By Doug Cummings
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Movies that provoke the viewer into questioning the nature of justice are effective only if they present a problem where the issues are balanced, pushing hard on either side. "Murder in the First," the new courtroom drama about a decisive case in Alcatraz's history, is entirely too slanted and manipulative to produce much thought.
The movie details the true story of Henri Young (Kevin Bacon), a convict on Alcatraz in 1938. In the course of the film, he tries to escape the island and is thrown into its dungeon-like solitary confinement for three years where he is beaten and treated like an animal by the Warden Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman). He is eventually brought out, dazed and psychotic, but he commits an act that will offer him respite from the prison. While in a crowded mess hall, he shoves a spoon through a fellow prisoner's neck.
He is thus transferred to a less tortuous San Francisco jail, where he faces charges of first degree murder with the corroboration of two hundred witnesses.
His lawyer is James Stamphill (Christian Slater), a rookie defense lawyer. Stamphill is supposed to let the prosecution win in its obvious case, but Stamphill decides to fight the system and his superiors by accusing Alcatraz of turning a nonviolent criminal into a killer with its cruel and unjust three-year punishment.
The Henri Young trial in 1941 is a good story to tell because of the case's ramifications on the American penal system at that time. Unfortunately, the movie spends so much time wallowing in Young's anguish and beatings that the case never has the chance to generate much suspense. It's obvious the filmmakers are siding with Young, and everyone else only seems disillusioned and trite.
There is also a misguided attempt to create the story of an unlikely friendship between a criminal and a cultured lawyer, but their friendship is only shown in Hollywood terms and consists of a few sappy lines of dialogue that sound like Rocky and his trainer preparing for a fight. At one point Young begs Stamphill, "Please let me have your jacket," because he can smell Stamphill's girlfriend's perfume on it. Stamphill considers it, and then says, "I'll let you have my jacket, but only if you will give me information about this case." This is Hollywood's idea of male bonding.
Kevin Bacon ("The River Wild") and Christian Slater ("Interview with a Vampire") offer effective performances, and at times seem like they will save the movie. But the overpowering direction and heavy-handed imagery reduces everything to the level of simplistic preachiness. The first 20 minutes of the movie show Young being chained with arms outstretched, his long hair and beard drizzling with water in flamboyant Christ-figure symbology.
"Murder in the First" is a movie that, at its core, is a good idea that profits from engaging performances, but its heavy-handed approach belittles its content. It would have been much more enjoyable if it didn't try so hard to pound its message into everyone within earshot.
Murder in the First" is showing at Century Gateway 12, 792-9000.
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