Thursday, May 27, 2021

American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally

Among the two propaganda broadcasters referred to as “Axis Sally,” Rita Zucca maybe said worse things than Mildred Gillars, but she got off far easier. Those are the breaks for people who renounce their American citizenship and openly side with our enemies. Unlike Zucca, Gillars would face the music in an American court. That complex case unfolds in Michael Polish’s American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally, which releases tomorrow in theaters and on-demand.

When the American G.I’s arrived in Berlin, Gillars tried to disappear into the woodwork, but she was way to infamous.
  For years, she had frustrated American listeners, who sat through her mocking songs and odes to German military superiority, hoping to hear reports of their captured loved ones. Her scripts were written by Goebbels himself, who insisted she deliver them word-for-word, or else.

Even though she had sworn allegiance to the National Socialist regime, the Federal government prosecuted her for treason in a civilian criminal court. Naturally, she will be represented by James Laughlin, whom Polish and co-screenwriters Vance Owens and Darryl Hicks present as the William Kunstler of the 1940s, except Laughlin seems pretty contemptuous of his own client. His new associate Billy Owen, a recently discharged GI, is more sympathetic—maybe even in ways that aren’t so professional.

Arguably, Gillars was twentysome years ahead of her time. Had she been broadcasting anti-American propaganda in the 1960s, she would have been the subject of glowing documentaries like
FTA. Maybe she didn’t deserve a fate so much worse than Zucca’s—really, it might be more accurate to say Zucca deserved far worse than she got. Regardless, Polish and company are too partisan in the way they present Gillars. The witnesses they dramatize in the film never represent the damning testimony of former POWs like Michael Evaneck and Eugene McCarthy, which clearly implied she was more personally invested in her propaganda than the film suggests.

Meadow Williams manages to be vulnerable as well as coldly aloof and unsympathetic as Gillars. Actually, that makes for a relatively intriguing performance. Al Pacino pulls out all his old table-pounding tricks, but they are well-suited for the film. Likewise, Thomas Kretschmann is basically on auto-pilot playing another Nazi, but he is a strong likeness for Goebbels. Again, Mitch Pileggi does his no-nonsense thing as prosecutor John Kelly, but Swen Temmel’s Owen only seems to be in the film to listen to Gillars’ confessions.

It is too bad the film so solidly lines up with Team Gillars, because the trial itself could be great dramatic fodder, if presented as a challenge to conduct in a fair and just manner, akin to the Eichmann prosecution in Israel. Still, it is amusing to watch Pacino pontificate and bluster. Still, its passionate defense of Gillars is frankly just weird. Not recommended (except maybe as a curiosity piece),
American Traitor releases tomorrow (5/28) in theaters and on iTunes.