When an overzealous federal prosecutor (Bob Balaban) implicates liquor distributor Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) in the disappearance of a union leader, journalist Megan Carter (Sally Field) must find the truth. Unfortunately, finding the truth causes more damage than she expected. Featuring great performances and direction of a well-crafted script, Absence of Malice is an intelligent and understated look at how even with the best of intentions, journalists’ words can have a serious effect on people’s lives. This Blu-ray does a good job presenting the picture and sound while the extras are more notable for their quality than their quantity. Recommended.
Absence of Malice (1981)
Studio: Columbia Pictures (distributed by Image Entertainment)
Length: 116 Minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Languages: English LPCM 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Film Release Date: December 18, 1981
Disc Release Date: November 8, 2011
Review Date: November 18, 2011
“I know how to print what’s true, and I know how not to hurt people. I don’t know how to do both and neither do you.”
In the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that in order for a statement to be considered libelous, a public official must prove that a publicly printed statement about him or her is false and that they printed it anyway, regardless of the consequences. This is known as the principle of actual malice; in its absence, a newspaper cannot be held liable in a court of law. Nevertheless, with or without actual malice, a false statement can still be devastating. A former journalist named Kurt Luedtke made that the topic of his very first screenplay, Absence of Malice.
Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman) is a Miami liquor distributor. While his father was a notorious bootlegger and loan shark, and he has been to jail himself for assaulting a federal agent at his father’s funeral, he is a law-abiding citizen with a business that follows the law. Nevertheless, he has found himself implicated in the disappearance of union leader Jose Diaz, who is presumed dead. Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban), a federal prosecutor for the Department of Justice wants to get more information from Gallagher, leaks a false story to the press stating that Gallagher is a suspect. A Miami Standard reporter named Megan Carter (Sally Field) covers the story after meeting with Rosen and finding a file on his desk; after the Standard’s attorney (John Harkins) asserts that there is nothing in it for which the paper could be held liable, they print it. Michael is not pleased, and he goes to the paper looking for answers. Megan decides to find the truth, and the further she digs, the more interested Michael becomes in her, not as a reporter but as a woman. When Michael’s friend Teresa (Melinda Dillon) reveals to Megan why Michael couldn’t have had anything to do with Diaz’s disappearance, she asks her not to print it. Since what she did during that time, which conflicts with her religious beliefs, is integral to the story, Megan prints it anyway. The results are tragic, and it doesn’t get any better from there.
Having been an actor himself, Sydney Pollack was very much an actor’s director. He has no trouble getting great performances out of his cast, particularly his two stars, who work exceptionally well together; Field’s seamless mix of intelligence and vulnerability complements Newman’s trademark intensity. Megan is no muckraker; she wants to find the truth and seems deeply disturbed by the consequences of her actions; she makes the audience empathize with a character that could easily have become despicable and make the romance between Michael and Megan unbelievable. Newman expertly captures Michael’s integrity, passion and desire to clear his name at any cost like few other actors can; his richly nuanced performance earned him his sixth Oscar nomination. The supporting cast is equally praiseworthy; in an Oscar-nominated role Melinda Dillon captures Teresa’s helplessness and fear skillfully without lapsing into bathos, while in the climactic resolution scene, Wilford Brimley steals the show as assistant Attorney General Wells, perhaps the most colorful attorney on film since Charles Laughton in Witness for the Prosecution. Luckily, they all have good material to work with; first-time screenwriter Luedtke has crafted an intelligent examination of the notion of journalistic integrity. This is not a murder mystery with a romantic subplot; in fact, the crime itself is secondary compared to the responsibility of journalists to balance accurate reporting with concern for how their words can affect actual human beings. These are explosive issues, and not only have they not subsided in the 30 years since the film’s release, but they have gotten worse. Pollack and his cast handle it all tactfully and skillfully with an understated hand.
The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 that reflects Owen Roizman’s subdued, low-light cinematography accurately: there are few primary colors and there is noticeable grain, but fine details are easy to discern. Contrast is decent; blacks are fairly deep but not crushed, while highlights are under control and not blown out.
The film’s mono soundtrack is presented as a 2.0 LPCM track, not DTS-HD MA as the box suggests. It’s a serviceable track that handles Dave Grusin’s score and the boxy-70s-mono dialogue well enough. It’s not going to push the limits of anyone’s speaker setups, but there is nothing objectionable about it. Some reviewers have referred to it as a stereo track, but I could not discern any stereo activity whatsoever.
All extras are 480i and 4x3 unless otherwise noted.
-Deleted Scene (1:02): A short scene in which Michael argues with a banker after the union effectively shuts him down.
-The Story Behind Absence of Malice (31:04): An informative 2001 documentary featuring Sydney Pollack, Kurt Luedtke, Paul Newman and Sally Field discussing both the issues the film deals with, which have been exacerbated since the film’s release, and the acting challenges that the roles presented.
–Theatrical Trailer (2:03): Presented in 1080p, this trailer conveys the film’s plot in an effective and straight-to-the-point way but gives nothing away.
Unfortunately, the 1982 TV documentary about the making of the film was not included; it has never been released to video.
An intelligent and understated drama about how even the best of intentions can go dangerously awry in the field of journalism, Absence of Malice has no absence of talent, thanks to its fine central performances, equally fine supporting cast, intriguing script and solid direction. Recommended.