Monday, April 18, 2011

Alleged review

I've mentioned the new Scopes trial movie "Alleged" several times now on my blog (here and here), which led to emails from the producer and publicist of the movie asking me if I wanted a screener to review. I've now seen the movie twice, once with my wife, and once with Bryan College's resident Scopes trial expert. I think it's a mixed bag. I should warn you now that this review will contain SPOILERS, so if you don't want to know what happens in the film, stop reading now.

In an interview published by the Flint News, producer and writer of "Alleged" Fred Foote stated,
My original version was very fixated on showing every little detail I thought was wrong in the old movie [Inherit the Wind]. Then I realized storytelling isn’t about correcting someone else’s story. It’s about telling your own story... That’s when I forgot all about 'Inherit the Wind’ and made it about how the media gave the whole world the wrong story about the Scopes trial.
That really kind of sums up the movie. The Scopes trial is really more of a backdrop for the main story (let's call it Storyline A) of how small-town newspaperman Charles Anderson (an entirely fictional character played by Nathan West) was enticed by the promise of a big-city job with the Baltimore Sun, but only if he adopts H.L. Mencken's (Colm Meaney) unethical writing habits and distorts his reporting of the trial. In Storyline B, there's a little romance thrown in to bring Anderson back to the straight and narrow in the end, and if that's not enough, there's a fourth storyline involving a "half-breed" girl who is supposed to be forcibly sterilized because of her low IQ, which I think is there to illustrate what "Social Darwinism" was up to in the 1920s.

To my delight, this is not an awful movie. It's actually pretty watchable. It's directed competently, edited well, and the music's fine. Technically, this is definitely on par with most feature-length period dramas. It's not overly artistic directing; it's more similar to something made for TV than a feature film. The actors did well, particularly Colm Meaney and Ashley Johnson (playing Anderson's love interest Rose Williams). Meany has some pretty nasty lines, but he underplays his part and I think that made it more believable. The Mencken character could come across as a moustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash, but Meaney's performance prevents that. Johnson also plays her part with a quiet dignity, and she just comes across as really likable. Check out this scene with Johnson and Meaney:



Brian Dennehy and Fred Thompson also get top billing, playing Darrow and Bryan respectively, but they have comparatively minor roles in Storyline C: The Actual Trial. To be honest, I thought Thompson was the weakest of all the actors (my wife said, "He's just playing Fred Thompson, like he did on Law & Order!"). Dennehy's kind of neat to watch as Darrow, especially in the scenes where Darrow strategizes about what he'll do in court.

If my review sounds kind of surprised at how not terrible this movie is, we can chalk that up to my skepticism of amateur movie productions. Too often these personal hobby horse movies end up nearly unwatchable in their technical incompetence or overbearing ideology. When I first read about "Alleged" and learned about Fred Foote's writing and producing the movie financed by his own family foundation, I figured it was going to be yet another unwatchable mess. I was wrong. It's actually kind of entertaining.

But that's not to say it's a good movie. The weakest part of the entire film is unquestionably the script, which frequently reveals its amateur and ideological roots. It's definitely not a character-driven story. Instead, the characters get shuffled around to serve both the plot and the ideology behind it. For example, Anderson's first interactions with Mencken on screen are unfavorable to say the least. Mencken looks at articles Anderson has written and calls them "mush" and "malarkey," and then Anderson misses an appointment with Mencken when he's canoodling with Rose instead. Next thing you know, out of the blue, Mencken gives Anderson a job at the Baltimore Sun and starts talking about his natural talent. Where did that come from? I guess it provides a platform to explain how the media biased the historical reality of the trial, but otherwise I'm surprised Mencken didn't get whiplash from that abrupt plot twist.

