By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Photo by Lorey SebastianThe words true storyestablish 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 Lan caster’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.
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