Review by Jonathan W. Hickman
Al Pacino can’t save this awkward, melodramatic, period-set courtroom drama.
As the famed acting titan gives his all projecting signature vocal inflections and dramatic movements, it’s like the Oscar-winner is in a completely different movie. Pacino and this infamous real-life story deserve a better movie.
Mildred Elizabeth Sisk, who played the role of radio host Axis Sally as part of the Third Reich’s propaganda machine during World War II, was born in Portland, Maine. Making her way to Germany before the war, she became the sexy voice of a series of broadcasts aimed at destroying American military morale. After the war, she was arrested and brought to the States, where she’s indicted on ten counts of treason, eight of which were prosecuted at a trial in 1949.
“American Traitor” is a hollow cinematic take on the story of the first woman in US history to be convicted of treason.
Sisk is played by Meadow Williams, an actress with a long list of credits but who might not be well-known to audiences. It’s a plum role for Williams, who has the sultry look, sexy voice, and demeanor down. But she is utterly betrayed by the alien tone and dull, televisual approach of director Michael Polish and his fellow screenwriters.
I’m sure that with the right direction, editing, and a quality screenplay, Williams could have delivered a thoughtful performance. Unfortunately, her work as displayed in this movie ranges from passable to laughable. In one sequence, she sings on a stage, and it’s a terrible lip-sync, awful.
Since I was watching “American Traitor” at home, I wondered whether the sync issue was related to my internet connection. So, I carefully stopped the playback and re-watched the sequence two more times. I’m convinced that this problem is in the final cut of the film. It’s devastating to Williams and the entire project.
And… that’s not all. A sluggish pace and contrived dramatic interactions dampen every performance. Not even talented German actor Thomas Kretschmann, who plays Joseph Goebbels, can make his scenes work.
At one point, Goebbels is shown in a bedroom sequence in which he and his partner are engaged in “the act” while fully clothed. This kind of thing isn’t so uncommon; however, they wear all of their clothing—uniform, tie, coat, pants, shoes, the whole thing. At one point, in mid-coitus, he even retrieves something from his pants pocket. It’s utterly ludicrous!
If this were a low-budget horror film, I would expect some dialogue to be stilted and even false, but this is a serious drama with historical import. Unfortunately, few, if any, conversations in this movie have the polish and authenticity befitting the subject and acting talent. It’s as if the dialogue was written in a different language and translated into English.
And instead of focusing on the frightening propaganda machine and its effect on Sisk and the American GIs, Polish (see his engaging “The Astronaut Farmer”) makes this movie an unconvincing soap opera. It’s a terrible waste.
Pacino keeps his head up here, giving us a genuine performance, which exposes the deficiencies in the film and every other supporting turn. He delivers the final courtroom summation with zeal and commitment, which I appreciated. Pacino passionately lands the lines, possibly taken from trial transcripts, and these words have an impact. Still, this one sequence can’t elevate such a poorly conceived and crafted film.
“The X-Files” fans might be interested in Mitch Pileggi’s role as the prosecutor John Kelly. All I can say is that Pileggi is in the film, although, for whatever reason, he’s underused.
“American Traitor” is a confoundingly lousy movie.