The Rudy Giuliani biopic plays a cheap trick.

The Rudy Giuliani biopic plays a cheap trick.

The Rudy Giuliani biopic plays a cheap trick.

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March 31 2003 6:48 PM

Rudy's Cheap Trick

Still from Rudy.
Ersatz Giuliani is not good enough.

Before Rudy (USA, Tuesday, 9 p.m. ET) even begins, we are warned—in one of the most cringing don't-hate-me pleas ever made on television—that some of the material in the movie "may not be acceptable to all viewers."

Virginia Heffernan Virginia Heffernan

Virginia Heffernan is a contributing editor at Politico. Follow her on Twitter.

Acceptable?

With this craven message, Robert Dornhelm (RFK, Anne Frank,and Sins of the Father), the director of this Rudolph Giuliani biopic, is almost certainly apologizing in advance for his decision to splice scenes of the actor James Woods shot in Montreal together with news footage of the collapse of the World Trade Center. He's right to doubt this decision. It's pathetic. Honey-lit studio scenes of Woods getting prostate cancer, chastising his underlings, and courting Donna Hanover (and Cristyne Lategano and then Judith Nathan) alternate with jostled day-lit video shot in New York City by photojournalists. The producers then attempt periodically to match the light and sound of the news tape with their own handheld/natural light sequences. The result is a swindle so amateurish and witless that one wonders what USA Network takes us for.

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I don't accept it. But there's no use grousing anymore about cavalier conflations of fact and fiction in popular entertainment. For years viewers have tolerated fictional sequences in TV documentaries; they're re-creations, re-enactments, art. At the same time, following movies like Zelig (1983)and Forrest Gump (1994), we've accustomed ourselves to the queer sight of fictional figures cavorting in news footage. But now these hybrid movies have proliferated, especially on television—and the novelty's worn off. Though they can be stimulating as montages, they deliberately oblige the viewer to sort out for himself what's true and what's staged. A quick accounting, from the weekend: The makers of The Real Saddam, which premiered on the Discovery Times Channel Saturday, don't actually have tape of Saddam Hussein trying to kill Adel-Karim Kasim, the former prime minister of Iraq. That's an actor. And themakers of Rudy did not build two steel towers and use special effects to burn them down. That was real.

Why do producers love this fact-fiction synthesis? Is poly-cotton just cheaper to weave than the pure stuff? In the case of Rudy, it's obvious: Dornhelm uses tape of real events to compensate for the script's many failures. Though Rudy is based on Wayne Barrett's unsparing biography of Giuliani, its subject's reputation was evidently burnished in the adaptation. Woods himself reportedly fired Stanley Weiser, the movie's first writer, for making Giuliani look bad; a sympathizer, Lionel Chetwynd, was brought in to replace him. Further tension between Woods and the network seems to have sapped the confidence of the script almost entirely. Only in Woods' purported ad-libs—on a tear, he has Giuliani refer to Wayne Barrett as a "panty-sniffer"—are traces of anyone's passion for the subject.

The remaining drama is not drama: The trudge through Giuliani's love life, all of which has been better relayed in one-liners in the New York Post, is enlivened only by Michelle Nolden's hot rendering of Lategano, who loves the mayor and city politics with equal sexual intensity. But then Giuliani's speeches to his henchmen in the U.S. Attorney's office are packed with clichés. And his policies are—largely—explained rather than dramatized. This is especially disappointing in the case of Giuliani's clever exploitation of RICO laws to bust New York's five intractable crime families; the back-room negotiations—which never made the nightly news—could have provided sustained high drama here. But in Rudy, plot points are hit and quickly abandoned.It's no wonder that Dornhelm, having failed to earn suspense in the movie's writing or production,decided to steal it. And so fierce must have been his anxiety that his story was flat that he chose, incautiously, to throw in not just visual references to Sept. 11th, but the full spread: video of people screaming, buildings falling, smoke swallowing everything. If the movie fails to arouse, at least the viewer can count on being terrified by the old bad news again.

Because the power of Rudy is extrinsic to it—it comes from an outsized act of violence that was caught on tape—it doesn't belong to the movie at all. Rudy, as written, is a poor thing. But there's one more disappointment. Flinty, angry James Woods was an excellent choice to play Giuliani, but he's inhibited here. He so often has to restage events that were actually caught on camera (and, in some cases, already used very effectively in HBO's documentary In Memoriam) that he frequently abandons his performance and turns in merely an impression of Giuliani, one that relies above all on hair and makeup. But that's no surprise. In shoddy fact-fiction blends like Rudy, even an actor like Woods is just a re-enactor. Does Hollywood's tough guy find that acceptable?