Turn Back the Clock

George Wallace

Distributed by: TNT

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


            Some time ago, I watched a Turner Network Television premiere of a movie about a man who stood in the way of integration in 1960s Alabama.  A man truly hated by many people as a stumbling block to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  That man was George Wallace and this film came out in 1997, just a short time before Wallace's death.  I had my feelings about the man before seeing the movie, but the dramatic portrayal of George Wallace on TNT taught me a thing or two.  I thought the acting and the story so good that I had to purchase a copy of it on DVD.

            In George Wallace, we meet the politician (Gary Sinise) in the early 1970s as he sets out on a campaign to become the next President of the United States.  By his side is Cornelia(Angelina Jolie), his much younger, energetic and supportive wife.  We meet Wallace on the fateful day in 1972 when Arthur Bremer (Scott Brantley) made his assassination attempt on Wallace, shooting him five times before being subdued.  After Wallace is told that he is paralyzed from the waist down, will never walk again and will be in pain for the rest of his life, Wallace begins to reflect on his past.

            Through flashbacks, we see Wallace's rise to power on the coattails of his mentor Big Jim Folsom (Joe Don Baker), the newly elected Governor of Alabama.  In a private meeting with George, Jim discusses their views on racial issues and Jim urges George to stay the path.  Jim cautions George that doing the right thing is not the same as doing the popular thing and that George should never be afraid to hold his ground on what he believes is right. 

            This is foreshadowing of events to come, because George Wallace's first bid for the Governor's Mansion is lost after he denounces the Klu Klux Klan and their views on racial inequality.  From that moment forward, Wallace decides to make a deal with the devil, supporting segregation and fighting the Civil Rights Movement at every turn, gaining the popular vote, but at the same time throwing away his own beliefs and the things he used to stand for.

            To me, it is too little too late for George Wallace to repent his ways a decade after the assassination attempt on his life.  All the lives lost in support of his views as Governor will never be brought back and, although I never knew the man, I wonder if he was only sorry for what he did because of what he eventually suffered through and not because he actually repented his actions.

            The TNT movie is incredibly thought provoking.  Gary Sinise is incredibly believable as George Wallace, a man so focused on achieving his goals that he was willing to make a Faustian deal in order to obtain them.  Sinise portrayed a duality in Wallace that helped the viewer get to know the man behind the inflammatory segregation rhetoric.  I liked the fact that Sinise and John Frankenheimer showed us Wallace from every angle without trying to make him someone we would hate or someone we would feel sorry for.  In fact, the goal was to leave Wallace open for interpretation - to allow the audience to decide whether or not this man deserves forgiveness.

            There were some very strong acting performances - by Sinise of course, but also by a very young Angelina Jolie as Wallace's second wife, Joe Don Baker as Big Jim Folsom and Mare Winningham as Wallace's first and incredibly supportive wife and mother of Wallace's children.  I marveled at how Lurleen Wallace could support a man whose views so drastically changed to fit the bill for his goals.  I also was amazed at all she was willing to go through just to make certain that her husband achieved those goals - staying with him through infidelity, standing by him despite what his political aspirations took away from their marriage and even running for Governor of Alabama to keep the Wallace name in the mind of voters despite suffering from ovarian cancer.

            Another incredibly strong acting performance came from Clarence Williams III for his portrayal of fictional character Archie, a trustee working at the Governor's Mansion.  The role of Archie was created to represent the feelings of the African Americans who suffered through segregation and degradation perpetrated on them at the time.  He also served to represent the mixed feelings amongst the people as to how to deal with someone like Wallace.  His powerful performance deserved a supporting actor award nomination and I am heartily surprised that he did not receive one.  Those of you who remember (I am dating myself) Williams III from the original Mod Squad would never have imagined such an amazing performance, turning a fictional character created to enhance a biographical film into a believably realistic individual.         

            The DVD version of the film I purchased featured a documentary on the making of the film, Vision and Conflict: Collaborating on the Wallace Saga with commentary by Gary Sinise, Angelina Jolie, Mare Winningham, John Frankenheimer, Frankenheimer's wife and more.  I loved getting this insider's look at the film in its conceptual stage, how it was approached by the director and actors and the making of the film itself. 

            While the younger generation may not have a clue as to who George Wallace is, those who lived through the Civil Rights Movement and those who study American History know his part in it.  The makers of George Wallace didn't just want the viewers to know the side of the man seen on television, but the entire man's life - what made him the way he was during the 60s and 70s and what he eventually became.  Thus, Director John Frankenheimer, set out to create a well-rounded film about George Wallace and he chose Gary Sinise to be his star and, in my opinion, he succeeded mightily.


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