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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


When TNT debuted its original two-part movie George Wallace in 1997, it was greeted with great acclaim. The intervening ten years have done nothing to diminish its impact. In fact, there is something striking about its release in a double-disc special edition DVD on January 20 - the very same day our nation elects its first African-American president. I couldn't help but feel a twinge of pride as I watched the DVD and pondered just how far we've come.

Directed by the late, great John Frankenheimer, the movie opens on the fateful day that Alabama governor George Wallace (Gary Sinise) was shot during a political rally. It then flashes back to the beginning of his political career. Wallace generally shares the same views as his mentor, "Big Jim" Folsom (Joe Don Baker): that everyone should have the same rights. When he makes a bid to succeed Folsom and loses - in large part because he denounces the Ku Klux Klan - Wallace decides that the people of his state must want blacks and whites to be separate, and so he adopts a fervent stance on the issue. This gets him into the governor's office in 1963, when he vows to fight school integration tooth and nail. His most famous practice of this comes on June 11 of that year, when he physically stands in the doorway of the University of Alabama in an attempt to prevent two black students from entering.

What is surprising about George Wallace's story - and which many people still don't know - is that, after being paralyzed from the gunshots, he began a long, slow change in perspective. Years after standing in that doorway, Wallace formally apologized to a congregation of African-American churchgoers, the students he tried to deny an education, and other prominent black citizens as well. Obviously, that doesn't make his actions okay, but it does make him an almost uniquely compelling figure in American political history; he was actually willing to admit that he was wrong.

George Wallace traces its subject's professional arc, as well as his marriages to two women: first wife Lureen (Mare Winningham) and second wife Cornelia (Angelina Jolie, in one of her first prominent roles). When Wallace is unable to run for another term in office, he convinces Lureen to run in his place, but their marriage eventually falters under the weight of his resentment and bitterness. He then goes on to marry the much-younger Cornelia, who also happens to be the niece of Folsom. She stands by her man during the aftermath of the assassination attempt.

It would have been all too easy to focus on the most dramatic portions of Wallace's life, specifically his fight against civil rights. However, the point of the movie is that people can change, no matter how entrenched their views would seem to be. Gary Sinise's performance was rightly acclaimed when the movie first ran on TNT in 1997. He makes Wallace's transformation believable. During the scenes where he is fighting to maintain segregation, we can feel the hatred coming off Wallace. Yet Sinise also makes us believe his ultimate transformation, as he comes to realize that his stances may have been hurtful to many.

John Frankenheimer does a very interesting thing in this movie. He shoots historical sequences in black-and-white. Partially, this is done because viewers remember seeing footage of the real events in the two-color form. But more subtly, it serves as a reminder that black and white actually mix together very well; they are very complimentary. That approach, combined with the outstanding performances from the cast and a solid pace that compacts a lot of history into a swift three-hour running time, makes for a first rate screen biography.

DVD Features:

George Wallace is available on DVD in a 2-disc special edition, with half the movie on each disc. Also included in the set is an excellent documentary called "Vision and Conflict: Collaborating on the Wallace Saga." The actors share their remembrances of filming and, more importantly, of John Frankenheimer. By all accounts, the director and his star got along famously, even planning to begin their own production company before Frankenheimer became ill. Sinise also speaks at length about the director's battles with TNT. The director apparently took a hard-line approach with the network when they tried to deny him certain scenes for budgetary reasons. I don't want to give away too many details because there's joy in the way Sinise tells the story; however, what's obvious is that Frankenheimer had genuine passion for his work in general and this story in particular. He was willing to go to the mat to make his picture the very best it could be, and his determination paid off for everyone, including the network.

A terrific movie combined with a terrific and insightful documentary adds up to a quality package for any viewer with a taste for modern history. George Wallace is highly recommended.

Check out the official website: George Wallace

Or purchase it online here

George Wallace: Two-Disc Special Edition - Own it on DVD January 20

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