It’s not a critic’s place to say (or to know) if “American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally” only exists because producer and star Meadow Williams — eager to jumpstart an unremarkable career that might have reached its high point with a small part in the Mel Gibson Hulu movie “Boss Level” — used some of the $800 million fortune she controversially inherited from her much older and very dead vitamin tycoon husband to buy herself a starring role in a biopic so chintzy that it seems like even Al “I’ll do literally anything as long as my hair gets to look like a dead bird” Pacino had to get Bowfingered into being in it.
All a critic can say is that no other explanation would seem to account for the unnatural lifelessness of this film about the first woman ever convicted for treason against the United States. No other explanation would account for why “Twin Falls Idaho” director Michael Polish — a compellingly eccentric figure on the indie scene before he pivoted to faith-based slop and the kind of Mel Gibson movies that are only sold in gas stations — would choose an actress with exactly one facial expression to play the lead role. No other explanation would account for why “American Traitor” looks so flimsy that even the courtroom where it takes place seems like a Zoom background; Pacino has made a lot of movies that feel like glorified tax shelters, but this is the first that appears to have actually been shot in one.
Perhaps — and remember, this is not a legally binding presumption — Meadows related to the story of an “unfairly” vilified blonde actress whose heart was in the right place despite how things might have looked from the outside. The details are spotty and the facts are loose, but when “American Traitor” first introduces Mildred Gillars (Williams) she appears to be a willing participant in the Nazi propaganda machine. The year is 1941 (you can tell because a title card says “1941”), and Hitler is still trying to dissuade America from getting involved in his plot to overthrow Europe. Gillars’ job is to get on the radio, speak into the microphone with a voice so breathy that it could blow Marilyn Monroe’s dress up, and demoralize the soldier boys back home into staying there. “What chance do you have?” she coos over the air like a genocidal Betty Boop as Joseph Goebbels himself (Thomas Kretschmann) gets hot and bothered in the studio behind her.
At that point, of course, Goebbels’ name didn’t come attached with the same historical weight that it does today (nor was he actually there for the “Axis Sally” broadcasts in real life), and it’s plausible enough that Gillars either didn’t understand the role that she was playing or didn’t know how to extricate herself from it without being killed. Maybe she was a white supremacist, or maybe she was just a girl from Ohio who had the misfortune of falling in love with a German who said that he wouldn’t marry her if she moved back home. Williams’ blank performance certainly doesn’t shed any light on the truth — dressed for a funeral and slathered with a thick black lip, the actress spends the entire movie tilting her head in a frozen half-smile that reduces Gillars to nothing more than a life-sized Klaus Barbie Doll — and the screenplay that Polish, Darryl Hicks, and Vance Owen have adapted from William E. Owen’s book “Axis Sally Confidential” is pasted together with laughably fake newspaper headlines that stamp out any hope for nuance. Even the shortcuts in this movie have their own shortcuts.
But anyone hoping for an ethically ambiguous portrait of life during wartime is sure to be disappointed by the film’s ultra-didactic parallel storyline set during Gillars’ Washington, DC trial circa 1948. Enter: Pacino as showboat celebrity defense lawyer James Laughlin, and Swen Temmel as Billy Owen, the naïve young co-counsel who Laughlin hires because Temmel is Williams’ boyfriend and he needed to play someone in this thing. Owen was a real person, as the end credits make a point of proving to us, but his role in this movie is so poorly established that he feels almost as fictitious as the awful scene where Goebbels rapes Gillars into realizing that she’s on the wrong side of history — a scene that naturally takes place in the radio studio, because Puerto Rico is a rather limiting place to shoot a movie set in Nazi Germany.
The decision to cross-cut between the two timelines stultifies any sort of narrative momentum or dramatic coherence as “American Traitor” works overtime to convince us that Gillars was a victim of the same propaganda that she peddled over the airwaves. Points are made about how people are more easily manipulated when they think they’re operating under their own free will, but not even the shrewdest lines of dialogue are able to make an impression when the “trial of the century” around them seems like it’s taking place at the DMV.
The money required to fake a convincing sense of national interest seems to have been spent on Pacino, whose loud-quiet-loud schtick is as perfect for courtroom dramas as it is for Pixies songs (“you don’t strike me as a man who does charity” Gillars says to Laughlin in a line that resonates with unintended meaning). The guy might be on auto-pilot for most of the movie, but he closes things out with the kind of barnstorming monologue that you typically have to pay Broadway ticket prices to hear Pacino deliver; it’s hard to remember what he says in it, but he says it with such hair-shaking fervor that it sells you on the raw power of the spoken word better than Axis Sally ever does. Whatever Williams spent on the front-row seat she may or may not have bought herself here, we can only hope it was more worth it for her than it will be for anyone else.
“American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally” is now playing in select theaters and on VOD from Vertical Entertainment.