The Wallace Redemption

BACK IN THE '60S, WHEN POLITICS ran to melodrama and a gaudier breed of politician strutted the stage, George Wallace was the villain right-thinking Americans loved to hiss. He hoisted the banner of Southern racism, declaring at his inauguration as governor of Alabama: ""Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!'' He planted himself in the University of Alabama's doorway in 1963, preventing--for a few hours--the enrollment of two black students. When he was shot by a crazy stalker in 1972, in the midst of his alarmingly strong campaign for the U.S. presidency, there was shock in the political establishment but not many tears. The bullets, which left him permanently paralyzed below the waist, drove him out of national politics. He is mostly forgotten now, and a lot of Americans probably think he is dead.

But Wallace lives--bedridden at the age of 78--and lives even more vividly in a marvelous new film, ""George Wallace,'' which TNT will broadcast in two parts on Sunday, Aug. 24, and Tuesday, Aug. 26 (8 p.m. ET). As Wallace, Gary Sinise (who seems to have a knack for playing politicians, having etched a memorable TV portrait of Harry Truman two years ago) gives an ample view of Wallace's dark side--his racial demagoguery, his willingness to shackle his wife, Lurleen, to his own ambitions. But even viewers who consider those the most unforgivable of modern sins will be hard put not to feel compassion for the man as his ruthlessness is finally tempered by pain--the pain of Lurleen's slow death from cancer, the daily pain of his own broken body. Wallace underwent a transformation rare in a politician. In his last two terms as governor, he brought blacks into his administration in unprecedented numbers. And the movie ends with a poignant scene in the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Martin Luther King's old congregation. Wallace, gaunt and unannounced, is wheeled into the midst of a service and gives a little talk in which he speaks of his own pain and begs forgiveness for the pain he has caused black people. As he departs, the choir breaks into ""Amazing Grace'' and worshipers reach out to shake his hand. (Yes, it really happened.) ""George Wallace'' begins as a well-crafted political biography and then takes a surprising turn into much deeper waters. In the end, it's a story of pain and redemption.

Director John Frankenheimer (whose classic film ""The Manchurian Candidate'' came out in 1962, the year Wallace was first elected governor) gets remarkable performances not only from Sinise but from Mare Winningham as Lurleen. She manages to convey a touching private dignity in the face of public humiliation by a husband she dearly loves. Joe Don Baker does a captivating turn as Big Jim Folsom, the racially moderate Alabama governor whom Wallace admires and then abandons in his quest for racist votes. There are, it must be said, a few notes that sound off-key. Screenwriter Paul Monash has turned Wallace's second wife, Cornelia (Angelina Jolie), into a caricature sexpot. And he has invented a black valet named Archie (Clarence Williams III), who acts as a sort of stand-in for all African-Americans. In scene after scene, Archie hovers in the background, looking mortified and conveying an air of noble servility.

For understandable dramatic reasons, the movie focuses almost exclusively on the race issue in Wallace's political career. Viewers may carry away the same mistaken impression that much of the national press conveyed 25 years ago, that everything the governor did or said sprang from racial bigotry. If he denounced the decline in ""law and order,'' those were said to be just ""code words'' for black rioters. If he ridiculed ""pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals'' dreaming up new government guidelines, that was thought to be just reactionary spite in the face of civil-rights laws. In fact, Wallace was striking themes that many of his countrymen found compelling: that the '60s had been a time of license and excess, that the government had grown too big and intrusive. Politicians who came after him--Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan--rode happily through much the same ideological country that George Wallace had mapped. On these issues, he was a man who was ahead of his time. On race, he was sadly behind it. ^