Friday, August 27, 2010

Absence of Malice (1981)

By Nicholas Stix
April 21, 2006


When I was a boy, for better or worse, I knew lots of policemen. But one man stood out. We weren’t that close, but I saw him enough, and heard enough from him, to know that he was…a hero. And that was even before that special day.

The most heroic deed he ever did as a cop was the day in 1975 when he had to confront a shotgun-wielding man who was holding an entire street hostage. The officer told the man to drop the gun, gave him enough time to do so, and when he didn’t, he shot him. Dead.

Although the shooting was by the book, and the officer had, while risking his own life, rescued the neighborhood, the local newspaper sought to destroy him. The policeman’s problem was that he was white, and the bad guy was black. Logically and morally speaking, if anything, that made him even more heroic. Black cops consider it their birthright to control black communities, and expect and get accolades just for showing up for work, without facing off against men with shotguns.

Conversely, a white officer who puts his life on the line saving black lives gets no payoff, no thanks, and is lucky if he doesn't get railroaded to prison, as veteran, decorated Detroit cops Walter Budzyn and Larry Nevers found out the hard way. Given the routine racial profiling of white policemen, he knows that he’s more likely to be called a “racist murderer,” and prosecuted, than heralded a hero. He has to be motivated by pure duty and pride in his job.

A reporter at the local newspaper decided to destroy the cop. She fabricated a story, in which 27 anonymous blacks supposedly claimed to have heard him utter racist epithets. I’d seen the man in situations, both with black folks in public and with me in private, where, if he were that kind of a guy, he would have said something…but he didn’t. Ever.

The newspaper also assembled some racist demagogues, who claimed to be the local NAACP. Problem was, there was no local branch of the NAACP, and I knew the demagogues. They were my bosses at my part-time job. I didn't work for the NAACP; I was a token white in a federally funded, black supremacist youth program.

Fifteen years later, I ran into a young cop parked in a squad car with his older, veteran partner in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. It was a cold day. They didn’t have anywhere to go, and neither did I, so we talked about this and that. It turned out that the young policeman knew the cop from my childhood. “He was a hero to me,” I said. “He was a hero to a lot of guys,” responded the young cop.

The young guy told me about what happened to my hero at the end of his career. He got a call that was an ambush, and was beaten almost to death. That the attack was racial, was a given.

That was at least in part thanks to the racist frame-job by that newspaper and that reporter.

In case you’re wondering why I haven’t yet named the offender, it’s because I haven’t finished retracing the tracks from 30 years ago. When I have, I’ll let you know.

Truth be told, that frame-job probably had a lot to do with my ending up as both a journalist and a scourge of bad journalists.

There are millions of people in this country who have either been deliberately harmed by “news” people, or know someone who was. Absence of Malice was made with them in mind.

Set in Miami, Absence of Malice is about a good man, “Michael Colin Gallagher” (Paul Newman), who happens to be the son of a dead gangster. (Not a saint, but an honorable man – and a very smart one.) “Elliott Rosen” (Bob Balaban), an unscrupulous federal prosecutor who has hit a dead-end trying to solve the disappearance and almost certain murder of a labor union organizer, seeks to shake the trees by deceiving an ambitious reporter, “Megan Carter” (Sally Field), into believing that the prosecutor is investigating Gallagher for the murder. Rosen hopes to coerce Gallagher into using his father’s mob ties to find out who the real killer was, into telling Rosen the killer's identity, and then into letting himself be the newest star of the federal witness protection program.

So, using Carter, Rosen sets out to destroy Gallagher. That much I can reveal, without giving away the story.

You’ll be surprised to see that this Sidney Lumet-sounding (12 Angry Men, Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, The Prince of the City, The Verdict) picture was actually produced and directed by Sydney Pollack, famous for more glamorous vehicles and period pieces (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They; The Way We Were; Tootsie; Out of Africa). Maybe the two Si/ydneys are really the same guy. Has anyone ever seen them in a room together? I’ll bet he thought he’d fool me, by spelling his first name differently in each case. Nice try! There’s no moss growing on my back!

To return to our feature, Gallagher isn’t the only one that gets thrown into the meat grinder. And therein hangs the tale. For Carter’s editor, “McAdam” (Josef Sommer) — no first name — is just as unscrupulous as Rosen is.

And that’s all the particulars I can give you, without ruining the story. Except to say that the story will break your heart, and leave you with one unforgettable image.

The title refers to the threshold that, since the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan exempts a news organization from civil penalties if it botches a story, and results in harming someone. Actually, the Sullivan decision only applied to public officials, but it seems to have since been expanded in practice to cover private persons, as well. (“Held: A State cannot under the First and Fourteenth Amendments award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves ‘actual malice’ - that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”)

In an exceptional 1996 case, Richard Jewell made the law work. Jewell was the Olympic security guard who saved countless lives when he found a pipe bomb domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph had left in a backpack in Atlanta’s Olympic Park in 1996. Jewell cleared the area of thousands of people, but not before one person was killed and over 100 were wounded in the blast. Instead of being hailed a hero, Jewell was treated as if he were the bomber by the media, based in part on an FBI leak and in part on a defamatory telephone call from a previous employer. But Jewell turned the tables on his tormentors, got the U.S. Attorney, in a rare move, to formally clear him, and ended up making his tormentors pay him approximately $1,000,000 in settlements for defaming him.

