One flaw too many: ‘David Gale’ falls short of expectations

Melissa Ryerson

Simply put, “The Life of David Gale” is a good film. It is a commendably unabashed commentary on hairy social-political issues such as the death penalty and trial by the almighty American media. I would like to extol any movie that puts Kevin Spacey and Kate Winslet under the unrelenting lens of Alan Parker as the next “Midnight Express,” or at least the “Traffic” of the criminal court system. As “The Life of David Gale” puts forth, almost great films don’t count and, alas, the film’s best intentions are left unrealized.

The story follows reporter Bitsey Bloom (Winslet) as she interviews death row inmate David Gale (Spacey) three days prior to his execution. Gale, a formerly acclaimed philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, was convicted seven years ago for the rape and brutal murder of his collegue Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney). The irony of the situation is that Gale’s and Hallaway’s relationship was formed through their mutual leadership of DeathWatch, an anti-execution advocacy group in Texas, the state with the highest assassination rate in the nation. Gale enlists Bloom to tell his story and more importantly, exonerate his son’s father in the media. As Gale recounts his story, Bloom becomes more convinced of his innocence and in the next 72 hours, endeavors to find the videotape the killer made of the crime.

The major flaw of the film is that it is screenwriter Charles Randolph II’s first script. Randolph makes too many choices that diffuse his central story; he puts Winslet with an unknown intern, a character who is never developed. The audience sees that Bloom cares about Gale, but this relationship never materializes and their scenes stall the interest fueled by Gale’s backstory. Similarly, the relationship between Hallaway and a DeathWatch worker, revealed as the prime suspect in her murder, is never advanced and its discovery is no more than a handy prop to move the action of Bloom’s investigation. Then there’s the issue of plausibility – no “Law & Order”-savvy viewer will buy that a case of suffocation was tried sans forensic analysis. It’s a tad unbelievable that Bloom cracks the case with a plastic bag and a tripod one afternoon when two Texas courts have been unsuccessful.

The well-intended script is in the expert hands of director Alan Parker, best known for the 1978 thriller “Midnight Express” (a film that has done more to discourage the occasional recreational puff than D.A.R.E. could ever dream). He has the ability to keep the pace and visuals fresh. Coupled with the inherently dramatic time device, the film holds the viewer’s attention despite the story flaws.

The acting overall is decent, and Linney delivers an outstanding performance. Best known for her performance in “You Can Count on Me,” Linney fashions a subtle and moving glimpse into the mindset of a liberal zealot who has, in a sense, devoted her life to death. Winslet gives her usual earnestness and relieved emotion, but her efforts seem misplaced in a character as one-dimensional as Bloom. Spacey plays Gale in a performance that is typical of his characters, but effective.

The triumph of “The Life of David Gale” is how it demonstrates the effects of the trial-by-media that Gale received before death row, when he was a pompous, successful professor and an expelled student falsified a rape claim against him.

As he recounts how the accusation cost him his job, his reputation, his wife and custody of his young son, the message Gale sends is clear — the insinuations of the media, and the public’s belief in them, made him a violent criminal long before his murder conviction.

The peripheral politics of the exploitative powers of the media are brought to the forefront at the conclusion when justice will be served if Bloom can air Gale’s story before the state takes his life. The ramifications won’t surprise you, but considering that the current war started as a tagline on CNN (or was it Fox?), they will make you think.