Life Of David Gale, The
A philosophy professor vigorously opposed to the death penalty finds himself on death row when his associate in the advocacy group Death Watch is murdered.
With four days left before his execution, notoriously reticent death row inmate David Gale (Kevin Spacey) decides at last to share his story with the press. He chooses as his vessel reporter Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), who's just spent a week in the slammer for refusing to reveal her sources on a kiddie porn cover story. As Gale's story unfolds (and we see it in flashback), Bitsey becomes convinced he's innocent, and she and her intern Zack (Gabriel Mann) begin a race against the clock to discover the truth that will save him. Sound like an overblown blurb from a movie studio's press files? Apologies for that, but the best way to talk about this story's climactic points is to resort to hyperbolic clichés of this ilk--the movie's key moments are without exception melodramatic and overblown. Nonetheless, most of the movie is suspenseful, the story has several interesting (I wouldn't go so far as compelling) twists, and there are plenty of reasons to root for Gale's cause, especially if, like him and, admittedly, like me, you're a political liberal who fancies yourself at least somewhat intellectual.
If there's one thing that defines Kevin Spacey's acting style, it's his unparalleled ability to discourse at length on philosophical minutiae, a gift that undoubtedly contributed to his getting this role in the first place. But Spacey gets to stretch a bit more playing Gale--the professorial character in his pre-death row life was a loose cannon, even by academia's standards: he partied with his students, talked about fantasy and desire in class, and belonged to Death Watch, a liberal advocacy group opposed to the death penalty. Beyond that, his personal life was a disaster. His wife was having an affair with a Spaniard, Gale was a borderline alcoholic, and his ego was the size of a generously proportioned watermelon. So there are plenty of challenges for Spacey in the part--both in the flashbacks and the death row sequences--and he obviously embraces them all; unfortunately, sometimes he squeezes the life out of them in the process, foregoing, for example, the tragic nuances of real alcoholism for the stumbling sobriquets of an overblown town-drunk philosopher. The equally gifted Laura Linney as Constance--Gale's stalwart friend, fellow professor, co-director of Death Watch, and alleged murder victim--finds herself in less familiar territory. Her character is complex, yet remarkably one-dimensional, for most of the movie, which leaves the talented actress turning--albeit reluctantly--to melodrama for support. Winslet, too, is on unfamiliar ground with an American accent (quite well done, old chap-ette), a mission, and a bitchiness that's too little seen from this pristine young girl.
It's truly unfortunate that director Alan Parker didn't keep a tighter handle on The Life of David Gale's more dramatic moments, since had they come off better this would have been a more even and generally more watchable film. As it is, each of the talented lead actors has a scene in which they really let loose on the hysterical, wailing waterworks--Winslet, lucky gal, has two. They may not be bad enough to make you cringe, necessarily, but they're obviously overplayed. The film would have benefited from a wail-o-meter that would have allowed the bawling to go so far and only so far. All that aside, though, this film is ultimately less melodramatic than its equivalent TV movie version would have (and probably has) been--and that leads me to my final point. The Life of David Gale is about what TV pundits would call a hot-button issue, and while the public is intelligent enough not to be emotionally swayed by the hue and cry of activists on either side of the argument, we can--and by God, we will--be entertained by it. So I just want to say, thank you, Hollywood, for once again one-upping the 6 o'clock news, and for showing that even discussions of the most important issues of our time can be squeezed into a two-hour movie and manipulated in the interests of suspense and drama.
If The Life of David Gale were a novel, it would be the kind of $6.99 paperback murder mystery you buy in the airport before a long flight. It's entertaining, but a little thin.