American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally tells the true story of Nazi propagandist Mildred Gillars. Born in Maine, Gillars moved to Germany in the mid-1930s to pursue her dreams as a singer and theater performer. She became the American voice of the Third Reich’s RRG (German State Radio). She expounded Nazi superiority and anti-semitic doctrine to millions of listeners in Europe and the United States. Much like her infamous 20th century cohorts Tokyo Rose and Hanoi Hannah, Axis Sally’s dulcet tones were quite effective and viewed as high treason.
Director Michael Polish (Twin Falls Idaho, Force of Nature) adapts the novel “Axis Sally Confidential” by William E. Owen, who started his legal career as an assistant defense counsel at her trial. The film opens with stark archival footage of World War II. The aspect ratio transitions to letterbox with Mildred Gillars (Meadow Williams) being arrested by American soldiers for treason shortly after the fall of Germany. The time frame jumps to 1948 Washington, D.C. James Laughlin, played superbly by Al Pacino, a theatrical lawyer known for defending Communists, is assigned her defense by the government.
RELATED: Watch the First 8 Minutes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights Ahead of HBO Max Premiere
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally then goes back to 1941 with Gillars being recruited by her lover, Max Otto Koischwitz (Carsten Norgaard), to perform on the radio. She catches the eyes and ears of the despicable Joseph Goebbels (Thomas Kretschmann). Who uses her to broadcast propaganda reports to American soldiers, and equally important, their families back home. The Americans were heading to certain death against an invincible enemy. Why waste your lives for the “cripple” Franklin Roosevelt and the British when your economy is in tatters?
Mildred Gillars dressed like a movie star during her trial. Laughlin despised her arrogance. But she quickly earned the sympathy of his naive junior counsel, Billy (Swen Temmel). As the prosecution paraded witnesses and played her recordings to the jury, Laughlin posited she had no choice. Disobedience meant death. The flashbacks continue with Gillars learning Nazi brutality the hard way. Her trial came down to a simple argument. Did Mildred Gillars renounce her country and willingly promote the Nazi regime? Or was she a forced accomplice to mass murder and unfathomable genocide?
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is an uneven film with multiple issues. Let’s start with what works. Al Pacino is fantastic as James Laughlin. His scenes in the courtroom are spellbinding. The muted cinematography, dark colors, and archival newsreels sell the need for retribution after the war. The problem is that the film never grips you in its entirety. There are long, dull stretches where the ensemble cast looks completely uninspired. Her background story in Germany fumbles her love for Max Koischwitz and repeated assaults by Goebbles. Even worse, any sympathy for Gillars’ predicament falls completely flat. Meadow Williams, a veteran actress and filmmaker, is hot and cold in her depiction of Axis Sally. The lack of cohesion must be attributed to Michael Polish. He’s not able to capitalize on what worked. Resulting in a mixed effort that ultimately doesn’t succeed.
The theme of equal justice under the law is not lost. Mildred Gillars, despite her treasonous acts, deserved a fair trial from an impartial jury. The strength of democracy holds when the rule of law prevails. I just wish the film had delivered this message in a better way. Be forewarned, there are graphic rape scenes. American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is produced by Pimienta, EFO Films, and Potato Eater Productions. It is currently available on demand and in limited theatrical release from Redbox Entertainment and Vertical Entertainment.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Movieweb.