My oh my, what a mess.
WUSA has great credentials; a talented and beautiful cast including Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Perkins and Laurence Harvey star in a genre that interests me, that of the political conspiracy thriller. But it fails to sustain interest on any level and swiftly sinks into a meandering, pretentious mess that thinks its deeper and more profound than it actually is.
Paul Newman stars as an itinerant drifter or, as he claims 'a communicator', called Reinhardt who arrives in New Orleans looking for work and ways to spend his time. He comes across both in the shape of Joanne Woodward's call girl and an offer to be a DJ for the right leaning local radio station WUSA, run by Pat Hingle. Meanwhile, a shy and twitchy liberal social worker Rainey, played by Anthony Perkins, who is conducting a survey among the neighbourhood's black welfare claimants but things don't sit right with him, and when he begins investigating just who employed him to perform the research, he finds all roads lead him to WUSA, a station that is notoriously anti-crime, anti-welfare and fearful regarding what they perceive to be a lack of patriotism in the country.
Admittedly there's a certain prescience to WUSA in the notion that the media can be easily controlled or owned by jingoistic right wing conmen keen to push their own hateful political agenda (Fox News in the States anyone? Or here in the UK, the current alarming fascination the BBC seem to have for Nigel Farage and UKIP) but Robert Stone's screenplay (based on his 1969 novel A Hall of Mirrors) is unnecessarily flowery and deliberately ponderous, faults that director Stuart Rosenberg doesn't seem keen, or able, to right. The crux of the movie; the station who are pushing an unsavoury propaganda, all too often plays out like the B storyline to the lumbering Newman/Woodward romance or the needling Newman gives to Perkins, rather than taking its rightful place centre stage sustaining our interest.
One of the biggest problems with WUSA is Paul Newman himself; whether or not he convinces as a boozy drifter whose natural charisma seems to give him the credentials to be welcomed by the right wing and the cardboard cut out counterculture hippies of the film at the same time is actually immaterial (though still problematic), the real issue here is the film doesn't seem to know whether it should be condemning or praising his character's moral apathy. Newman cannot help but appear cool, in stark contrast to Perkins' Rainey who is for much of the film a somewhat inarticulate idealist easily bested by Newman's cyncism in conversation. Yet the film surely wants us to side with Rainey's beliefs if not with the man himself, just as they wish us to side with Newman's Reinhardt's character rather than the beliefs he chooses to spout?
The film falls awkwardly between two stools coming in between the 60s conspiracy films such as The Manchurian Candidate (which of course also starred Laurence Harvey, who bookends this film as a charming sham preacher friend of Newman's) and later examples of the genre from the 70s such as the excellent The Parallax View which served as a response to the Nixon administration and the ongoing war in Vietnam. Unfortunately WUSA is nowhere near as good as either of those examples.
WUSA proved to be the biggest flop of Newman's career, and it's easy to see why. The film poster's tag line was 'Love it or leave it', it's safe to assume the majority chose the latter.