'Guilty Suspicion' director is guilty of evading important issues

March 15, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

He's down but he's not out. Our banty, hard-chargin' little guy. Scufflin' around on the ground, he somehow finds the grit and determination to face his tormentor. And with the sweat pouring down his brow, he climbs to his feet and with a mighty swat...he manages a knock-out punch.

This happens to be the plot of "Rocky," which Irwin Winkler produced, but it also happens to be the plot of "Guilty by Suspicion," which Winkler wrote and directed. And that's what "Guilty By Suspicion" manages: It turns the disgraceful period of the red hunts and the blacklist and the predator's ball that was the House Un-American Activities Committee for better or for worse . . . into "Rocky."

For better, it recalls this scary epoch in American history at what might be just the propitious moment.

For worse, the movie itself has been so streamlined to be a "hit" that it fails to engage the moral and political issues in any but the crudest form. In other words, and perhaps most disappointingly, Winkler subverts his own purpose by evading the period's central issue.

While fully demonstrating the pain and destructiveness of the blacklist, the movie isn't about the morality of blacklisting the politically deviationist, it's about miscarriages of justice. Robert De Niro, in a generally solid performance, plays a young 20th Century Fox studio director at the height of his career in 1951, much loved by "Darryl" (F. Zanuck, Fox's legendary mogul; one of the strengths of "Guilty By Suspicion" is that it names a few names ).

In the daisy-chain of betrayal that Hollywood became under investigation by the self-serving congressmen, De Niro's David Merrill returns from a trip to Paris to find that he's been "named," for activities that date from before World War II. Pressure is brought on him to "cooperate" -- that is, to confess his sins and name others, and thus continue the mad, ugly dance.

There's a problem: He doesn't have any sins. He wasn't a communist and only attended a few vaguely progressive front-group rallies. Thus the mighty wheels that grind him into pulp aren't the wheels of political repression but the wheels of accident. While what happens to him is genuinely a tragedy, it doesn't attack the mechanism of the blacklist; indeed, it seems almost inadvertently to validate it by suggesting that the blacklist would have been OK if only real commies had gotten nailed.

The central issue remains: Was it all right for a committee of the United States Congress to decide that, because of their political beliefs, a certain class of American citizens had no right to make a living? Winkler doesn't care.

What he does care about and what he illuminates brilliantly is the terrifying, almost existential speed with which the process took place.

The movie seems to operate in two spheres simultaneously, however. At the most intimate level -- De Niro's agony and the impact on his family, particularly ex-wife Annette Bening, who for once keeps her clothes on -- it is the most effective. But Winkler is also busy looting blacklist history in a crude way for anecdotes. These are almost never successful, as when a vague analogue to Gary Cooper -- called, stupidly, "Jerry" Cooper -- stands up for David, who's been hired to direct a picture that looks a lot like "High Noon." Gary Cooper did stand up for Carl Foreman during the making of "High Noon," to his eternal glory. But Winkler's version of this heroic moment is strangely twisted: his "Cooper" is young, not old, and the movie is clearly cheap, not distinguished.

In fact much of "Guilty By Suspicion" takes place in a trashy roman a clef zone, with bigger-than-life versions of famous moments and people; the trouble is, the bigger they are, the less like life they seem. And, most sadly, De Niro's brave speech at the end vilifying the committee is largely excerpted from brave words Army attorney Joseph Welch unleashed on Joe McCarthy, words which had as much to do as anything with stopping the madness. I happen to love courage, and I hate to see Cooper's and Welch's stolen from them so that someone as crude as Winkler can make a few bucks and look good to the industry.

'Guilty By Suspicion'

Starring Robert De Niro and Annette Bening.

Directed by Irwin Winkler.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

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