Documentarian Al Reinert effectively emphasizes understatement in “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story,” recounting an outrageous miscarriage of justice without a trace of manufactured melodrama or visual hyperbole. Indeed, the pic’s rivetingly straightforward style of storytelling is a perfect match for its subject, a soft-spoken Texas man who comes across in oncamera interviews as remarkably composed and equanimous for someone who spent a quarter-century behind bars after being wrongly convicted of murder. Before public television and nonprofit exhibition, “Unreal Dream” could generate enough press to interest even ticketbuyers normally averse to nonfiction fare.
In 1987, Morton, an Austin grocery store inventory manager, was arrested and indicted for brutally beating his wife to death in their home — a crime viewed as particularly heinous because the slaying supposedly occurred in front of the couple’s 3-year-old son.
The little boy actually told an investigator that his father was not at home at the time, and that someone else, described by the child as “a monster,” attacked his mom. But Ken Anderson, the Williamson County prosecutor, never provided Morton’s defense attorney with a transcript of that interview. Nor did Anderson turn over other possibly exculpatory evidence that might have convinced the jury not to convict Morton. (The epilogue of “Unreal Dream” pointedly notes that an inquiry into Anderson’s actions during the trial is pending.)
Morton continued to deny his guilt throughout the long years of imprisonment, even turning down a parole offer that would have necessitated an admission of guilt. By that point, he says, he had lost virtually everything, even his son, who had changed his name after being adopted by relatives. “All I had left,” Morton recalls in a calm but resolute tone, “is my innocence.”
On one level, “Unreal Dream” is a stirring story of triumph, methodically describing the successful efforts of Houston attorney John Raley and members of the New York-based Innocence Project to locate and present evidence needed to reverse Morton’s conviction. It’s also an inspiring tale of spiritual uplift, sympathetically detailing how religious faith gave Morton the strength to endure, and the mercy to forgive.
But Reinert, in his first feature doc since the Oscar-nominated “For All Mankind” (1989), isn’t about to let anyone, not even the audience, off easy. The details of Morton’s wrongful conviction and incarceration are vividly reported with a subdued simplicity that serves to only increase the pic’s capacity to upset, if not enrage. And lest anyone forget, Reinert repeatedly reminds viewers that Morton lost a wife he loved, and was separated from a son who grew up being told his father was responsible for her death.
The pic notes that the prime suspect in the killing of Morton’s wife — a man identified only when, after years of legal wrangling with prosecutors, the defense team finally was able to request DNA-testing of a bloody bandana found near the scene of the crime — may have more blood on his hands.
Lenser Levie Isaacks employs unobtrusive lighting and framing stratagems to the pic’s many talking-heads interviews to afford the pic just enough visual variety. Not surprisingly, the most engrossing interviews are those with Morton himself. An inspired touch: Reinert allows his subject to offer testimony in the very courtroom where Morton was given a life sentence.
The pic takes its title from a 1923 quote by Justice Learned Hand: “Our procedure has been always haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted. It is an unreal dream.” This fine SXSW Documentary Spotlight audience award-winner makes the nightmare quite real.
An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story
Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Spotlight), March 18, 2013. Running time: 92 MIN.
A Blue Bandana Prods. production in association with Glass House Prods. and La Sonrisa Prods. Produced by Marcy Garriott, John Dean, Al Reinert. Executive producers, Jim Embree, Nellie Gonzalez, Clark Lyda, Jesse Lyda, J. Stephen Martin, Chris Mattsson, Bev Reeves, Kent Schaffer. Co-producer, John Aldrich.
Directed by Al Reinert. Screenplay, Reinert, John Dean, Nellie Gonzalez. Camera (color, HD), Levie Isaacks; editors, John Aldrich, Jason Wehling; music, Rich Brotherton, Chuck Pinnell; sound, Wayne Bell; associate producers, Marc Grossberg, Nicole DeBorde, Joshua Riehl.
With: Michael Morton, John Raley, Barry Scheck, Nina Morrison, Caitlin Baker, Eric Olson.
Narrator: Nellie Gonzalez.