Review: American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally

STUDIO: Vertical Entertainment | DIRECTOR: Michael Polish | CAST: Al Pacino, Meadow Williams, Mitch Pileggi, Thomas Kretschmann, Carsten Norgarrd
RELEASE DATE: May 28, 2021
SPECS: NR | 107 min. | Drama

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 

“Axis Sally” was the stage name given to Mildred Gillars, who was essentially the Nazi version of “Tokyo Rose.” Gillars was a failed American entertainer from Maine who sang popular songs with the backing of an orchestra and communicated Nazi propaganda over the radio airwaves from Berlin during World War II. Her broadcast was written and closely monitored by high-ranking Hitler official Joseph Goebbels, who threatened Gillars if she didn’t follow his scripts to a T.

Told in flashbacks and flash-forwards by director Mark Polish (who with his twin brother Michael Polish made such notable indies as Twin Falls Idaho and Jackpot), American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is a sturdy but uneven account of Gillars’ story, showing how she engaged English-speaking listeners with her incendiary remarks while ignoring the potential impact of her words and actions. Listened to loyally by many American GIs, the smoky-voiced Axis Sally mixed swing tunes with suggestions that American troops should surrender to the Nazis, along with fictional claims that GIs were cheating on their wives or girlfriends with other women while serving overseas.

For her first starring role in a film, Meadow Williams (Den of Thieves) does a solid job, charismatically showing the entertainer’s determination to succeed in show business at the expense of both her morals and country.  Meanwhile, Thomas Kretschmann (Dragged Across Concrete) is spot-on as the menacing Goebbels and Carsten Norgarrd (The Man in the High Castle) makes a strong impression as Gillars’ show business mentor and romantic interest.

The surprise of the film to many will be that Al Pacino (Scarface) has a sizable supporting role as Gillars’ real-life legal counsel James Laughlin, a bombastic attorney handed the near-impossible task to clear his client’s name after the war in light of her treasonous actions. Pacino plays up the bluster in the courtroom scenes a bit, but he brings a much-needed spark to the proceedings. Despite his 1940s threads, however, Pacino often seems oddly contemporary in his demeanor (perhaps it’s the unruly head of hair)? which throws off the period setting a bit.

There are other issues that curtail the film’s impact as well, including an abrupt, unsatisfying ending and a muddled attempt to relate Gillars’ acts to modern-day political events and her constitutional rights. Additionally, it’s tough to buy  the bellicose courtroom speeches Pacino uses to defend Axis Sally’s nefarious deeds.

Still, the film is a real curio—a serious examination of a propagandist, who sold her soul to manipulate the masses and satisfy her need to draw attention.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.