I just finished Blood in the Water, an exhaustive history on the Attica uprising and its aftermath. And lo and behold, Brubaker hits the cable movie rotation. I remember it being overly preachy but engaging, but times have changed, and now, Stuart Rosenberg’s (Cool Hand Luke) film seems rather reserved and even-handed. It isn’t but that’s how it feels today.
No matter the prevalence of a particular bent, the picture juggles its message and a gripping mystery within the prison adeptly, the feel is right, and it is never dull.
Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) is a reform warden incarcerated incognito as an inmate in the Arkansas prison he will soon be running. From the outset, he witnesses abuses by trustees (prisoners given the right and authority to be armed and act as corrections officers) that include brutal beatings, theft of food for resale, and extortion for basic necessities. As for the conduct of the governmental officials of the prison, it is no better. The doctor charges for services, the cooks charge for edible food, and the warden hires out men to local businesses for free. Rape is rampant and problem inmates (including a young Morgan Freeman) are shut in dark, airless cells in a separate area of the prison.
Brubaker soon reveals himself, and in his attempts to change the prison, he is met with stiff resistance from the local community, the trustees, and soon, even the governor who appointed him. His liberality is thrown in his face by the conservative elements, who see him in league with the prisoners, while the liberal faction sees only the damage done by his upending the system and his refusal to take half a loaf.
There are problems. Redford is plagued by his good looks. His embedding into the prison population without notice is a stretch. He is also so self-righteous and literal, it grates, and the end is just piling on. Also, a potential sexual chemistry between Burbaker and assistant to the governor Jane Alexander is also needlessly left unexplored. And Roger Ebert, per usual, hits the nail on the head: “The movie (refuses) to permit its characters more human dimensions. We want to know these people better, but the screenplay throws up a wall; they act according to the ideological positions assigned to them in the screenplay, and that’s that. … Half of Redford’s speeches could have come out of newspaper editorials, but we never find out much about him.”
Still, the film melds political tract and thriller pretty effortlessly, and it is extremely well-acted, featuring strong performances by David Keith and Yaphet Kotto in early roles.