American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally, 2021.
Directed by Michael Polish.
Starring Meadow Williams, Al Pacino, Thomas Kretschmann, Mitch Pileggi, Lala Kent, Swen Temmel, Jasper Polish, John D. Hickman, Sewell Whitney, Drew Taylor, Jesy McKinney, and Carsten Norgaard.
An American woman named Mildred Gillars broadcast Nazi propaganda during World War II. She was dubbed Axis Sally by the American GIs who simultaneously loved and hated her. The story plunges the viewer into the dark underbelly of the Third Reich’s hate-filled propaganda machine, Sally’s eventual capture, and subsequent trial for treason in Washington D.C. after the war.
Maybe it’s not fair to expect every plot synopsis to be forthright, but American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally seems to be going out of its way to hide that the eponymous Radio Berlin persona (real name Mildred Gillars and played here with an empty and icy demeanor by Meadow Williams) throughout World War II was disseminating Nazi propaganda to American troops and families as a means of survival under direct order from Joseph Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann). Except, Mildred is not an entirely sympathetic historical figure ether (judging from the way she is presented here, under direction from Michael Polish and a handful of screenwriters stitching this Frankenstein narrative together) as she got her way into that line of broadcasting (with assistance from her German partner Max Otto Koischwitz as played by Carsten Norgaard) more concerned with recognition and fame rather than potential consequences.
Just as fast as American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally introduces us to the supposed American traitor, the story flashes forward to Mildred’s eventual federal trial (there are counts of treason and war crimes, among other things) where she is to be represented by court jester James Laughlin (Al Pacino, and to his credit he is not phoning this one in, reminding us why he’s one of the greatest actors to ever graced the business, with a rousing climactic speech) who initially sees the case as another job instead of one worth fighting over. It’s also not hard to see why James thinks this way, considering the film can’t be bothered to create an actual arc for Mildred. Michael Polish’s film wants viewers to perceive her as a victim herself (and there are some horrific sequences of sexual abuse at the hands of Joseph Goebbels making that point) but fails at the crucial step of generating empathy for how she goes from wannabe radio star to forced into becoming a Nazi propaganda voice.
Admittedly, there are some immediate juxtapositions repeatedly switching between Mildred’s career aspirations with James. He could be seen as no better in some ways for craving the publicity of the case. With Hitler and company dead, Mildred has become the most hated person in America even if she didn’t stand behind the numerous songs and speeches punching down America and lifting Nazi Germany she was ordered to give. Hence, there is a lesson to be told about blind justice and vengeance.
The issue is that the script never settles on what story to tell, cramming everything into a stuffed 109 minutes that never allows any of the characters or relationship dynamics to elicit any engagement. Take the ties Mildred has with Max; there are scenes of her pouring her heart out over his importance (and there is a sense that her emotionless body language during the trial stems from his death), yet they feel empty and meaningless. It’s as if American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is three separate movies patched into one, admittedly intriguing, but an incompetent mess.
There are also some supporting characters (a limping war veteran that seeks James’ mentorship, another character that I believe is supposed to be James’ daughter, which factors into nothing) that serve no useful purpose. Handfuls of World War II stock footage are deployed as a transitioning device, at least until the filmmakers finally give up and start using subsequent awkward fades to black. Whether intentional or not, Meadow Williams is one of the only bright spots here as someone challenging to read. We know Mildred is good at acting (it’s mentioned that she studied dramatic arts), so it’s typically fascinating watching the propaganda portions. But if the film is also supposed to be about her tricking lawyers into clearing her reputation or her regret, that’s nonexistent.
Again, even the filmmakers have no idea what American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is supposed to be, especially when scene-to-scene the same information is revealed. And I mean details that were learned two minutes ago. The story here is worth telling and undeniably interesting, so maybe American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally will convince someone else to do it better.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com