- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

It might seem counterintuitive to highlight the DVD release of a biopic about one of the South’s most powerful voices for segregation this close to the federal celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day — not to mention days after the inauguration of our first black president. But “George Wallace,” the 1997 TNT miniseries now available on DVD for the first time, is an enduring historical document and a testament to just how much progress America has made in recent decades.

“It just seemed like the perfect time to look back at the civil rights movement,” says Gary Sinise, who won an Emmy for his portrayal of the Alabama governor. “Wallace was such a figure, such an antagonist in that movement … and when you watch it now, knowing how far we’ve come since the early sixties, it has a special relevance.”

The three-hour docudrama examines a 20-year period of Mr. Wallace’s life, starting with his gubernatorial loss in 1958 and tracking his transformation from Southern populist into fire-breathing segregationist and divisive presidential candidate. John Frankenheimer directed the movie, giving a fair — almost too fair — airing of Mr. Wallace’s opportunistic racism and subsequent repudiation of segregation after the 1972 attempt on his life.

Along the way, the audience gets a look at the political sensibilities informing Mr. Wallace’s retrograde policies — the advisers suggesting he take a harder line against federally mandated integration, his need to win at the cost of alienating black voters, his personal ambivalence toward racism. It’s a surprisingly nuanced look at an oft-vilified politician.

Mr. Sinise says he was actively involved as an “almost equal partner” in shaping the film with Mr. Frankenheimer, “rather than just an actor for hire.”

“The movie was supposed to be two hours long and one night, but we kept adding things to the script as we were researching it,” Mr. Sinise recalls. “I just kept bringing in bit after bit and scene after scene, suggesting that it be in the movie. Frankenheimer agreed with me 99 percent of the time.”

Mr. Sinise’s suggestions were clearly helpful: “George Wallace” was a smash hit at the time. Mr. Sinise, fresh off of his Emmy-nominated turn in HBO’s miniseries on the life of Harry S. Truman, won his first Emmy for this performance. Joining him in the winner’s circle were Mr. Frankenheimer and Mare Winningham, who won for her tortured portrayal of Mr. Wallace’s long-suffering wife, Lurleen.

The Golden Globes were also kind. Angelina Jolie, in one of her first major performances, took home a supporting actress statue for her take on Mr. Wallace’s second wife, Cornelia. The production took home best miniseries or motion picture made for TV.

Despite the accolades, “George Wallace” languished on the shelf for the better part of a decade; this is its first outing on DVD. How does a movie that did so well get neglected by the studios for so long?

“Usually there’s a director involved in getting the DVD ready,” explained Mr. Sinise. “The director of the movie is usually somebody who is helping to put the thing together, doing commentary on it, putting back deleted scenes, or doing a director’s cut that makes the DVD release have several special features.”

Although Mr. Frankenheimer had always planned on putting together a special edition of the film, he got swept up by other projects and died before getting the chance to get to work on it. The movie had pretty much disappeared from view until Mr. Sinise saw it at a film festival in 2007.

“The movie actually plays fantastically on the big screen,” says Mr. Sinise. “It’s like this big feature. And after that, I said this can’t just disappear. I don’t want this to just fall through the cracks and be gone forever.”

Mr. Sinise took the initiative, spearheading an effort to get the film back in the hands of audiences. He called the executives at Warner Home Video and promised to get his co-stars involved in helping bring the movie back to the fore; Miss Jolie and Miss Winningham both agreed to take part in a documentary that accompanies the film.

As a result, this lost Frankenheimer classic is now available for viewing once again. What better time than now to take a look at just how far America has come?

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