Journalistic Integrity – Absence of Malice

Absence of Malice (1981). Directed by Sydney Pollack. With Paul Newman, Sally Field, Bob Balaban

Theatrically released less than a month after my birth, I could not resist selecting Absence of Malice for savoring Paul Newman, journalism, and a young driven female reporter played by Sally Field is an easy sell for my preferences.

Kept apart from the main action, Megan (Sally Field) is not privy to the prize leads and stories.  To claw her way in, Megan allows an admirer to pitifully seek dates as he spills confidential information.  Megan never confirms her rejection of his entreaties, but rather, baits this male news resource for her professional gain.  Besides, as any frequenter of the cinemas know, that no matter Newman’s age, he will be the subject of female affection.

Prosecutor Rosen played by Bob Balaban invites Megan into his office leaving a tempting file for her perusal which ignites the fanfare and public impressions that Michael Colin Gallagher, son of deceased Mafia strongman Tom Gallagher, is at fault for Union Associate Joey Diaz’s death.  Pollack makes a valid case for how once a kernel of suspicion is cast, the injured party has no reasonable hope of cleansing one’s tarnished reputation in a comparable manner.

Early on, Megan runs a story about the Federal investigation mentioning Michael Colin Gallagher as a person of interest.  Head counselor tells Megan: “The truth of your story is irrelevant, we have no knowledge that the story is false; therefore, we are absent of malice.  We’ve been both reasonable and prudent, therefore, we are not negligent.  We may say whatever we like about Mr. Gallagher, and he is powerless to do us harm.  Democracy is served.”  This is the ethical meat of the film.

As a result, Michael Colin Gallagher literally marches into the press room up to Megan’s desk demanding an explanation.  This would be probably be unlikely in current times.  Audiences  cannot decide whether culpability should be levied as Gallagher insists upon his innocence in vain.  Hours later, Gallagher returns to his liquor warehouse where his Union workers are told to strike due to the Diaz murder.  Livelihood threatened, Gallagher receives a visit from Teresa whose nerves unwind and recoil at every published word in the article.  Significance surrounds the date connected to Gallagher’s alibi resounds in Teresa’s memory for which we learn why in subsequent scenes.

Newman’s mature status is readily aligned with Megan’s special relationship with her father.  She types letters to her father as opposed to calling which conveys something more considered and caring.  Letter writing belongs to an older traditional of correspondence that had been supplanted by quick phone chats.  Tensions escalate when Megan reports about Teresa’s abortion procedure that while liberating Gallagher from blame destroys Teresa’s stability.  Missing from the article is the fact: Teresa had been raped.  Working at a Catholic school, Teresa clutches the morning paper to her chest then runs to collect all her neighbor’s rolled copies.  She commits suicide.  Overwhelmed by her conscience, Megan rushes to the warehouse to apologize and encounters Gallagher’s wrath.  This tumbling and torn clothing acts as a prelude to the sexual affair in development.

While ascertaining Megan’s sympathies and loyalties, Gallagher manipulates a government official and entangles the Federal Investigators as well.  The showdown in a private room reveals Gallagher’s cunning for vindication.

Pollack captures the loneliness of both main protagonists and manages to elucidate the nuances and questionable practices employed by the press.  Watching the film from the vantage of published print’s near extinction makes this production much more romantic in its portrayal of hungry reporters pursuing leads amidst the clamor of ringing phones and typewriter clankings.

Enjoyable film.

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