel With A Cause with The Terminator and you get an idea of what Class of 1999 is like.  Two of the only good teenagers (played by Bradley Gregg and Traci Lind) figure out that the teachers are killing their classmates but they already know that they won’t be able to get anyone to listen to them because they’re just kids who go to school in a bad neighborhood.  Meanwhile, the teachers have been programmed to do whatever has to be done to keep the peace in the school.  Why suspend a disruptive student when you can just slam his head into a locker until he’s dead?  Director Mark L. Lester (who previously directed Class of 1984) is an old pro when it comes to movies like this and he’s helped by a better-than-average cast.  Any movie that features not only Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell but also Pam Grier is automatically going to be cooler than any movie that doesn’t.

When Class of 1999 was made, 1999 was considered to be the future and, in many ways, the movie did prove to be prophetic.  We may not have robot teachers (yet) but the idea of arming teachers and expecting them to double as cops has become a very popular one over the past few years.  Personally, I wouldn’t want to send my children to a school where the teachers all have to carry a gun while teaching but that may just be me.

Far Out, Man!: CHEECH & CHONG’S UP IN SMOKE (Paramount 1978)


cracked rear viewer

Hey Man, if you dig crude, vulgar stoner comedy… wait, what was I saying? Oh yeah, Cheech and Chong, man. These two dudes were, like, really cool dudes, and made a lot of records and stuff, and… wait, what was I saying, man? OK, so Cheech and Chong were hippie culture’s answer to Abbott & Costello , and so popular they starred in a series of doper-themed movies, the first being UP IN SMOKE, a film basically about nothing except two burnouts trying to score some weed. C&C play their familiar personas of Pedro and Man, a pair of L.A. hippies floating their way through the world in a perpetual marijuana haze. . Sure, it’s uncouth, sophomoric, and defiantly non-PC, but had me laughing out loud forty years later!

The supporting cast features Stacy Keach as Sgt. Stedenko, a super-narc trying to stamp out drug use, and he’s a straight-edge riot…

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A Movie A Day #315: That Championship Season (1982, directed by Jason Miller)


Four former high school basketball players and their coach gather for a reunion in Pennsylvania.  Twenty-five years ago, they were state champions.  Now, they are all still struggling with the legacy of that championship season.  George (Bruce Dern) is the mayor of Scranton and is in a fierce race for reelection.  Phil (Paul Sorvino) is a wealthy and corrupt businessman who is having an affair with George’s wife.  James (Stacy Keach) is a high school principal who is still struggling to come to terms with his abusive father.  James’s younger brother, Tom (Martin Sheen), is an alcoholic who can not hold down a steady job.  The Coach (Robert Mitchum) remains the Coach.  All four of the men still want his approval, even though they know that he is actually an old bigot who pushed them to cut too many corners on their way to the championship.

Though Cannon film may have been best known for producing action films with actors like Charles Bronson, Chuck Norris, and Michael Dudikoff, they occasionally tried to improve their image with a prestige picture like That Championship Season.  Not only is this film based on Jason Miller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play but Cannon also hired Miller himself to direct.  (Before Miller was brought in, That Championship Season was nearly directed by William Friedkin, who directed Miller in The Exorcist.)  While no one knew the text better than Miller, this was also his directorial debut and sometimes, his inexperience shows.  The first half of the movie does a good job of opening up the play but the second half takes place almost entirely in the Coach’s house and is very stagey, never escaping its theatrical origins.

One thing That Championship Season has going for it is an excellent cast. Dern, Sorvino, Keach, and even Sheen rarely got roles with as much depth as the ones that they got here and four of them make the best of the opportunity.  As for Robert Mitchum, he was known for being a mercurial actor but here, he gives one of the better performances of the latter half of his career.  Because of the efforts of the ensemble, That Championship Season is one of the better Cannon prestige pictures, though Chuck Norris is still missed.

A Movie A Day #130: Doc (1971, directed by Frank Perry)


No, this latest movie a day is not about Lisa and Erin’s cat.

