The words true story establish immediate credit in the human mind. Why this should be so when all the best stories are made up, I cannot say. But people seem to love seeing a real life re-created, and television loves to give the people what the people seem to love. (When was a Law & Order episode last not ripped from the headlines?)
And yet, if it hadn’t actually happened, who would have had to invent Aldrich Ames: Traitor Within, a spy story so devoid of sex, action or fiendish cleverness as to constitute an actual affront to those of us who grew up on James Bond and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.? (There is no substitute for the classics.) Ames, a CIA lifer who sold out his country for a good eight years before they nabbed him, was certainly an effective mole, but as this process appears to have entailed little more than taking money out of and putting state secrets into a plastic bag under a bridge in a park, talking on the telephone and sitting in bars drinking vodka with genial KGB spooks, the movie gets to seem pretty routine, even with suspenseful music underneath. Neither does it help the drama that Ames, notwithstanding that he quotes Shakespeare and speaks Russian, is essentially a dull middle-management type who after he gets started in high-paying treason is just a dull middle-management type with a Jaguar. (Not even a convertible.) What we have here is not so much the banality of evil, as just plain banality. There’s a point in that, to be sure: The world can, and does, turn on the pique of sad little men. But this aperçu is no substitute for big explosions or girls in bikinis.
Timothy Hutton, who undertook a similar mission to more thrilling effect in The Falcon and the Snowman, is suitably drab and nervous as Ames, but he can’t overcome the fact that he’s suited up in a character neither worth one’s sympathy nor enjoyably vile in the way of, say, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. As the agency Miss Marple who cracks the case, Joan Plowright phones in a performance that could have as easily been delivered by carrier pigeon for all the part requires of her, while Elizabeth Peña, as Mrs. Ames, is similarly underused — the collateral domestic drama the film only suggests might have plumped up into something interesting. For all that, it’s not a bad movie — just an undernourished one — with a nice sense of physical detail and vaguely the look and feel of an X-Files episode. I don’t not recommend it.
Why the world would need a movie about Walter Winchell when Sweet Smell of Success is available for sale or rent is another matter beyond my poor strained ken, but we have got one now — Winchell, from HBO, TV’s biggest producer of quality film, with major names attached fore and aft. Paul Mazursky, co-creator of The Monkees and the intermittently bankable director of such big-screen pictures as Blume in Love and An Unmarried Woman, directs; Stanley Tucci, of Big Night and TV’s Murder One, stars; and Christopher Plummer and Glenne Headly, whom it is always pleasing to mention, are around as well. Some care and cash have been expended to make the film look and sound good. Nevertheless, it is nearly useless. You could see the Powerpuff Girls save the world six or seven times in the time it will take you to watch Winchell — could, that is, if it were scheduled opposite a Powerpuff Girls marathon, which, unfortunately, it is not.
The failure of the film is, one might say, congenital, given the nature both of the biopic as a form and of the particular life here depicted. Based not on Neal Gabler’s fat biography of a couple years back but on a memoir by Winchell ghostwriter Herman Klurfeld — obvious from the fact that Klurfeld (Paul Giamatti) is the movie’s only other moderately developed character — it makes some mild drama of their relationship (stormy at intervals), which more deeply explored might have been the basis for a film, but wasn’t this time. Winchell attempts rather to track the columnist’s whole life from tenement childhood to lonely grave, and the parade therefore whips by in an illegible blur of signs and signifiers. As raw event, it isn’t much; as drama, it shakes down as no more than the story of many other temporary worldly powers who outlive their time; and as a study of power, well, I must again refer you to Sweet Smell of Success: Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker might not be a literal translation of Walter Winchell, but he’ll teach you a lot more about the uses and abuses of the press and position, the mechanics of gossip and the city of New York than this weirdly good-natured history pageant will. (Nothing as nice here as "Match me, Sidney" or "I love this dirty town," either.) Winchell falls back instead on old tropes of newsroom drama (saddest being the uncomprehending, long-suffering editor), some populist sermonizing and a few amusing celebrity impersonations. Winchell himself is portrayed as a bit of a bully and a trifle swell-headed, but a good egg really, on the right side at least three-fifths of the time — and this is not so much unconvincing as it is uninteresting.
Tucci is fine, but except for a hysterical outburst or a ripely worded oration or two, the script gives him not much more to do than get white-haired. Headly, as a kind of mistress-cum-narrative-convenience whom we meet naked in a bathtub full of hooch, I will turn up for anytime, in or out of a bathtub, and though I was happy to see, as Mrs. Winchell, Megan Mullally, who is so delightful as Karen on the soundly constituted Will & Grace, the film pays no more attention to her than Winchell seems to have.
Another Jewish boy who succeeded in the American century gets the little-screen treatment in TNT’s Houdini, the third movie to be made about the David Copperfield of his generation (Ehrich Weiss by actual name). As cinematic meat Houdini is, of course, prime; he did fabulous, physical, theatrical things in colorful surroundings: escaping from escape-proof prisons, hanging straitjacketed outside skyscrapers, struggling for air in the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He was also kind enough to provide future interpreters of his life and legend with a solid love interest, a semiviolent premature demise and an occult side-story, having arranged to try to contact his wife from beyond the grave.
Johnathon Schaech (That Thing You Do!, the just-released Welcome to Woop Woop) has the right body and dark vibe for the role, and he’s well accompanied by Chicago Hope’s Stacy Edwards as Bess Houdini, and George Segal — who has apparently determined to spend the rest of his acting career just having fun — as producer Martin Beck, with David Warner, Paul Sorvino, Judy Geeson, Rhea Pearlman and Ron Perlman along for very good measure. Written and directed by one Pen Densham (who also made the Robin Wright Moll Flanders), the story is nicely framed by a dark and stormy Halloween-night seance, and if it trucks in show-biz cliche and suffers from the usual biopictorial compression of characters and chronology, from goofy age-making appliances, and from dialogue that at times seems itself to have escaped, like Harry used to, from a locked and bolted milk can, it compensates adequately with its sweet tone, leisurely development, regard for the human business of history, nifty magic tricks, and frankly daffy conclusion. Given the relative scrupulousness of what comes before, I could not have predicted the final 15 minutes, in which even the loosest standards of the "true story" are not only violated, but handcuffed, wrapped in chains and thrown in the river. Which might be bad biography — but I can’t say it isn’t good show business.
© Robert Lloyd 1998 and 2011