Top positive review
The dangers of the public spotlight
on August 20, 2003
Not quite a star-studded flick, but chock full of subtly forceful personalities. Paul Newman plays Gallagher, a crusty but otherwise legit Florida-based liquor wholesaler whose life is turned upside-down when the Miami Standard fingers him as a possible material witness. Under current laws regarding libel, Newman can always sue the paper for libel. However, the law sets a higher standard of wrongdoing to be proven when the victim is a public-figure. (The distinction was meant to prevent public officials from using libel laws to block any criticism of their actions - most notably in the case of southern police officials during the early civil-rights years; unfortunately for Gallagher, the laws have been expanded to cover any figure in the public eye, whether he's there by choice or despite it.) Because the Standard acts without malice, and only reports what's been leaked to it by a shifty DoJ official (Bob Balaban), the fact that the story itself is actually incorrect is irrelevant. While DoJ hopes to pressure Gallagher to turn state's evidence, or somehow lead them to somebody who can, the newspaper hopes Gallagher will come forward and give his own spin. (Exaggeration is an often-used media tactic - one hoped to pressure a story's subject to reflexively come forward and give a story that, while less spectacular, is nonetheless worse off now that it's been confirmed.) While Gallagher comes forward, and hooks up with Sally Field as the Standard's ace reporter, he soon finds another way to wreak havoc - by turning his enemies against each other.
There's something satisfying about the deceptive ease with which Gallagher turns the media against itself, but the resolution is unsatisfying. Wilford Brimley plays the Assistant Attorney General who gets everybody honest by threatening to make people talk under oath. (We get the point, people have no problem saying anything as long as they don't have to stand by it.) The last scene is essentially Brimley's one-man show, one that upstages Sally Fields's character's turn-about: rather than disclose Gallagher as the source of her latest story, she's willing to take the fall for him. Her logic is impeccable - somebody is going to take the blame and the fall no matter what. Why not her? If anything, the film disappoints in underplaying the attraction between the two, which only makes you wonder whether her denouement is one of journalistic integrity or love. Instead, we cheer that Brimley will get to tell the media what he thinks (and nobody in this room is going to like what I have to say, he warns) and the way he exacts retribution (you're no White House appointee, he tells Balaban's character. "The one who hired you, is me." Start packing).