An unholy mess with an amazing pedigree, WUSA was likely the result of good intentions. The movie seethes with idealism and indignation, so the sense that it’s about something important is inescapable. Unfortunately, the characters, dialogue, politics, and storyline are all so impossibly muddled and pretentious that it’s difficult to discern what’s actually happening onscreen, much less what any of it means. The movie is a bit like an op-ed screed written in haste during a supercharged news cycle, blasting accusations and invective without any discipline or focus. Paul Newman, who put the movie together with frequent producing partner John Foreman, stars as Rheinhardt, a radio DJ who shuffles into New Orleans looking to collect on a debt from a preacher named Farley (Laurence Harvey). There’s a vague sense that both men are con artists and/or drunks and/or gamblers, though clarity on these points is in short supply. Unable to wring much cash from Farley, Rheinhardt bums around the French Quarter and meets aging party girl Geraldine (Joanne Woodward), with whom he begins a half-hearted romance. Then Rheinhardt gets a job at talk-radio station WUSA.
Enormous amounts of the film’s screen time are devoted to people either celebrating or criticizing the nature of WUSA’s broadcasts, but the speeches that Rheinhardt delivers on-air—as well as the monologues delivered by WUSA’s executive staff—are so cryptic that it’s hard to tell where the station falls on the political spectrum. Simply by dint of Newman’s offscreen politics, one must assume that WUSA is meant to represent the evils of the right wing. Anyway, the movie gets even more perplexing once viewers meet Rainey (Anthony Perkins), a weird character who lives next door to Rheinhardt and Geraldine. Rainey does some kind of door-to-door surveying of poor black neighborhoods, but his principal liaison to the African-American community, Clotho (Moses Gunn), acts as if he’s a pimp connecting Rainey with tricks—because, apparently, Rainey is a pawn in some grand conspiracy that’s related to WUSA. Suiting the bewildering storyline, the picture climaxes in a nonsensical riot sequence.
WUSA’s discombobulated script is credited to Robert Stone, who later won the National Book Award for his novel Dog Soldiers (1975), which was adapted into the Nick Nolte movie Who’ll Stop the Rain (1978). The director of WUSA, Stuart Rosenberg, also did excellent work elsewhere, helming Cool Hand Luke (1967) and The Pope of Greenwich Village (1984). On top of all that talent, WUSA features supporting turns by the fine actors Don Gordon, Pat Hingle, David Huddleston, Clifton James, Diane Ladd, and Cloris Leachman, as well as a rousing musical number by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Alas, whatever all these noteworthy people thought they were doing didn’t actually make it to the screen, because WUSA is virtually impenetrable.