In fact, news organizations proceed with malice all the time, but the Westmoreland case against CBS News notwithstanding, for a public figure to prove that in a court of law is almost impossible.

The premise of this picture is, What if an unscrupulous big-city newspaper (pardon the redundancy) and prosecutor (ditto) picked on someone who not only was every bit as tough as they were, but infinitely smarter?

Although I’d seen her in Gidget, forty years ago, and The Flying Nun in the early 1970s, with the passage of time, I’d forgotten just how gorgeous the young Sally Field was. I’d also forgotten how well she could act, when she and her director both respected her limitations.

Newman is very good here, but not great. (In spite of his gray hair, the 56-year-old Newman is physically believable as a 47-year-old man, with one caveat: his arms. He had old-man arms). That he was up for best actor for this role is due to it having been a bad year, and to the Motion Picture Academy’s desperate desire to reward him for his great earlier performances. The following year, Newman gave a great performance in Lumet/Pollack’s The Verdict, and was again nominated, but lost out to Ben Kingsley for Gandhi (as did Lumet/Pollock’s The Verdict and Pollock/Lumet’s Tootsie, respectively, for Best Picture).

In 1986, Newman gave a lousy performance in The Color of Money, but the Academy, tired of waiting to crown him, nominated him and delivered him his Oscar. (He recovered, and gave a great performance in 1994's Nobody's Fool, but by then, the deed had been done.)

As the newspaper editor, McAdam, Josef Sommers is excellent in the sort of role — unscrupulous authority figure (think Witness) — that in middle-age would become his bread-and-butter. And Melinda Dillon (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Sounds of Glory, The Prince of Tides), one of the greatest actresses you've probably never heard of, is marvelous (she was up for Best Supporting Actress) as "Theresa Pirrone."

Like most good movies from 20 or more years ago, this one couldn’t be made today. Newman plays a man with machismo and an old-fashioned sense of honor (not unlike, come to think of it…Paul Newman). A role like that would today serve as a punch-line, a sad sap who serves only to have a lesson taught him by the feminist star. But in this case, it is the feminist, modern woman, who learns from the old hand. And that is just as it ought to be.

Also like most good movies 20 or more (or is that 40 or more?) years ago, this is a movie that you can watch with a fairly young child. With HBO, I have gotten to the point where I never watch a movie, unless my son is sound asleep. Otherwise, in the middle of an engrossing picture, the characters suddenly start dropping “f” bombs, and I have to shut off the TV.

There is one modestly violent man-woman scene, but nothing that would shock a child over three years of age from an intact, healthy family. And the scene is justified within the framework of the story.

There are only two irritating aspects, in my estimation, to this movie. One is a cheesy, TV movie-style musical score by the usually dependable Dave Grusin. My other, more substantial beef, relates to how the early tragedy is set up. The newspaper reveals a source’s identity in a way that I don’t believe a real paper would have done.

Perhaps Pollack/Lumet did this to avoid being too polemical, but I found Sally Field’s Megan Carter to be too decent to be what passed in newsrooms, already in 1981, for a hard-charging reporter. And yet, had the movie been more accurate about the reporting business, it would have been too morally lopsided to be a good drama. We have to like Field, really like her. And I do.


Anonymous said...

I watched the DVD of my favorite Paul Newman movie, "Harper" (1966), again a few days ago. The commentary by screenwriter William Goldman is worth listening too, as well. Goldman said we probably won't see another one like it.

"Harper" was based on the Ross MacDonald novel, "The Moving Target." Newman had the character's name changed from Lew Archer to Lew Harper, befitting Newman's preference for the letter H.

Private detective movies are not exactly realistic. Have you ever heard of a PI solving a murder? Paul Newman's performance makes it work. He takes the part and runs with it.

It is also fun to see how LA County is represented in 1966.

David In TN

Old Rebel said...

Speaking of the malice of reporters, have you read Death by Journalism?

Nicholas said...


I can't believe that I saw Harper when I was only [classified]. But I remember loving it, and somehow recall the surprise ending, which I won't spoil here for readers who have yet to see this classic, and that a still gorgeous Betty Bacall was in it, for reasons that are now obvious to me.

Of course, Newman was then at the height of his dramatic powers, and of his powers of judgment at script-picking.

I'll have to see it again soon.

Nicholas said...

Old Reb,

No, I haven't yet read the book, but I thank you kindly for the link, which I read with grief.

I did some digging beyond that, and among other material, found a strong book review at Lew Rockwell.

I appreciate what a really big case this is, and how it neatly parallels both what that alleged reporter did to my policeman-hero, and what a young Mary Mapes once did to a white Seattle cop, to get her first taste of blood.