May 21, 2012

Give me a screenplay about a woman fighting for truth and justice in a government scandal, against all odds and by herself, and I’ll give you the latest Oscar vehicle for Sally Field, Jessica Lange, Meryl Streep, or Sissy Spacek.

Well, Streep and Lange were busy, and Field may have the good sense to know she’s done this role enough times, so the part fell to Sissy Spacek. This time it’s called Marie, and the government corruption depicted purports to be the real-life story of the Ray Blanton administration in Tennessee in the 1970s, and of the parole board officer who helped expose the scandal.

Based on Peter Maas’s book (adapted by John Briley), Marie tells the story of a divorced housewife (Sissy Spacek) who bagged a job as parole board officer during Gov. Blanton’s term. As the film tells it, Marie was advanced to her position because it was expected she would play ball and shut up while the governor and his boys were allowing prisoners to buy their way out of jail.

Naturally, Marie wises up pretty quickly, although she finds herself in a bind. She owes her well-paying job and her loyalty to one of the governor’s most corrupt aides (Jeff Daniels), and she’s trying to raise her three children by herself. Eventually, after murder enters into the story, she blows the whistle—and risks losing everything, unless she can be exonerated in a courtroom battle with the governor and his big guns.

By the time these courtroom scenes roll around, the audience has no doubts about Marie’s goodness. Not only is she squeaky-clean when it comes to her job, she’s also Supermom, and she’s had to go through a harrowing medical problem with her youngest boy, which involved him swallowing a pistachio nut and having breathing problems thereafter. It’s a rather weird subplot—it’s all true, of course—and is not terribly well integrated into the bigger story.

If we are completely on Marie’s side, the trial is nevertheless a perfunctory affair. The strange thing is that the evidence that Marie provides is not all that strong, which somewhat undercuts the credibility of the film. (By the way, the trial contains dialogue such as, “Gentlemen, need I remind you this is a court of law?”, which suggests that the judge—or the scriptwriter—has watched a lot of courtroom movies.)

Roger Donaldson, who directed the compelling Smash Palace a couple of years back, is good at working up suspense, and at creating little riffs of tension. But he doesn’t bring together the various pieces of plot here, and he really stacks the deck when characterizing the heroes and the villains.

Spacek is okay, but she plays too much into the saintliness of the role. Still, it is hard to imagine what she might have done to make the film less familiar than it seems. The echoes of Norma Rae, Silkwood, Country, and The River are just a little too much to bear one more time around.

First published in the Herald, October 19, 1985

This period saw quite a run of legal pictures, which used the sure-fire third-act courtroom showdown to predictable effect. Nothing against Spacek here, but this is a really dull picture.