Absence of Malice (1981)

abscence of malice 2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Not fit to print.

Megan Carter (Sally Field) is a go-getter newspaper reporter who implicates innocent liquor wholesaler Mike Gallagher (Paul Newman) simply to get a big story. However, Mike proves to be quite clever and resourceful and spins a subtle, but effective line of revenge and eventually is able to expose the irresponsibility of the media.

The drama here is strong. The issues are relevant and the story is well structured. The points are hit home in a no-nonsense way while revealing how newspaper operations work and how easily they can abuse their power to the extent that it is almost horrifying.

Yet the film seems to defeat its own purpose by wrapping everything up in a much too tidy way. It is almost like saying yes we have a very serious and potentially dangerous issue here, but it can be easily contained and resolved so don’t worry about it.  Also, Mike is just a little too resourceful and slick and it becomes almost like wish-fulfillment at seeing the way he sticks it to the corrupt corporate fat-cats. An ordinary person would be destroyed by an untrue story printed about them and unable to find the money or resources to fight back and the film would have been much more hard-hitting had it taken this route instead.

I also wasn’t too crazy about the musical score. Not that the music sounded bad, but it was too upbeat while a downbeat score would have fit the mood better.

Newman has always been one of my favorite actors, but I felt he wasn’t a perfect fit here. His performance is too low-key and he doesn’t display enough anger or rage that one would expect.

Field is also miscast. Her features are too child-like and a taller woman with a few lines on her worn face would have worked better as it would have helped create the jaded persona of a character who had been is the business long enough to know what she was doing was wrong, but didn’t care.

Having Mike form a sexual relationship with Megan seemed particularly ridiculous on several levels. For one thing the graying Newman looked so much older than Field that it almost appeared like child molestation. Also, the chances of someone forming a relationship with a reporter who has just libeled him seem slim to none.

It’s the supporting cast that comes off better. John Harkins is completely on-target as the jaded corporate lawyer who toys the ethical line like it is some sort of game. Bob Balaban is memorable as a hot-shot young executive with a very interesting way of playing with rubber bands and chewing gum. Melinda Dillon is also outstanding in one of her best roles as a very emotionally fragile woman.

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 18, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 56Minutes

Rated PG

Director: Sydney Pollack

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Available: VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, Amazon Instant Video

8 responses to “Absence of Malice (1981)

  1. Interesting review, it has been ages since I last saw this one.

  2. Hi Richard,
    thanks for the review. We watched the film in journalism school today (2013) and even got an assignment about it. We’ll discuss the film in a journalism ethics class next week.
    Not bad for a 1981 film, right?

    • I am glad that you enjoyed my review. Yes, it is dated a bit, but still has a strong story and I think part of that reason is that it was written by Kurt Luedtke who was a former reporter and it is based loosely on actual court cases. Let me know what they say about it during your discussion in your journalism class and thanks for stopping by!

      • Hi Richard,
        today we had the opportunity to speak longer about the film in class. In our point of view, he worst mistakes Carter made are the publication of the abortion and the betrayal of her source Rosen to Gallagher. Some students were upset with Carter for flirting and sleeping with her source, though that does not sound too realistic.
        We learned that this is one of many films that paint a dark picture of the journalism profession to the general public.
        And a conflict of interest is the most occuring ethical dilemma in a journalist’s life.
        Thanks for the blog.

      • Thanks for getting back with me. The discussion you had in class about the film sounds like it was an interesting one. I think jouralism is an interesting field to get into, but I was under the impression that with the advent of the internet and declining newspaper sales that journalism was now an area were it was tough to get a job, or make a career, or am I wrong?

  3. Everyonesa Critic

    Thanks for the review and forum for discussion. I don’t see the problem with Megan betraying Rosen because she never promised him confidentiality; he just left the file where he knew she would read it. On the other hand, Teresa asked Megan not to use her name or otherwise mention her, although Megan did not agree to this before Teresa blabbed the information. The story could have said that a witness puts Gallagher out of town at the time of the murder, without mentioning either her name or that it was for an abortion.

    Incidentally, the date in question (May 25, 1980) was the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. I’ll bet there’s no place in America to get an abortion the Saturday, Sunday, or Monday of Memorial Day weekend.

  4. Absence of interest A bore ultimately and forgettable.

  5. Field gives one of her most annoying performances.

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