When a movie keeps reminding you that it's a true story -- and in "Marie: A True Story," that business starts right with the title -- you suspect that it's because the filmmakers have failed to get at anything beyond yesterday's headlines; a suspicion that, in this case, turns out to be, uh . . . true. Despite a truly remarkable study in Wonder Bread villainy by Jeff Daniels, "Marie: A True Story" is never more than a TV-style docudrama about Fighting Back.

The "true story" involves Marie Ragghianti (Sissy Spacek), a "real person" who smells something rotten in the state of Tennessee. As head of the state's parole board, she discovers that clemencies and pardons are up for sale -- like a game of Monopoly where 20 grand gives you a "Get Out of Jail Free" card. Naive and loyal, she brings her suspicions to the attention of Gov. Ray Blanton (a vividly porcine Don Hood) and his young counsel, Eddie Sisk (Daniels), who respond by firing her. They, you see, are the ones selling the clemencies.

She sues the state for unfair dismissal; in the postscript, we learn that the trial triggered an investigation, and that the investigation ended with Sisk and Blanton in the hoosegow. That's the dramatic problem with "Marie" -- the heroine may have been a catalyst, but she was never more than the pawn in a larger game. Everything that's interesting about the story happens after the movie ends. It's like doing "All the President's Men" from the perspective of Frank Wills.

But director Roger Donaldson and screen writer John Briley don't see "Marie" as a political story. The film begins with a scene of Marie being battered by her soon-to-be ex-husband; there is an extended plot line involving a pistachio shell that is lodged in her son's lungs. For Donaldson and Briley, the political trials and the pistachio shell are equivalent -- they're both ways to show us how darn strong and resilient this woman is. "Marie" is a fable, so there's none of the sense of place that's so crucial to this kind of story; the considerable detail just seems generically southern -- fat men and fat ties.

Marie beats the politicos and she beats the pistachio shell; hard worker and good mother, she goes to church and, God forbid, never has sex (in fact, the suggestion on the part of Blanton and Sisk that she might ever drink or sleep around becomes the gauge of just how sleazy they are). Who needs another movie about a strong, sexless country woman who stands up to the system? Spacek has her usual intensity -- that steady gaze that could anchor a supertanker -- and she adds some nice detail around the edges. Cooing indulgently, wearing a swingy new hairdo, she becomes the kind of secretly steely southern woman that someone like Eddie Sisk could mistake for a pushover. But there's no emotional range in the role, no genuine human dimension for Spacek to explore -- she's too good to be "true."

Tall and languid as a weed, decked out in his good ole boy leather blazer and tie clip, Daniels delves even further into the seems-nice-but-look-twice character he created in "Terms of Endearment." His sidelong glances and smarmy grin are studied, played like trump cards -- he makes Eddie Sisk into the kind of guy who practices his cute expressions in the mirror. It's a brand of smugness passed off as charm that anyone who's spent time on Capitol Hill will recognize.

The real discovery of "Marie," though, is Fred Thompson. Formerly minority counsel to the Senate Select Watergate Committee, he returned to Tennessee to practice law; he was Marie Ragghianti's lawyer. A big man with a booming voice and a noble rock of forehead, Thompson has a way of curling his lips and eyebrows into a look of supercilious contempt that will make you howl; his sly, muted performance makes the familiar courtroom scene (yes, he does badger the witness), fresh and new. He plays himself, and it's the only thing in this true story that doesn't seem fake.

Marle: A True Story, opening today at area theaters is rated PG-13 and contains violence, pofanity and some sexual themes.