Remember when people took firebrand political message movies seriously? A generation or two ago, pictures like ''Z,'' ''All the President's Men,'' and ''The China Syndrome'' hit a populist nerve. They came at you with a muckraking urgency that felt as timely -- as vital to the cultural dialogue -- as the issues they raised. No longer. You'd have to go back a dozen years, to Oliver Stone's ''JFK,'' to find a movie that exerted that kind of raw topical impact. There's an explanation for the decline -- apart, that is, from the sheer pompous and trivializing demagoguery of potboilers like ''The Siege'' or last year's evil-HMOs-made-easy exposé, ''John Q.'' In a reality-based infotainment culture, where even the most pivotal news events are hyped into a kind of nightly hot-button theater, it can seem cornier and more false than ever to stuff a meaty political issue into the sausage casing of Hollywood melodrama.
The Life of David Gale is a fictional tale that purports to be an impassioned howl of protest against the death penalty. From the outset, you can see that director Alan Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph think they're on to something major by the way they inflate even the most minute aspects of their story into pointed ''statements.'' When Bitsey Bloom (Kate Winslet), a crusading reporter for News magazine, is assigned to interview David Gale (Kevin Spacey), a defrocked college professor who has three days left on death row before his scheduled execution, she can hardly get out of the office without taking a gratuitous poke at sexism in the media.
In prison, she meets Gale, who is introduced as if he were Kevin Spacey's bid to take over the role of Hannibal Lecter. In extended flashback, Gale relates how he was a charismatic, hard-drinking philosophy scholar at a university in Austin whose career was derailed by a brief, debauched dalliance with a femme fatale grad student. For a while, we think we're watching a parable of the age of sexual correctness, a campus-set ''Disclosure.'' But Gale, it turns out, was also one of the leaders of a local anti-death-penalty group, and so was Constance (Laura Linney), the dowdy, leukemia-stricken militant he's accused of raping and killing.
Spacey, who seems to have entered a new era of bad hair, is the right actor to play a tormented academic star; he makes the most of Gale's haughty idealism, as well as his drunken descent. I won't give away the big twists, which grow more ludicrous by the minute, but I will reveal that ''The Life of David Gale'' is a self-righteous mishmash that can't decide whether to be a tribute to the fanatical leftist passion that thrives in college towns, an indictment of that very same fanaticism, or a ghoulishly didactic snuff-video thriller. To its credit, the film roots its case in the compelling, and timely, argument that an unacknowledged percentage of death-row inmates are, in fact, innocent. Its particular scenario of injustice, however, signifies little beyond a readiness to tie plausibility into the most tangled of knots. Wherever you stand on the death penalty, there ought to be a law against a message movie this contrived.