Michael Burgess (Alan Alda) has hit a career peak. A respected history professor at a small American college, he has written a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the American Revolution which is now to become an epic film. The only clouds on his horizon are his relationship with his girlfriend, Gretchen Carlsen (Lise Hilboldt) who wants rather more commitment than he – following a messy divorce – is prepared to offer, and his senile mother (Lillian Gish), who believes the Devil has taken up residence in her kitchen and radiation from her television set counteracts the poison someone is putting in her food.
However, when the film crew hits town in a burst of ballyhoo Michael receives his first lessons in movie-making. The script has nothing to do with the book he wrote and the project is firmly aimed at the bubble-gum market, with a demographic aged from 12-22 which only wants three things from a film: defiance of authority, destruction of property, and nudity. If you remember how James Cameron made a teen romance set on a ship where 1,500 people lost their lives, you can see how this formula works in practice.
Horrified at the corruption of his work, Michael tries to influence hot-shot director Bo Hodges (Saul Rubinek) into making something more worthwhile, but without success. It is left to screenwriter Stanley Gould (Bob Hoskins) to lead Michael through the intricate steps of flattery and schmoozing that will allow him to make the changes he wants, culminating in sabotaging the filming of the fictional Battle of Cowpens itself.
Along the way Michael becomes romantically involved with the film's leading lady Faith Healy (Michelle Pfeiffer) - who at least seems determined to play her historical character accurately - and has a number of adventures with leading man Elliott James (Michael Caine).
You would expect a film about film-making helmed by a writer-director involved in movies from his childhood to be witty and full of insight, but Sweet Liberty misfires on several levels. First, too many plot strands are juggled into the running time; the scenes with Michael's mother could have been deleted and replaced with a deeper exploration of his relationship with Faith, for example, and it is sad to see Lillian Gish (the actress who almost froze to death for D.W. Griffith in Way Down East) wasted in a stereotypical batty old lady role. The fact that Gish's scenes are directly based on Alda's experiences with his own mother also raises - for me at least - questions of taste.
Other characters are also formulaic or inconsistent, particularly Bob Hoskins turn as Stanley, the manic screenwriter. To call Hoskins 'manic' is actually to understate matters, the scenery is covered in his toothmarks. In Hollywoodland writers are either vulgarians screaming “the hell with culture, we're makin' a movie here!” or morose frustrated-intellectual types like William Holden's Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd. Here we have the vulgarian writ large.
Inconsistency is most notable in the character of Michael himself. Does an educated, sophisticated man fail to realise when an actress is acting? Michael is drawn to Faith supposedly because she encapsulates her historic character just as he imagined her from her diaries. In fact Faith is taking the Daniel Day-Lewis approach and stays in character whenever she is in costume on the set. Has Michael therefore fallen for the character from history, or Faith as the character (as James Stewart fell for Judy Barton as Madeleine Elster in Vertigo)? This might have been interesting but is never explored. In the end, Michael simply says “You're not her at all” to register his disillusion.
The most interesting and likeable character is Michael Caine's Elliott, an Errol Flynn-type womanising ne'er do well who is actually a better swordsman than Michael and genuinely charming in that roguish, twinkle-in-the-eye way that women melt over and men sneakingly wish they could get away with. Unfortunately this character is given too little screen time.
Finally there are the plot holes. These range from irritatingly minor (Alan Alda stabs his backside on his girlfriend's sewing needle, whines about it for five minutes for supposedly comic effect, then sits down to put his trousers on without even wincing), to outright whoppers (when Alda sabotages the major battle scene he apologises to the director who says “No problem, I had six cameras on it, I can make what I want from it” - yeah, sure). The director consistently says “Screw historical accuracy” but has come to film on the actual historic site, as in Gettysburg. And when so much is made of the fact that everybody knows everybody in the small-town location, why is Alda amazed that one of his fellow extras is an electrician?
Alan Alda's fault as a writer is that his scenes tend to lead nowhere and are left hanging in mid-air. In this case it goes for the whole film. The ultimate blind alley are the changes Michael and Stanley manage to make to the script. We see them feverishly re-writing and handing new scenes to the actors, but never the 'before' and 'after', so what's the point? Presumably the director never even realises the scenes in his shooting script have been changed.
Sweet Liberty could have been an interesting and humorous look at the skewing of reality and identity inherent to the world of movie magic, but unfortunately it just doesn't work. Nor is it funny enough to be a straightforward comedy. This theme was tackled much better in The Stunt Man, a film which was far truer to life about the movie-making process, and had more laughs. It is significant that this film marked the end of Hollywood's love affair with Alan Alda, and the beginning of his career as a character actor in other people's films.