When a military academy cadet is discovered severely beaten, officers and other cadets conspire to hide the perpetrators and obfuscate their motives. But this isn’t “A Few Good Men,” it’s Showtime’s new made-for, a dramatization of a real event that happened more than 100 years ago. Film’s first airing comes just under the wire for Black History Month.
Courtroom drama tells of Johnson Whittaker, 1880s West Point upperclassman who was determined by court-martial to have maimed himself in an effort to escape final examination. Defense contended that Whittaker was assailed by racist fellow cadets, and that West Point covered up the crime to protect the academy’s own reputation.
Whittaker (Seth Gilliam) is represented by two attorneys: aristocratic Virginian Daniel Chamberlain (Sam Waterston), now partnered in an upper-crust New York law firm, and black academic Richard Greener (Samuel L. Jackson), now keeping an eye on things on behalf of the U.S. government.
The two are in constant contention, based on Chamberlain’s insistence on running the defense his own wishy-washy way and on Greener’s view of Chamberlain as a racist.
Show runs pretty much by the numbers, with months of testimony distilled into a 90-minute film. The key points go unexplored, chief among them why other cadets (if guilty) waited until the last minute to fight Whittaker’s commencement; and, if West Point had accepted Whittaker in the first place, why they were so unfair (if they were) in handling his case. Biggest surprise to many viewers may be that West Point was admitting blacks in the late 1870s.
Acting is strong throughout under direction of producer-writer Harry Moses, with cameos by Mason Adams as important witness, Eddie Bracken as West Point medic and Al Freeman Jr. as Whittaker in his later years, relating story to reporter Dan Broyles (Robert Clohessy) in flashback.
D.p. Ken Kelsch and production designer Howard Cummings have come up with an unusually rich look, thanks in great part to extensive use of locations including Virginia Military Institute campus.