TV on DVD: George Wallace (1997) -- Two Disc Special Edition DVD Set

Own the Emmy & Golden Globe Winner
On 1/20/08


"Drama is reality in imaginary circumstances."
-- John Frankenhemier

(As Quoted in Vision and Conflict:
Collaborating on the Wallace Saga
; Disc 2)

Long before "We Know Drama" became TNT's slogan, John Frankenheimer knew drama. He always had a special admiration for works of historical, cultural and political importance, including not just the made-for-television award-winning biopics and true tales that defined the last chapter of his career with the creation of films including Andersonville, The Burning Season, Against, the Wall, and Path to War but as evidenced in his earliest work like The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, The Young Savages, Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May.

A fascinating and politically active man in his own right-- still having never gotten over the haunting feeling of-- as he notes on Disc 2 of George Wallace-- driving his house-guest Robert F. Kennedy to his death at the Ambassador Hotel, as a filmmaker, Frankenheimer paid special attention to all eras but as an audience, we felt that it was never as urgent as when he chronicled his own. Namely, he was at his best when tackling the turbulent era from the '50s through the '70s in the wake of civil rights struggles, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam war, and countless assassinations.

Upon the initial description, it may seem-- much like when we'd heard Oliver stone was taking on first President Nixon and then President George W. Bush-- to be an odd fit to imagine Frankenheimer spending time on the life of controversial segregationist, presidential candidate, and divisive Alabama governor George Corely Wallace but a masterful filmmaker with a penchant for the evolution and development of nearly theatrical acts in his storytelling structure, it's precisely this idea of a friend of R.F.K. having the empathy, fascination, and open-mindedness to do a film without intense judgment or agenda. The result of which made Wallace one of the most critically acclaimed miniseries from 1997.

Earning its star Gary Sinise, his leading lady Mare Winningham and the director an Emmy award for their tremendous achievement, the film also proved to be a hit with the Hollywood Foreign Press, earning the Golden Globe for both Best Miniseries as well as a Best Supporting Actress award for its breakthrough performance by an impossibly young Angelina Jolie in her first major role.

Recounting tales from both the set and their relationship with the deceased director in a wonderful roughly twenty minute extra in which we learn that Frankenheimer considered by Jolie to have been "one of the most influential men in my life." Additionally he was also so esteemed for his willingness to collaborate by actor Gary Sinise (by that time an acclaimed director in his own right with Of Mice and Men) that he and Frankenheimer had actually begun to form a company in the hopes of continuing to develop and create great projects.

Above all, Frankheimer's widow says that while her husband had an overwhelming affinity for political material, his sheer love was for stories about "people coming back against all odds." Obviously, this is epitomized by Wallace whom, Frankenheimer described as a twentieth century Faust who sold his soul to the devil for political gain by aligning with the Klan and inspiring so much racial hatred and destruction that during his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, he survived the five bullets fired at during a harrowing 1972 assassination attempt in Laurel, Maryland which left him wheelchair bound and paralyzed until his death (incidentally one year after the release of the miniseries).

Refusing to simply paint the easily labeled man a "monster "or true villain, Frankenheimer made an intriguing choice along with writers Paul Monash and Marshall Frady who worked from Frady's book to chronicle an extraordinary amount of the man's life, of which most viewers are unfamiliar.

Beginning with the shooting itself, we move back into the man's life back in the '50s when he was known as a left wing idealist tirelessly crusading for an "equal deal for the common folk" under the guidance of his mentor, Alabama's Governor Big Jim Folsom. This particular act of the film ends at the critical point when he breaks free from the civil rights minded Folsom to form a shocking alliance with the powerful Klan in order to secure himself the governor's seat after losing the election his first time out.

Growing increasingly segregationist and easily pliable-- bending to the will of the Klan and his handlers to ensure he stayed in power-- the film moves through the tumultuous '60s which found him taking on Robert F. Kennedy over the battle of letting two African-American college students into the University of Alabama, using horrific tactics to stop Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Birmingham until he begins to make amends for his ways, apologizing and seeking the forgiveness of the African-American community after those fateful bullets changed his life forever.

Proving there are countless acts in one American life and never letting him off the hook (inviting us to make our own decision), the film succeeds mightily due to the tour-de-force of its star Gary Sinise who, understandably admits that-- having just played President Harry Truman and given the film's subject matter-- he wasn't sure he was willing to take on Wallace.

However, when Frankenheimer arrived at his door with books, videos, and endless logic, Sinise eventually gave in and turned in one of his finest performances in a career that honestly-- we've begun to take for granted-- given Sinise's consistently impressive work (that has amazingly never won him an Academy Award).

Offering remarkable praise not only for his director but also Winningham for whom he felt a deep admiration and joy of being able to work with on a daily basis as she portrayed Wallace's first wife Lurleen, he also recalls how impressed he was by the then early twenty-something Jolie with whom he shared an ongoing ethical debate about Wallace in deciding whether he was a racist or an opportunist and ultimately which one of those was worse.

Wallace is filled with Frankeheimer's trademark classical style cinematography. In doing so, the camera team blended both black and white film to replicate some of Wallace's most infamous moments that are forever ingrained in the American memory as he stood in front of the schoolhouse door to prevent two African-American students from entering as well as startling color that matched each specific year.

Capitalizing on Frankenheimer's fondness for big wide frames or more specifically super-tight closeups on the faces of characters, the lensing gives an off-steady balance (especially in crowd or party scenes) when we feel as though we were--like Wallace-- lost in a sea of people that could suddenly turn deadly.

Arriving on DVD for the first time in this two disc special edition from Warner Home Video-- while the technology of the small screen work does make it look a bit grainy in places--perhaps this is more evident when one tunes into Wallace right after watching a 2008 or 2009 DVD or Blu-ray-- it's an immensely fascinating piece filled with integrity that above all, illustrates as Sinise noted, his admission that when it came to Frankenheimer, he'd "never seen a director fight harder to protect the quality of the product" during the film's shoot.

Opting to release the film on DVD especially on January 20, to coincide with as Warner Home Video Vice President of TV and Special Interest Marketing Rosemary Markson revealed, "the inauguration of this country's first African-American president" in order to illustrate "the tremendous strides the United States has made since Wallace's day," to this reviewer the idea of these two items happening concurrently--especially considering that Wallace was still preaching hate less than forty years ago-- makes the DVD an especially valid choice for a high school political science classroom.