As the movie proceeds, the plot turns get more and more unbelievable. For no apparent reason, Anderson starts following Mencken's advice, apparently without any concern for how unethical it is or how much it upsets his girlfriend. Despite alienating his girlfriend with his behavior, she goes ahead and accepts his marriage proposal, which she soon regrets. The most unbelievable twist comes in Storyline D: The Eugenics Plot. As I said, this storyline appears tacked on merely to tie the forced sterilization laws of eugenics to the social Darwinist agenda of the day. The storyline has Rose's half-sister Abigail resident at a home for the "feebleminded," where her uncle, a doctor and some kind of official at the home, wants to sterilize her because her IQ is low and her mother committed suicide. For some reason, her uncle can't sterilize her until her legal guardian Rose signs off on the procedure. "If you sign the papers, your sister can go home with you in a few days," says the evil doctor, so Rose finally signs. Then the bizarre twist comes: After Anderson sees the error of his ways, he gets Darrow to help him get an injunction stopping the sterilization of Abigail. Are you kidding me? First of all, how in the world could you get a judge to intervene on a medical procedure prescribed by a doctor and authorized by the patient's legal guardian? And not just any procedure but a sterilization that pretty much everyone in those days thought was morally right? And not just morally right but sufficiently necessary to pass laws enforcing such sterilization?  And you want me to believe that Clarence Darrow of all people helped get this injunction? I don't think so. The entirety of Storyline D seems forced in to serve the ideological purposes of the movie while at the same time giving us a "happy ending" suitable to the political sensibilities of 21st century viewers.

Speaking of ideological purposes, they're pretty obvious from the very start. The movie's opening voiceover describes Darrow as "defending murderers and railing against fundamentalist Christianity," while Bryan "fought for the Bible, the working man, and women's rights." Since the voiceover was done by Anderson, I was willing to overlook it as part of his character development, but more obvious examples of bias soon surfaced. In the scene where Darrow questions Bryan, "Alleged" portrays the following exchange:
Darrow: Do you believe that everything in the Bible should be accepted literally?
Bryan: No, sir. Some of the Bible is clearly intended to be understood figuratively.
Darrow: Well, don't you think that the world was created in six days, for instance?
Bryan: No, I do not.
Darrow: Well, the Bible says it was.
Bryan: I do not think that the Bible insists that those were 24-hour days. Some men differ. I believe that they were long periods of time.
Darrow: You do not!
Ending the scene there makes Bryan sound like much less of a "Bible thumper" than he might otherwise appear had they included Bryan's affirmation of the historicity of a big fish swallowing Jonah, Joshua commanding the sun to stand still, the global flood in Noah's day, and the Tower of Babel.

The anti-evolution ideology is pretty obvious too. In addition to connecting the excesses of eugenics to Darwin, the evidence for evolution is presented as flimsy. In one scene, as Darrow strategizes with his expert witnesses, we hear this exchange:
Darrow: How much fossil evidence is there really for evolution?
Mencken: From the standpoint of the skeptic?
Darrow: From the standpoint of the average American, yes.
Mencken: What I've seen here today, William Jennings Bryan could pick the entire fossil history of mankind up with his buttcheeks in one squat!
Darrow [laughing]: I agree.
At the conclusion of the movie, we get little slides that tell us more about the outcome of the story. We're told that Nebraska Man was determined to be a pig tooth shortly after the trial, but no mention is made of the increasing quantity and quality of Australopithecus fossil discoveries, mentioned in the movie as Java Man. Thus, the unsuspecting viewer is left with the impression that the evidence of human evolution really could fit in Bryan's butt crack.

So "Alleged" is not a terrible movie, but it's not a very good movie either. It's definitely been worked into a watchable film, but its amateur and ideological roots are pretty obvious when you look for them. The main virtue of the film is how much closer to the events of the actual trial it comes than Inherit the Wind. Given the ideology behind it, though, I'm not sure "Alleged" is any less biased than its more famous predecessor. It's just biased in the other direction.

As of this writing, "Alleged" can be seen at the Boston International Film Festival on April 23 (schedule here), and it's scheduled to open the Charleston International Film Festival on May 18 (schedule here). Visit the "Alleged" website at allegedthemovie.com.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com.