‘American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally’ Review

World War II continues to provide the stories of individuals who were caught up in the horrific events surrounding the war – some folks acted heroically, some despicably, and still others simply did what they could to survive. American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally director Michael Polish (Northfork, 2003) adapted the screenplay with Vance Owen and Darryl Hicks from the book by Mr. Owen and his father William E. Owen. It’s the nearly forgotten story of an American woman drawn into the powerful Nazi propaganda machine, and subsequently tried for treason.

Mildred Gillars is a name few will be familiar with. Portrayed here by Meadow Williams, Ms. Gillars was known as Axis Sally by American servicemen during WWII. Her radio broadcasts of Nazi propaganda alternately entertained and enraged Americans, and this depiction of her story shines a light on the lengths to which the Nazis utilized psychological warfare in conjunction with traditional tanks and guns.

Director Polish spends most of the movie’s runtime on Gillars’ trial for treason, which provides a courtroom for Oscar winner Al Pacino (now 81 years old) to play her attorney James Laughlin and chew scenery with an enthusiasm and fervor matched by few actors. Joining Laughlin at the defense table is green-behind-the-ears attorney (and former GI soldier) Billy Owen (Swen Temmel), whose warm approach contrasts well with Laughlin’s gusto. The lead prosecutor John Kelly is played by Mitch Pileggi (“The X-Files”), and other supporting roles are covered by Lala Kent, Jasper Polish, and Carsten Norgaard.

Flashbacks are vital here, as we see Gillars “perform” her act, often in front of Joseph Goebbels, the chief propagandist of the Nazis during the war. Thomas Kretschmann (U-571) is excellent and sufficiently creepy as Goebbels, and some of the most intense scenes feature Goebbels and Gillars. Filmmaker Polish takes a sympathetic approach to Gillars, an approach surely to ruffle some feathers. The trial is not often remembered in the aftermath of the war, but Ms. Gillars’ story makes us wonder just what we might do if our life was threatened…and just as importantly, how would our actions be judged after the fact?