Instead, Doc is yet another retelling of the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Most cinematic depictions of that event present Wyatt Earp as being an upright hero, Doc Holliday as being his roguish friend, and the Clantons as being black hat-wearing villains.  Doc takes the opposite approach.  In this one, Wyatt (Harris Yulin) and his brother are sociopaths whose feud with the Clantons comes down to Ike Clanton’s (Mike Whitney) refusal to bow to their authority.  Wyatt is a coward and a physical weakling, who gets beaten up by Ike and is only saved when his friend, Doc Holliday (Stacy Keach), steps forward to protect him.

In this film, Doc is clearly dying from the minute he first appears.  Not only is Doc so thin that his bride actually carries him over the threshold, he is also constantly coughing.  His misery is only relieved by opium, herbs, and the love of Katie Elder (Faye Dunaway), the prostitute that he wins in a poker game at the start of the film.  Doc would rather just spend his remaining days with Katie but, because of his friendship with Wyatt, he is dragged into the Earp/Clanton fight.

Like most revisionist westerns of the early 1970s, Doc is a heavy-handed metaphor for the Vietnam War, with Wyatt Earp serving as an LBJ/Nixon stand-in and Doc Holliday standing in for all the leaders who enabled them.  It sounds interesting and Stacy Keach gives a good performance but Doc is glacially paced and Harris Yulin is thoroughly miscast as Wyatt.  It takes forever to get to the gunfight and the Doc is so determined to be revisionist that it forgets to be interesting.  Doc is an unfortunate misfire.

Insomnia File #21: Truth (dir by James Vanderbilt)


What’s an Insomnia File? You know how some times you just can’t get any sleep and, at about three in the morning, you’ll find yourself watching whatever you can find on cable? This feature is all about those insomnia-inspired discoveries!

If, last night, you found yourself awake at three in the morning, you could have turned over to Starz and watched the 2015 film, Truth.

I can’t say for sure whether or not Truth would have put you to sleep.  It kept me awake, largely because I was in a state of shock that any movie could be as bad as what I was watching.  Without running the risk of hyperbole, I can say that Truth is one of the worst fucking movies that I’ve ever seen in my entire life.  It’s not just that the film is poorly scripted, inconsistently acted, and directed in the most heavy-handed way possible.  No, the problems with Truth went far beyond mere execution.  Truth is a film with an agenda, one that I kind of agree with, but it’s such a total misfire that it ends up doing more damage to its cause than good.  Truth is meant to be a defense of the much maligned mainstream media but it’s so poorly put together that it’s easy to imagine it being one of Donald Trump’s guilty pleasures.  Remember how all of us musical theater nerds used to hatewatch Smash?  I imagine that the White House staff does the same thing with Truth.

Truth is ostensibly based on a true story.  In 2004, veteran anchorman Dan Rather (played by Robert Redford) reported a story that then-President George W. Bush got preferential treatment while he was serving in the Air National Guard.  This story was considered to be especially big because 1) the Iraq War was deeply unpopular, 2) Bush was in a tight race for reelection, 3) his opponent, John F. Kerry, didn’t have much to offer beyond having served in Vietnam, and 4) questions were being raised about what Kerry actually did in Vietnam.

One of the most important pieces of evidence in Rather’s story were four memos that had been provided by a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Air National Guard, a veteran Bush-hater named Bill Burkett (played, in the film, by Stacy Keach).  Shortly after the story aired, conservative bloggers claimed that the memos were obvious forgeries.  After spending weeks defending the story and haughtily dismissing anyone who didn’t collect an eight-figure paycheck from CBS, Rather admitted on air that the authenticity of the memos could not be verified.  In the wake of the scandal, Rather’s longtime producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), was fired.  Rather retired a year earlier than expected and went on to become one of those reliably dull commentators who occasionally emerges to complain about how the world hasn’t been the same since Adlai Stevenson died.  Mapes later wrote a book, which argued that 1) the memos were authentic and 2) it didn’t actually matter whether they were authentic, even though they like so totally were.

