11 July 2000 | Mankin
Still one of the best Hollywood docudramas
Handsomely mounted in the Warner Brothers style of the 30's, and topped off with a stirring Max Steiner score, "The Life of Emile Zola" (***) remains a passionately engrossing experience. Refreshingly, the film admits upfront right after the opening titles that it's a fictionalization, something that isn't done nearly as often it should be in today's purportedly "true story" docudramas. (These days, this disclaimer is often buried in the fine print at the very end of the credits after nearly everyone has left the theater.) Even so, "Zola" remains remarkably true to the facts. It skips lightly over the author's early years in the first 20 minutes and then soars to gripping dramatic heights in the outrageous libel trial that Zola underwent after he published his celebrated "J'Accuse" which condemned the hypocrisy and corruption of the military establishment as it falsely accused high-ranking Captain Alfred Dreyfus of treason and then attempted a massive cover-up when it realized it had made a mistake. The movie has been criticized for underplaying the anti-semitic aspects of the Dreyfus prosecution, but it's implied quite neatly in the scene where the camera pans down Dreyfus's resume to his religion while one of his superiors marvels how "someone like that" could became an officer. The film does indulge in some pretty fancy compression towards the end. It implies that Dreyfus was reinstated in the Army right after returning from Devil's Island and on the same day as Zola's tragic accidental death. However, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the real facts are even more disturbing and incredible. In 1899 after his return, Dreyfus was retried and found guilty again by a court tribunal! However, he was pardoned by the President. He was finally cleared of all charges and reinstated in the service in 1906, four years after Zola's death in 1902. Interesting sidelight: Zola and his devoted wife had no children but he did carry on a 14-year affair with one of his housemaids that produced 2 children. I guess there's no way the Warner Brothers were going to complicate the image of their hero as a saintly crusader for truth and justice by including this spicy little domestic tidbit.