By Marc S. Sanders
Maybe more often than not, the films I see about journalism seem to convey the reporters as heroes seeking the truth despite the threats and the strict laws of the first Amendment and so on. They meet informants in dark garages and outrun speeding cars trying to run them down before the story hits the papers. They accept being held in contempt of court to avoid revealing a source. They’re heroes!!!! It’s movie stuff, right? We’ve seen it all before. What about films where the newspaper writer gets it wrong from the start, and then sees the ramifications of the recklessness committed? Absence of Malice, from 1981, is that kind of picture.
Sally Field is a hungry thirty something reporter named Megan Carter with connections in the Miami prosecutor’s office. When she gets a whiff of a story that implies a man named Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) is the prime suspect in the disappearance of union head, she runs with it and her editor is happy to make it front page news. However, just because Mr. Gallagher is the son of a deceased and reputed bootlegger with mob connections doesn’t make him guilty of anything. Also, has an investigation into his affairs even begun to happen yet? Just because it walks like a duck, well….
Sydney Pollack goes pretty light on a serious subject matter here. It’s just awful to see a film legend like Newman be a cold blooded killer. Worse, it’s beyond reason to see Sally Field as a woman without scruples. They’re too likable. So, Pollack with Kurt Luedtke’s Oscar nominated screenplay, play it safe. Forty years ago, when this film came out, I might have accepted what’s on the surface with Absence of Malice. Today, however, I appreciate the conundrum, but the residual effects offered up by the film never seem to carry much weight. The stress doesn’t show enough on Newman and Field. A suicide of another pertinent character hardly seems monumental to either of them. Heck, there’s even time for romance between the two leads despite the slander committed by one against the other. Another film by Pollack, Three Days Of The Condor, committed this same mistake. It’s hard to accept a romantic angle when the characters barely know each other and what they do know of one another is hardly favorable for each of them. I can imagine the marketing campaign for this ahead of the film’s release. If you got “Blue Eyes” and “The Flying Nun” in a film together, well then, they gotta hook up and never, ever make them ruthless. Audiences would hate that!!!!
The film reserves the shiftiness of the situation for other actors in the film like Bob Balaban. He certainly plays the part well as a manipulator in search of a guilty party, even if it means indicting an innocent person. The best surprise is the appearance of Wilford Brimley in the big close out scene who sums what has occurred and then lays out who is responsible for what and who is not responsible. It’s the best written role in the film and it reminds me what a shame it is that Brimley did not get any Oscar recognition during his career. (I still say he was one of the greatest unsung villains in film for his turn in Pollack’s The Firm.)
Even the soundtrack music from Dave Grusin feels inappropriate here. It’s too energetic and full of life with piano and trumpets. When you consider the term “absence of malice” and what it means to a reporter questioning her journalistic integrity, and then furthermore what significance it has to a newspaper article’s bystander, it seems to hold a lot of weight with disastrous repercussions. Grusin’s music says otherwise.
It’s always a pleasure to go back and watch Paul Newman, and Sally Field in her early career. These are great actors. They do fine here, but the material is not sharp enough for what they can do. They’re too relaxed. On the other hand, the subject matter is perfect for heightened movie drama. I can only imagine what Sidney Lumet would have done with this picture, considering films like Network, Serpico and The Verdict. The execution of Pollack’s film simply does not live up to the terrible dilemma of an innocent man being publicly smeared. Think about it. At the end of Absence of Malice, I don’t think the intent is to wish and hope and yearn for Paul Newman and Sally Field to sail away on his beautiful boat into the sunset. Yet, that’s what Pollack and Luedtke seem to have left us with.