The only thing necessary for the
triumph of evil is for good men to do
In 1968, Marie Ragghianti takes her three children and walks out on her abusive husband. While working as a waitress, she attends Vanderbilt University. Following her graduation, she is given a job by Eddie Sisk, a college acquaintance who is now legal counsel to Tennessee's newly elected Governor Ray Blanton. She works very hard as the state's extradition officer, while at home she deals with the nightmarish health problems her son suffers as a result of swallowing a nutshell.
Marie is eventually named chairperson of Tennessee's Board of Pardons and Paroles quite an honor for this industrious young woman. The thrill of the prestigious job is short-lived, however: Eddie Sisk is soon badgering her to expedite clemency recommendations for ineligible clients. When rumors start circulating that one of the Governor's cronies is selling pardons to hardcore criminals, Marie takes a stand against Sisk and the Governor: she contacts the FBI. The upshot is that there is an audit of her books and she is fired by Governor Blanton.
The charges against Marie are based on irregularities in her expense account and overtime hours: in addition, wildfire rumors spread that she dispensed sexual favors to attain her position. Despite the character assassination campaign mounted to intimidate Marie, she decides to follow her attorney's advise and sue the Governor for wrongful dismissal. Before the trial is over, a close supporter is murdered.
The film, masterfully directed by Roger Donaldson (Smash Palace), is based on Peter Maas's nonfiction book Marie: A True Story. Sissy Spacek gives another inspiring performance as a woman who grows in stature during the course of the film. She is tested by a violent husband, poverty, and a son who nearly dies before the ultimate test of standing up to corruption. In John Briley's (Ghandi) screenplay, she emerges as a heroine who breaks all the stereotypes about the passive female who puts security and family safety above all else.
In addition to Spacek's gritty performance, Jeff Daniels is very good as the slippery, upwardly mobile Eddie Sisk, Don Hood is convincing as the patronizing and power hungry Governor, and Fred Thompson (who actually was Marie Ragghianti's lawyer during the trial) comes across very well in his screen debut.
In the spirit of Serpico, Norma Rae, and Silkwood, this film celebrates the integrity and courage of those who fight for their beliefs. It is possible, their stories tell us, to challenge the system and win.