John Frankenheimer has triumphantly returned to the medium that catapulted his career 40 years ago with a simmering, seething retelling of the 1971 Attica rebellion.
The production’s achievements are its visceral muscle and its easily accessible human angle. Story focuses on a naive rookie prison guard (perfectly mirrored by Kyle MacLachlan) who’s hurled into a horrific rite of passage.
The made-for-HBO production, lensed in Tennessee, is the second TV movie about Attica (Marvin Chomsky helmed the first one, “Attica,” 14 years ago). But Frankenheimer’s dynamic grip on the material, and writer Ron Hutchinson’s propulsive, character-driven script, zing home the movie’s unspoken point: That hate, machismo and ignorance were plentiful all around and, fueled offstage by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s Neanderthal-minded assault on the rebellious prison yard, the carnage at Attica was waiting to happen.
The moviemakers’ fierce storytelling — the riot scenes crackle with cinematic fireworks — assumes a numbing relevance given the dramatic increase in life prisoners that could result from the three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation making its way around the nation. In short, timing couldn’t be better for HBO.
On a broader level, the unstated thrust of the production reaffirms Attica as the cultural and social benchmark it was — in fact, you might say, the tragic, less-talked-about flipside to Woodstock.
The production’s texture is enhanced by Frankenheimer’s signature tracking shots and an insightful life-in-the-village subplot featuring MacLachlan’s pregnant wife (Anne Heche) and a good-ol’-boy bar run by retired Attica guard Harry Dean Stanton, where raucous correctional officers let it hang out after work.
Also contributing depth is the insider perspective courtesy of MacLachlan’s young tenderfoot (based on real-life novice Attica guard Michael Smith).
The prison reforms sparked by the uprising are viewed in the context of the prison’s military camp atmosphere and barbaric conditions (overflowing toilets, bias against Latino prisoners, etc.) that paint life-as-usual in the red brick “factory,” as Atticans call the prison (the town’s principal employer).
At one point a guard (the appropriately hateful Bruce Evers) mocks the system: “We don’t run the prison. They (the inmates) do. We feed ’em, water ’em, keep the roof from leaking.”
Prominently co-starring and forging a bond of moral courage with MacLachlan when the young guard is wounded and taken hostage during the bloodbath in the yard is Samuel L. Jackson as a Malcolm X-like activist who represents several inmates that MacLachlan’s real-life counterpart encountered.
MacLachlan and Jackson lurch from slam-bang-in-your-face confrontations to judiciously mixed, quietly tense standoffs.
Sandwiched into the action are Frederic Forrest’s scabrous prison lieutenant (who virtually steals each scene he’s in), Carmen Argenziano’s take-no-prisoners superintendent and David Ackroyd’s stringy-haired lawyer William Kunstler (an uncanny look-alike).