Thursday, May 27, 2021

Review: "American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally"


I had not heard of Mildred Gillars, an American erstwhile actress who was a star of the German radio propaganda campaign during World War II and was eventually tried and imprisoned as a traitor -- the first woman ever to be so convicted. Her broadcast moniker was "Axis Sally," though she also went by a few other, less savory nicknames like "The Bitch of Berlin."

Much like the more familiar Tokyo Rose, Sally's broadcasts were a mix of variety show and warning, giving American soldiers a little taste of home while trying to convince them their lives were being thrown away in the war effort.

Her trial in 1949 was a big media event, largely forgotten now. The new drama, "American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally," attempts to revive her infamy with some allusions to today's political strife.

Alas, the movie wavers between saccharine and silly, with Mildred herself played by Meadow Williams as an icy blonde lording it over the courtroom in an homage to Marlene Dietrich in "Witness for the Prosecution." Director Michael Polish, who co-wrote the screenplay with Vance Owen and Darryl Hicks, shoots the thing like a postwar soap opera, all gauzy lighting and syrupy string music.

The only real reason to watch is Al Pacino, who plays her attorney, James Laughlin, a kooky anti-establishment type who is handed the case with the intention to lose. At first I worried that Pacino would just have a cameo, the sort of thing where an aging star is paid a bunch of dough for a tiny role to goose a project's marketability. 

But no, it's a meaty part, and arguably bigger and more consequential than Sally herself. 

In fact, as enjoyable as Pacino is in this, the movie's main shortcoming is his character is far more interesting than hers. Mildred is played as a calculating woman who initially took the Germans' job for prestige, but later found herself trapped by circumstances, unable to leave the country or stop or alter the broadcasts.

The story plays out in a choppy fashion, the trial in 1949 intercut with flashbacks to Mildred's five years doing the broadcast between 1940 and the end of the war. There's also stock war footage thrown in here and there, rather clunkily.

Mildred had two main handlers in Germany: Max Otto Koischwitz (Carsten Norgaard), the German-American director of her radio programs and her fiance, and Joseph Goebbels himself, played by Thomas Kretschmann as a slithering serpent who summons her for threatening debriefs if she changes his script referencing the German army as "unbeatable" instead of "invincible." Indeed, it's depicted that Goebbels personally assaulted Mildred and threatened to kill her.

The romance with Max is an onscreen dud, and the scene where she visits him at his deathbed just this side of parody. Williams has a few solid scenes but also several of amateurish tone deafness.

Mitch Pileggi plays the priggish prosecutor who seems to actually lust for Mildred's blood, while Lala Kent is his right-hand assistant, Elva, who used to work for Pacino's character and seems to have some kind of vendetta against him. He is shown to be a little flirty, though nothing too over-the-top dirtbag for the 1940s.

The perpetual third wheel is Billy Owen (Swen Temmel), an untried attorney and former Marine who signs on to be Laughlin's co-counsel. Though a real figure, his story adds little to Mildred's or Laughlin's, portrayed as a moony idealist who is browbeaten by the attorney and entranced by the defendant. Their jail visit scenes are positively cringe-worthy, with Mildred haughtily rejecting his pleas to help at first, then using her feminine wiles to recruit him as a lifeline to Laughlin when it suits her needs.

Laughlin is an odd egg, wearing shambly suits with his tie knot loosened four inches low, mad-scientist hair and the affect of an ignored genius who knows he's bound to lose against the system but genuinely enjoys jousting at windmills. It's different from other, fiery courtroom scenes Pacino has played in "...And Justice For All" or "Scent of a Woman."

That was angry young Pacino and resentful and still angry middle-aged Pacino, respectively. Here he's a canny old bird who presents himself as folksier and less capable than he really is, content to rope-a-dope with the judge, jury and opposing counsel. We even learn that Laughlin had his own son who lost his life during the war, so clearly he cares more about this case than he lets on.

Honestly, they should've just made it the lawyer's story and kept Sally as this remote, mysterious figure who we never really figure out, sort of like Jeremy Irons in "Reversal of Fortune." The movie they made has the look and feel of a Lifetime Channel historical melodrama, with a central figure who's not empathetic or hateful but just simply... there.

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