Absence of Malice (1981)

Directed by Sydney Pollack

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Okay, so Absence of Malice tackles a journalist’s responsibility to ensure truth in reporting and the women’s liberation movement.  The latter is only mentioned a couple times in passing, but I think it’s intrinsically tied to the way the former is presented here, and I think the message is a little muddied.

Megan Carter (Sally Field) is the reporter in question.  She hears that a local businessman, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) might be under investigation in the disappearance of a longshoreman union official named Joey Diaz, and being the tireless reporter that she is, she pursues this lead.

She publishes an article announcing Gallagher as a suspect, and with the newspaper’s lawyer they ensure that they can’t be sued.  The truth here, he says, doesn’t matter, just that they can claim they did their due diligence.

Well wouldn’t you know it, Gallagher walks in asking to know why the article was published.  He’s livid, understandably, because suddenly in the court of public opinion he has been sullied, without having actually done anything.

Because the movie is told through multiple points of view, we see that a prosecutor named Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) has purposefully leaked Gallagher’s name to Carter just so that he can push him for information.  Gallagher isn’t actually a suspect, but Rosen figures he knows the people who might have actual information on the Diaz case.

Carter is thus a pawn in his larger game, and this won’t be the last time she unknowingly does someone else’s bidding.  Her constant search for truth is not the same holy quest as seen in All the President’s Men but rather something more irresponsible.  Her efforts, no matter how harmless, bring pain to those around her because she prioritizes speed over accuracy.

I think this part of the story is complex and interesting, but it seems to me that Megan Carter’s character is belittled and made a mockery of.  She feels purposefully irresponsible in ways I don’t quite believe.  Maybe it’s that her story is interwoven with the melodramatic romance between her and Gallagher, and Paul Newman being Paul Newman, he is the moral authority here.  At times the degree to which he lectures Carter feels a bit incessant.

It’s also that I felt like the film was indicting Carter more for being a woman than for being an irresponsible reporter.  There’s something hard to shake about the way Gallagher and others talk to her and then by the dramatic consequences of her reporting.  She is defined by her flaws, and Gallagher is defined by his silent heroism.  He’s just about perfect, as seen in the movie, and one of the story’s plot points, an alibi that could clear his name in the Diaz case, only exists to make him all the more perfect and honorable.

So Newman’s character here is just as holy of spirit and just as unfairly persecuted as in Cool Hand Luke.  He plays a character who is being assaulted on all sides (in this case by the authorities, by the longshoreman’s union, by his own unfortunate family connections) and really just wants to live a quiet, ordinary life if he had the choice.  He’s a movie star playing a movie star role, and from what I’ve read he had strong feelings on the subject material here considering the ways he was presented in the press, mostly by the New York Post and celebrity gossip outlets.

And that anger is understandable, it’s just quite visible here and I think is one unique side of the issue being discussed making the film as a whole quite one-sided.

It’s also that romantic drama that holds this down a little.  It’s frustrating, obligatory and cliche, despite the strong performances by Newman and Fields.

Up Next: The Way We Were (1973), The Last Black Man in San Francisco (2019), Tony Manero (2008)

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