George Wallace

It's hard to believe that it took this long for someone to mount a biopic on a figure as controversial as the Honorable George C. Wallace, a legendary symbol of Southern-fried racism and white political oppression who soared to national prominence in the 1960s on a platform of bigotry. To illustrate the man properly, producer-director John Frankenheimer has mounted a quality production, at once visually stirring and factually ambiguous, that leaves the audience groping for answers. What in his past drove Wallace to be who he was and do what he did? What was his childhood like? What was his relationship with his kids (whom we never see)? And where exactly do fact and fiction part company in a movie preceded by the disclaimer, "Certain events, characters and dialogue have ... been created or altered for dramatic purposes"? Does this mean that Frankenheimer and writers Marshall Frady and Paul Monash have turned Wallace into a pitiable, contrite figure at the end strictly to tie up his story nicely?

Indeed, what is missing from the four-hour TNT mini “George Wallace” is the kind of subtext that could have painted Wallace as more than a series of decisions and simmering emotions unaccompanied by an evident past. As terrific as Gary Sinise is in portraying Wallace — and he is magnificent — the actor rarely is able to convey what made this complex guy tick.

Mini tells the story of the four-term governor of Alabama from 1955, when he was a wily state circuit judge, to 1974, two years after he was paralyzed by a would-be assassin’s bullet while campaigning for the presidency. The 20-year window charts Wallace’s segregationist-fueled rise and pathetic, bedridden fall.

The moral: Being confined to a wheelchair goes a long way toward making a guy rethink his racist views.

Docudrama, based on Frady’s decidedly unflattering biography, “Wallace,” jumps around a lot between eras and color schemes (both skin tone and film stock). During the opening half-hour, scene shifts from 1972 and the assassination attempt back to 1955, then forward again to ’72, then back to ’58. Follow the bouncing time frame.

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Opening two-hour seg moves between Wallace’s formative political years and his embittered later life, hinting at womanizing and workaholism. But the racism that would tarnish Wallace’s legacy — climaxed by his infamous blocking of the entrance at the U. of Alabama to prevent the first black students from attending in 1963 — would not come until later.

As Monash and Frady tell the story, Wallace was more of a liberal and a civil rights supporter until he lost the 1958 Alabama gubernatorial election after publicly opposing the Ku Klux Klan. He then defiantly wrapped himself in the race issue and became a hard-line segregationist.

Frankenheimer orchestrates some impeccable cinematography and pacing, managing to blend seamlessly the color and black and white sections, despite frequent switching between the two (with B&W used during historical moments to lend a docu look). The risky gambit mostly works, though inserting Sinise in actual archival footage sometimes gives him a certain Leonard Zelig-like appearance.

Part two slows to a crawl (as is often the case in four-hour minis) after a graphically staged reenactment of a hostile demonstration against a Wallace speech at Harvard. The country begins turning against Wallace; his wife, Lurleen, dies (curiously, without kids at the bedside); and Wallace rejects forever the mentor whose heart he broke by turning race-baiter: Big Jim Fulsom.

Sinise, who puts on a surprisingly effective Southern drawl, turns in an extraordinary performance that shows Wallace to be more a driven opportunist than a contemptible bigot. As his devoted, long-suffering first wife, Lurleen, Mare Winningham lends her usual capable support, with Joe Don Baker (as former Alabama Gov. Big Jim Fulsom) making a large impact in a small role.

Yet it is former “Mod Squad” regular Clarence Williams III who nearly steals “George Wallace,” portraying Wallace’s devoted, quietly resentful, emotionally tormented manservant, Archie (who is shown at one point contemplating murdering Wallace with an ice pick). Williams manages with a teary-eyed look to evoke streams of empathy; it is likely his finest work.

What’s disturbing about this is one simple fact: Archie never existed. He is one of those elements created “for dramatic purposes,” the Negro conscience of the time rolled into one handy composite. As effective as the character is, then, his very presence ultimately serves to mislead.

Patty Androff deserves kudos for makeup. Tech credits are all spiffy. “George Wallace” looks and sounds like a million bucks. We’re left wondering, however, just how many puzzle pieces were altered to make them fit.

George Wallace

TNT, Sun. Aug. 24, Tues. Aug. 26, 8 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in Los Angeles by TNT. Executive producer, Mark Carliner; producers, John Frankenheimer, Julian Krainin; co-producer, Ethel Winant; director, Frankenheimer; writers, Paul Monash, Marshall Frady; story, Monash; based on the book "Wallace" by Frady
  • Crew: camera, Alan Caso; editor, Tony Gibbs; production designer, Michael Z. Hanan; art director, Charles Lagola; costume supervisor, Bill Edwards; special effects, David Dion; makeup, Patty Androff; music, Gary Chang; sound, Mike Le-Mare; casting, Iris Grossman. 4 HOURS.
  • With: Gary Sinise, Mare Winningham, Clarence Williams III, Joe Don Baker, Angelina Jolie, Terry Kinney, William Sanderson, Mark Rolston, Tracy Fraim, Skip Sudduth, Ron Perkins, Mark Valley
  • Music By: