Absence of Malice

by deerinthexenonarclights

“I know how to print what’s true and I know how not to hurt people but not how to do both.”


While Absence of Malice seems on the surface like another look behind the scenes of our news media movie, ala the aforementioned Network and Broadcast News, this is one of those rare cases in which things are not all as they appear to be. Though the protagonist is a crack reporter, this time a talented, print-based investigative journalist played by Sally Field, the story is not just concerned with what it is to write a story but also with what it is to read one; and in this way it works more so as an ‘outside the scenes’ look of our news media.

The story follows blue-collar business owner Michael Cunningham, a character handsomely portrayed by Mr. Paul Newman, who awakes one day to read that he is under investigation for the murder of an esteemed union leader despite knowing nothing of the sort. From there the plot twists and turns in a number of very satisfying ways, until it has finally encased within its labyrinthine structure the heart of our print-press psychology.

Though it may not be as true today as it was back in the films nineteen-eighty set era, the Newspaper is an incredibly powerful device and we are shown just how deep and long-reaching its impact on our lives can be; one small story can ripple out and cause a great number of waves elsewhere and so it is that we must be careful what we write even if what we write is accurate and absent malice. We are so often told that if it is the truth then it is therefore right to tell it, but this film shows the underside of such thinking and the fallacy that is inherent in the nature of this so called truth; because how can you convey the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in one small brief?

Though the film’s story is very cleverly constructed and ably achieves its meaning I can’t help but think that it would have played out stronger from the perspective of Paul Newman’s character (or maybe I just wanted to look at the man more, who knows?). Though the insights into the industry side of the story are fascinating their tragic impacts would have been more resonant had we  felt them through the eyes of the victim. This also would have allowed the film to spend more time detailing Michael’s plan, his hustle or sting if you will, which is one of its best elements and the kind of material that Newman can definitely nail.

For a Pollack film I also felt that Malice was absent some passion; I don’t require that all his films be romantic, in fact the forced feelings dragged the otherwise outstanding concept of Random Hearts into the sea if you ask me, but given his oeuvre I have set high hopes for any film of his which features flirting or fawning of any kind. Though the lines are there – the script as a whole is actually very funny, the climactic scene at the courthouse especially – the reading isn’t and that’s not to say that the actors are to blame, just that the relationship between their characters wasn’t defined or believable enough. On their own though both roles are deep and fleshy, just how I like ’em.

So, overall, I would say that this film is a cleaner inversion of Broadcast News than Network ever was; with the themes coming across strongly but the chemistry a little less so, a little limply, though the difference between the two elements is more muted here than it was there. So I guess you just need take your pick of the two based on which you prefer from your films, that is of course only if you havn’t already seen Network this week.