Director Stuart Rosenberg rarely shows up in the roll call of ’60s/’70s American auteurs, and understandably so. Though Rosenberg helmed one of the best movies of the ’60s in Cool Hand Luke, and had two good-sized hits a decade later with The Amityville Horror and Brubaker, his style is often maddening. Rosenberg specialized in genre films, but largely eschewed the taut pacing and uncomplicated storytelling that makes mysteries, Westerns, and action pictures work. He preferred to explore the subtleties of human behavior, and the way people fade into their habitats, which probably explains why he made four films with Paul Newman, who liked to work small.
In 1970’s WUSA—based on a novel by Robert Stone—Newman plays an alcoholic disc jockey who rolls into New Orleans and lands a job at the titular radio station, which specializes in pleasant music and right-wing shit-stirring. Newman shrugs off the content of his scripted oratory, which irritates his damaged live-in lover, Joanne Woodward, and his disillusioned activist neighbor, Anthony Perkins. While those three debate personal responsibility in roundabout ways, Rosenberg studies how their faces and body language say what their voices won’t, then pulls back to take in the peeling paint, fading wallpaper, and cracked plaster of their low-rent apartments.
The problem—at least for some viewers—is that WUSA is meant to be a political thriller. The plot moves unsteadily to a big rally staged by Newman’s bosses, and to the riot they’re conspiring to instigate. But WUSA is no Three Days Of The Condor. Stone adapts his own book into a patter-heavy, multi-perspective drama, with far more scenes of the three principals talking around each other over glasses of booze or dishes of ice cream than scenes of smug white men in suits plotting to seize power back from the youth by fomenting race-hatred. Most descriptions of WUSA make it sound like a prescient predictor of Fox News, but the media criticism in the film is actually of its time. (Listen to The Byrds’ “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” or Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” for cases-in-point.) If anything, the movie is ahead of its time for staging a violent climax at a political event years before Nashville, The Parallax View, or The Dead Zone (though not before The Manchurian Candidate or Medium Cool). The difference is that WUSA does so without generating any suspense. It’s an impressive feat of non-entertainment, really.
Still, WUSA may be more engaging now than it was when in 1970 precisely because it’s a thriller without thrills. Lacking the usual genre beats, Rosenberg is freed to tour New Orleans, from its seedier dives to its old-boy haunts. Rosenberg takes time out for a performance by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and roams the halls of The Playboy Club. He listens to White Power advocates and free-spirited hippies, and generally captures the weird vibe of one of America’s funkiest cities during one of our funkiest eras. WUSA is by no means a forgotten classic or even a great film, but it’ll turn on those film buffs who care more that a scene contains a rotating fan placed in front of a bowl of ice than they care about anything the characters in front of that fan have to say.
Key features: None. (Also, the sound mix on the DVD is terrible, even though the picture looks good.)