Monday, April 4, 2011

Attica! Attica!: "Against the Wall" (1994)

Isn't it sad when the more interesting films out there are not being released into the theaters, but debut on pay cable channels? While "Against the Wall" is not perfect, I am willing to guarantee it is better than ninety percent of the number one box office movies that have opened in the last year.

Kyle MacLachlan, proving he does not need David Lynch to turn in a good performance, plays Michael Smith, a new guard at New York's Attica Correctional Facility. His father, Hal (Harry Dean Stanton), recently retired as a guard there after twenty five years and now runs a bar, but Michael's uncle Ed (Tom Bower) is still a guard. Michael has skipped from job to job and looks to make this his career, ready to support his pregnant wife Sharon (Anne Heche).

Things are not good from the beginning. While Michael is no bleeding heart, he can still spot prisoner neglect. The inmates are treated like animals, and Michael's entire orientation and training consist of taking barked orders from guard supervisor Welsbad (Frederic Forrest). Things begin to come to a head, with everything going to hell because of a can of soup.

Prisoner Chaka (a scary Clarence Williams III) is cooking soup in his cell with an illegal device, is caught, and throws the food in guard's face. The prison store will sell soup, but no way to heat and eat it. The prisoners revolt and take a cell block, and the ill prepared guards are in their path. One guard is beaten until near death, and the rest of the guards are taken hostage in the yard, where all the inmates have gathered.

One of the cooler heads among the inmates is Jamaal X (Samuel L. Jackson, currently my favorite actor working). Jamaal wants to keep the guards alive and use them as bargaining chips to negotiate with. Jamaal has also been the victim of guard cruelty, and his back and forth between intelligent dialogue and a burning anger in his face is the stuff of great acting. Commissioner Oswald (Philip Bosco) is brought in to negotiate with the inmates after convincing New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller not to storm the complex and lose more lives.

Hostage Smith begins to refuse needs like shoes and bathroom trips, not wanting to bend to the inmates. The guards begin arguing among themselves, reflecting the the differences between Jamaal and Chaka. Talks break down when amnesty for the prisoners is refused (the injured guard dies). The governor sends in the state police and state troops to take back the facility. It is a fact of history (this happened in the early '70's) that almost forty men were killed in the battle, including ten hostages, all of gunshot wounds fired by the would-be rescuers.

John Frankenheimer was a great film maker. He had his share of duds, but at least he made some good, strong films. This ranks up there with many of his successes. My complaints about the film? I wish we could have found out more about Jamaal. While the film is obviously told from Michael's point of view, I wanted more of a balance between these two men. Catch phrases like "power to the people," "getting back to Africa," and "Black Panthers" are tossed around but never come into any sort of context because of this lack of insight into Jamaal.

The entire cast is excellent. Anne Heche is given a great role to play, never making Sharon wishy washy nor too strong. Her only concern is her husband William, and Heche is believable. While some of the roles are obvious villains, Frankenheimer keeps everyone reined in and does not let one actor overshadow another. Jackson and MacLachlan's final scenes are strong, but they do step into melodrama with a hand hold.
"Against the Wall" is a brutally violent film. The Attica riot changed some things about prison life in the United States today, but there is always room for improvement, as the closing credits let us know. This is not perfect, but it is eye opening.  (* * * *) out of five stars.