Truman (1995)
HBO Home Video
Cast: Gary Sinise, Diana Scarwid, Pat Hingle

HBO is famous for their original films, which are based on true stories. Most of these films made exclusively for the company’s cable channel are accounts of famous or important figures from history or historic events themselves. (I’ve always wondered why they didn’t make more fictional films.)
Now, HBO Home Video is also beginning to release these titles on DVD, for those who don’t have HBO or just want a high-quality copy of a favorite film. One of the best films in this series, the multiple award-winning "Truman" has just hit store shelves on DVD. This film offers an in-depth look at a fascinating American, and an awe-inspiring performance from star Gary Sinise.

Sinise stars as Harry S. Truman. The film follows Truman’s life from the 1910s until 1953, when he left The White House. The story starts when Truman is 33-years old. He longs to marry Bess Wallace (Diana Scarwid), but feels that he should serve his country in World War I. After fighting bravely in Europe, Truman returns home to Independence, Missouri, marries Bess and opens a haberdashery (I wonder if Nigel Tufnel ever applied for a job there.). Harry and Bess have a daughter, Margaret, and things are going well until the Great Depression hits.
Desperate for money to pay off the debts on his store, Truman accepts the offer of Boss Tom Pendergast (Pat Hingle of "Batman") to be a county commisioner or "judge." Harry takes the job very seriously and shows that he doesn’t like shady deals and doesn’t take "No" for an answer. Once his term runs out, Truman approaches Pendergast about running for governor, but is turned down. Instead, Pendergast suggests that Harry run for senate. Thus, Mr. Truman goes to Washington.

Once Harry reaches Washington, things begin to happen very quickly for him. He continues to prove himself to be a "no-nonsense" kind of guy and heads a senate judiciary committee. He then finds himself taking the office of vice-president. He and Bess don’t like Washington or the politics, but Harry feels that he must try to be a good leader. When Franklin D. Roosevelt dies suddenly, Truman finds himself catapulted into the toughest job on Earth: President of the United States.
As President, Truman is faced with some incredible decisions and issues, the most staggering being the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Truman is also faced with the Cold War, the Korean War, the United Nations, and Joe McCarthy. Throughout it all, Truman stands by his beliefs and Bess is always there to give him support.

I’ll admit that I didn’t know much about Harry S. Truman going into this film. (History was never my strongest subject. I mean, it’s already happened!) However, I definitely learned a lot about Truman from this film. The movie does a wonderful job of portraying the life of a man who entered small-time politics and was suddenly thrust into the most powerful position in the world. We see Harry struggle with the moral decisions that accompany his office and how he detests petty politics. Here is a man who only wanted to do what was right and learned that sometimes that’s nearly impossible. So often in films about the president, we get to see the challenges and the tough decisions, but we rarely get a glimpse of a man who despises what the job makes him do. "Truman" shows us a president who took on the world, while always trying to return to his small-town ways. "Truman" also offers an intimate portrait of Bess Truman, a woman who hated Washington and all that it stood for, yet never wanted to see her husband fail.

Besides the compelling story, the best thing about "Truman" is the performance by Gary Sinise in the title role. Sinise won three best actor awards for the film (Cable Ace, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild) and there’s no wondering why after viewing the film. (I can’t help but wonder who won the Emmy that year.) As Truman ages, the Emmy-nominated special-effects makeup ages Sinise, so that he obtains almost the exact visage of the real Truman. Sinise gives one of those performances where you forget that your looking at a familiar actor and you only see the character. Sinise mastered Truman’s Missouri accent, pronouncing his "or" sounds as "ar", which only adds to the transparent performance. Not only is Sinise charged with playing a real person, but he must also exhibit all of the emotional turmoil that Truman went through as well, which he handles with ease. While the film itself was interesting, it was Sinise’s flawless performance that had me captivated until the end.

Sinise isn’t the only actor to give a great perfomance. (Actually, the film won two awards for casting.) Diana Scarwid is outstanding as Bess Truman, a tough, but loving woman. Colm "Give me what I want and I’ll go away" Feore is good as Charlie Ross, a reporter who becomes Truman’s press secretary. Pat Hingle is fine as the tough Boss Pendergast.

While "Truman" is a great historical drama with splendid performances, the HBO Home Video DVD doesn’t do the film justice. As the film was made for television, it is presented in a 4:3 full-frame format. The picture is a bit dark and not as clear as some other made-for-TV DVDs that have been released. The picture shows a great deal of grain and some <$pixelation,pixelation>, which may have to do with the fact that HBO decided to have this 131 minute movie run off a single-layer DVD, which inevitably forces higher compression of the material. There are also some obvious scratches and smudges on the source print and in the end, I would say that the transfer is only slightly better than a VHS copy.

In contrast to that, the audio on the DVD is first-rate. The 2-channel <$DS,Dolby Surround> sound offers a well-balanced audio mix, in which all of the dialogue is clear and understandable. "Truman" makes good use of surround sound during the battle sequences and anytime there is a crowd of people. If only the video had been up to par with the audio. There are no extras on the DVD.

HBO Home Video’s movie-only DVD of "Truman" offers us a mixed package. We have a fantastic film that acts as both entertainment and an excellent history lesson. Unfortunately, the video transfer leaves much to be desired and doesn’t do justice to this great film. Still, HBO has value priced this DVD with a suggested retail price of $19.95 (making it $14.95 at most outlets), which makes it a little easier to recommend. Whether or not you choose to buy the DVD, I can definitely say that the film itself is worth seeing.