Absence of Malice (1981)

The story of Paul Newman’s 1981 film Fort Apache, The Bronx is far more interesting than the film itself. When Newman suited up as a police officer in the South Bronx for a film about his ongoing fight for justice in the toughest neighborhood in the city, the context was a little too close for comfort: in the nine months preceding the filming of Fort Apache, at least twelve unarmed black and Puerto Rican individuals were killed by police officers throughout NYC (this is 1981, the most violent year of A Most Violent Year). The staunch opposition to the film saw massive protests, riots, a lawsuit and the formation of the Committee Against Fort Apache, all geared toward the halting of a film that many perceived to be defamatory and racist. Fort Apache got made, but it was one of the more dangerous film productions in the city’s history.

Newman himself got a big slice of Defamation Pie, too, courtesy of The New York Post. After reading the printed “facts” that Newman claimed were nothing of the sort, the actor accused the paper of “irresponsible journalism” and eventually referred to the Post as a “garbage can”. The paper ran a piece called “What Paul Didn’t Tell Us About Fort Apache” in the days following, and the dispute went in circles from there — people blamed the filmmakers for racism and defamation, Newman blamed the newspapers for false reporting and defamation, and film critics blamed Fort Apache, The Bronx for being kind of a shitty movie anyway. Paul Newman felt strongly about the journalistic integrity issues he encountered, and ultimately his extremely charitable history and consistent care for the underprivileged outweighed anything the Post said about him.

But that wasn’t enough for Newman, to just let things slide back to where they’d been before, and so he made Absence of Malice. The entire plot of the film is just that: a man named Gallagher is disparaged in a newspaper article for involvement in a kidnapping/murder, and his life unravels from there. He’s not involved in the crime (nor any crime), but his father is a known criminal and, according to the Miami Standard, he has intimate knowledge of the less-than-legal workings of his family’s criminal empire. There’s no truth to that. Gallagher starts losing business and is forced to contend with union strikes in the wake of the article, and things get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Newman’s point is the theme of Absence of Malice: news media isn’t “evil” any more than cops are, or lawyers, or District Attorneys, or Regular Joes — but they’re not any less. There’s a standard that must be upheld, one that has less to do with the law and more to do with what’s right. A thing can be accurate while simultaneously being untrue. Gallagher watches helplessly as his life gets torn down around him, until eventually he turns the tables and uses the media’s own tools against them. Malice is never so bold, though, never really allowing anyone ultimate villainy. It doesn’t say “reporters are evil”, but it does say “from time to time, this unacceptable thing happens”.

And for the most part it’s an enjoyable film. Newman is…well, Paul Newman, flaring into anger with increasing frequency as Gallagher gets driven deeper and deeper. Sally Field is fine as reporter Megan Carter (though underwritten — more on that shortly). And sometime Sydney Pollack collaborator Wilford Brimley, of all people, steals the show in his single scene as the most no-nonsense prosecutor in cinematic history. Being the most watchable actor in the room is one thing, but being the most watchable actor in a room containing Paul Newman is something else entirely.

Malice is weakest in its direction, and it seems the least distinctive of any of Pollack’s films from the period. The Redford-starrers Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor, and even The Electric Horseman are all more memorable, as are Pollack’s next films Tootsie and Out of Africa. Ostensibly, the aim of Malice is to deromanticize the profession of newspapermen (and -women) as seen in films like All the President’s Men (and, though it came a year after Malice, Peter Weir‘s masterful The Year of Living Dangerously). Reporters are humans, and though humans can be whistleblowing heroes from time to time they can also just be plain old humans. Sally Field’s Carter is the latter tempted by the prospect of becoming the former, but for the most part her character is portrayed unevenly. She falls for Paul Newman’s Gallagher (understandable, sure: it’s Newman) and their attraction detracts from the attempt at making her a standalone character. Who’d have thunk romance would detract from deromanticization?

Absence of Malice is still a good movie, despite whatever flat direction or uneven writing we might associate with it. The backstory is just as compelling, and watching Malice with Newman’s personal motivations in mind makes his performance all the more believable. Pollack’s The Electric Horseman would be compromised by a similarly misplaced focus on the romantic elements of the story, but he’d soon find the sweet spot that would allow those elements to be more fully realized within the greater dramatic context.

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