With all the current talk about fake news and whether both the media and Hollywood exist in a bubble, Truth is a film that should be especially relevant but, as previously stated, it’s so clumsy and heavy-handed that it actually does more harm than good.  About halfway through the film, there’s a hilarious scene in which literally the entire country is shown watching 60 Minutes with awe-struck expression on their face.  Children are watching.  Customers in a bar are watching.  The cooking staff in the kitchen pauses in their work to watch the report.  Heroic music rises on the soundtrack.  This scene, with all of its self-important grandeur, pretty much sums up everything that’s wrong with Truth.  It’s one thing to argue that the news media does, should, and must play an important role in American life.  It’s another thing to make your argument by constructing a fantasy world where the entire country plots their lives around watching 60 Minutes.  But that’s the way Vanderbilt directs the entire film.  He’s so high on the fumes of his good intentions that he doesn’t realize his film basically comes across like a parody of those intentions.

Especially in the second half of the film, there’s a lot of speeches about why journalism is important.  And those speeches may actually make a great point but the problem is that none of them convince us that Mary Mapes and Dan Rather didn’t get fooled by some painfully obvious forgeries.  In its laudable effort to defend journalism, Truth makes the mistake of excusing shoddy journalism. When, towards the end of the film, Mapes exclaims that the memos were only a minor part of the overall story and not necessary to prove that Bush got preferential treatment, you want someone to ask her, “If you could prove the story without them, then why did you include these unverifiable documents in the first place, especially considering that they were received from a questionable source?”  But nobody does because none of the film’s saintly characters have been written or portrayed with the nuance necessary to be able to survive a question like that.   Truth‘s problem is that it wants to have it both ways.  “It doesn’t matter that this story was based on obviously fake documents,” Truth says, “And, because Mary Mapes and Dan Rather were sent by God to tell the truth, the obviously fake documents were completely real.”

And then there’s the film’s performers.  Stacy Keach is great as Burkitt and his eccentric performance suggests the film that Truth could have been if it wasn’t so concerned with trying to portray its lead characters as saints.  But then there’s Robert Redford, whose portrayal of Dan Rather has all the nuance and personality of a wax figure.  (Redford wears suspenders.  That’s the extent of his performance.)  As Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett is totally wasted.  She doesn’t really have a character to play, beyond her male director’s conception of what a professional woman is supposed to be like.  (She also has a traumatic back story of abuse, which the film trots out in such a klutzy manner that it’s actually incredibly insulting to real-life abuse victims.)  Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace, and Elisabeth Moss all show up as members of Mapes’s team.  Quaid is playing a military man so he gets to salute in slow motion.  Grace is playing a hipster with a beard so he gets this embarrassing scene where he rants about how he’s being targeted not because of sloppy reporting but because of a corporate conspiracy.  (This was obviously meant to be a huge applause moment but, like a lot of the movie, it doesn’t explain how the progressive cause is helped by shoddy journalism.)  Moss doesn’t get to do anything, other than sit in the background.  To waste a cast of this quality is a crime.

So why did this mostly terrible film get respectful reviews?  Why did Sasha Stone and Jeff Wells insist that Truth was destined to be an Oscar contender?  Call it confirmation bias.  Truth plays to mainstream liberals (which includes the majority of film reviewers) in much the same way that God’s Not Dead 2 plays to Christians.  But just because you agree with a film’s ideology, that doesn’t make it an example of good filmmaking.  While artistic films are often political, it’s rare that political films are ever art.  If every anti-Bush film was an artistic masterpiece, we would be living in a cinematic golden age.

Here’s the thing.  We live in a time when the media is under attack and being used a convenient scapegoat for every bad thing in America. Donald Trump largely won in 2016 by portraying the media as being biased and that’s a charge that will undoubtedly be repeated many times over the next four years.  A heavy-handed mess like Truth doesn’t help anything.

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Previous Insomnia Files:

  1. Story of Mankind
  2. Stag
  3. Love Is A Gun
  4. Nina Takes A Lover
  5. Black Ice
  6. Frogs For Snakes
  7. Fair Game
  8. From The Hip
  9. Born Killers
  10. Eye For An Eye
  11. Summer Catch
  12. Beyond the Law
  13. Spring Broke
  14. Promise
  15. George Wallace
  16. Kill The Messenger
  17. The Suburbans
  18. Only The Strong
  19. Great Expectations
  20. Casual Sex?