If you thought that as a fellow atheist I’d give a glowing review of a biopic of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, founding member of the American Atheists movement (still operating to this day) and victim of murder by a former employee, think again.
True, Ms Murray O’Hair was a fascinating, forthright and divisive character, one worthy of insightful depiction, but this is not it. Melissa Leo does a splendid job of playing this complex person too, but in spite of its combustible title The Most Hated Woman In America fails to ignite. Worse than that, it turns into a rambling mess of a movie that fails to get under the skin of its subject and becomes, in spite of its remarkable subject matter, decidedly more mundane than you have any right to expect.
Like many of its ilk, the film starts from a point near the conclusion before commencing flashbacks, though it spends more time examining the kidnap scenario leading ultimately to the murder of Murray O’Hair, her ineffectual younger son Garth (Michael Chernus) and her granddaughter (Juno Temple.) This distorts the balance of the movie, telling us that under authoritarian leadership her family and her organisation were highly dysfunctional, but failing to address how her values and principles came to evolve – all the more since her parents clearly did not understand her nonconformist belief set.
This biopic is certainly not a hagiography. It lingers on her being swayed by the lure of money for a series of phoney debates with Peter Fonda‘s Rev Bob Harrington, and then salting away said money in a series of offshore accounts. The presence of these accounts ultimately leads to Murray O’Hair’s demise since she entrusts John Lucas‘s David Waters with the knowledge of her unofficial ledger, then fires him.
Not a smart move, but the film does not dwell on Murray O’Hair’s morality, nor her apparent willingness to compromise her principles with the help of a corrupt preacher. Since the woman was not above corruption herself, I wanted to know why: purely personal greed or did she have any other motive? Equally, the screen time allocated to her falling out with older son Bill Jr (Vincent Kartheiser) seems to outweigh its importance to the plot – yet still fails to grapple with why Bill fell out with his mother.
More could be made of Adam Scott‘s reporter Jack Ferguson. He is the man chasing a scoop about the disappearance of MMO’H based on the concerns of her young employee Roy’s (Brandon Mychal Smith) concerns, but rather than using the reporter as a device to explore the Murray O’Hair psyche, Ferguson is left rather as a bystander who later reports the murder.
This is a shame, since the scenes where the young Madalyn Murray is taking on the accepted wisdom, particularly the enforcement of christian prayer in schools, is both sharp and entertaining. From beginning to end MMO’H is a forthright demagogue, not afraid to take on conventional wisdom with her Texan drawl and radical common sense. We see a few threats against her from the god lobby, the odd protest but no real sense of danger that she really was The Most Hated Woman In America.
On the contrary, we see rather a pleasant and charming lady who reserves the rough end of her tongue to members of her family and those without the wit to challenge her. Clearly she had a gift for using publicity, positive and negative, to her own advantage, but wisely used the First Amendment as the basis for her case that Americans are entitled to partake of any religious belief, or none, without having it forced down their throats.
Indeed, the same argument that the church is separate from the state has been used repeatedly to remind the religious right that, “in the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”
This is perhaps the more interesting movie fighting to get out – just as her views on feminism are hinted at but largely ignored. Ironic indeed that biopics of civil rights leaders focus far more on their good than misdeeds, where Murray O’Hair seems to have been heavily tarred and her legacy downplayed.
So chalk this down to lost opportunity. In fact, so many opportunities missed by director Tommy O’Haver that you wonder what his motive was in making such a slapdash hotchpotch, to mix metaphors. I strongly suspect he would have approached the project in quite a different way, had he started again, but nobody could argue with any aspect of Leo’s depiction – and that should be your abiding memory.