One would think that the story of Mildred Gillars would be pretty straightforward, even from a legal perspective. The time in which we live now, of course, is far removed from the period in which the events of the movie occurred, but American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally offers such a seemingly clear-cut and streamlined version of Gillars’ story that someone would have to find it challenging to pick a side in this fight. Indeed, the story is so sharply defined that it becomes obvious cowriter/director Michael Polish’s film is not about choosing one side or another. This is a procedural, with one half of the story recounting how Gillars came to be arrested on eight counts of treason against the United States and the other half a courtroom drama.

Those halves of the story are told concurrently, so that, every once in a while during the trial, we flash back to some new bit of information about Gillars’ stint as a radio star in Berlin amid the height of the Third Reich. Mildred (Meadow Williams, in a performance that unfortunately approaches the character as something of a blank slate) has been given an ultimatum by an unseen Adolf Hitler and his righthand man Joseph Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann): continue to entertain the Reich under her stage name of “Axis Sally” by signing an oath of allegiance to the Führer, or die. Caught between these two positions, she chooses to live and is managed by Max Otto Koischwitz (Carsten Norgaard), singing German versions of silly children’s tunes and updating listeners on the whereabouts of their loved ones fighting in the war.

In the “present” of the film’s primary timeline, Mildred is on trial for treason, and the drama is split between the two sides of the argument. The two members of the prosecutorial team (Mitch Pileggi and Lala Kent) argue that any kind of sympathy extended within the vicinity of German Nazis — especially including the likes of Goebbels himself, who subjects Mildred to sexual humiliation — was an anti-American act. For the defense, James Laughlin (Al Pacino) and Billy Owen (Swen Temmel) argue that Mildred’s actions were those of a desperate would-be victim with a gun to her head.

There really is no drama of which to speak here, since Laughlin and Owen’s case in defense of Mildred is so obviously spot-on that Polish and his co-screenwriters, Vance Owen (upon whose book the film is based) and Darryl Hicks, can only paint the prosecution as the villains of the piece. If one doubts this, take into account that they have essentially cast Pacino, one of the greatest actors of our time, to deliver the closing defense argument with about half of his usual gusto. That’s all we need, the film argues, to be convinced of Mildred’s innocence.

The key to what makes American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally fall far short of its goal is, perhaps, its apparent clarity of purpose within the storytelling. The filmmakers have felt the need to convince us of Mildred’s innocence or guilt by way of these court proceedings, but they are assuming a whole lot about the character of a person whom they have no interest in interrogating or examining further. As a result, the real Gillars becomes a supporting player in her own story, with Laughlin and Owen instead being handed the reins of the film’s subjective perspective. That spells doom for everything here.

The filmmakers are assuming a whole lot about the character of a person whom they have no interest in interrogating or examining further.
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