Background: It comes as no surprise to most people that the justice system in the USA is imperfect. When asked what these flaws are, most people appear to have a ready made list that includes how slow it is, how it favors those with influence and money, and how bad guys get away with murder thanks to all the built in protections that cater to the rights of the criminal over the rights of the victim. People of color routinely complain that the flaws also include harsher treatment for them and built in biases that convert the phrase "innocent until proven guilty" into its corollary, "guilty unless proven innocent". While many people suggest they are simply playing what has become to be known as the "race card", there is evidence to suggest they are not always wrong in this charge; a charge that has led to significant reforms over the years. Hollywood's treatment of the system has not helped much either considering the outright fabrications made by ill informed screenwriters that greatly distort the protections the system offers compared to pretty much every other system available, typically dumbing down aspects of the system and using the infamous five words of foolishness that cause thinking people everywhere to cringe; "based on a true story". Even when Hollywood only crafts the lies in moderate amounts for populist movies like Erin Brockovich, it still begets the point that the propaganda espoused has a direct impact on all of us when so many people believe it, breaking down many of the commonalities we share in favor of hatred and distrust. One of the worst offenders of this truism is the award winning movie The Hurricane HD-DVD, a story about a man convicted twice of murder that is eventually freed due to the efforts of a lot of activists misled by populist sentiments.
Movie: The Hurricane HD-DVD is the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, based on two books, the autobiography by the man in The 16th Round and a book by an activist called Lazarus and the Hurricane. The movie follows them fairly closely, altering events, facts, and situations in an attempt to build a stronger case in support of the man. Using a series of clumsy flashbacks, director Norman Jewison sets out to prove Carter's innocence despite the fact that two juries found him guilty of crimes, Denzel Washington providing a compelling portrait of a man wronged by the system. The meat of the movie is that it shows Carter growing up in a poor part of town and succeeding against all odds to become a contender for the middleweight boxing title after a short stint in the military. Upon losing his title shot, he is charged with multiple murders for a slaying at a bar and upon conviction; he served years until eventually freed after substantial press is given to the cause by celebrities like Bob Dylan who wrote a popular song suggesting Carter was railroaded.
As always, the best way to enjoy the movie is to completely separate the fact from the fiction of what really happened, treating Carter as a fictional character since even Jewison's commentary sounds apologetic for how many liberties were taken with the truth, the man suggesting because there is racism, it is okay to rewrite history in this case as an example of the justice system gone wrong. Upon researching the matter for sources favorable and unfavorable to the case and how it was handled, I found one to be much better than others; a comprehensive website where you can find out The Truth About Rubin Carter. Here are some highlights from the movie where the racial tension is built to make the case for Carter along with the reported truths. Initially, Carter is shown as an eleven year old boy hanging out with friends that are hit on by a rich white pedophile. Carter angrily attacks him with a bottle, running away but eventually getting caught by the police as his first offense is investigated by racist cop Detective Sergeant Pesca (Dan Hedaya provided an excellent two dimensional villain in this role as the single minded cop). The young Carter is sent to reform school for years, never having told what happened or offering witnesses on his behalf. The reality of the event was that Carter was the leader of a street gang, 14 years old, and an established predator when he robbed a man of money and a watch; court records available to that end. The movie then establishes Carter having run away and joined the army, rapidly establishing himself as the top fighter in Europe and a distinguished soldier (the truth being that he was kicked out after several court martial's as being unfit and no record exists of his fighting career in the military).
After more ill treatment by society, he fights against all odds to become a middleweight contender, advancing to the #3 spot and getting a title shot against Joey Giardello in 1964. The movie shows Carter as clearly the winner by a wide margin, everyone seeing and commenting on his victory before the announcement is made in favor of the bumbling, bloody Giardello. Shouts of distain for the decision are heard and the moment is fraught with anger all around although the director admitted on the commentary track that in real life, Giardello was undoubtedly the winner; Carter never challenging the results and a press poll conducted almost unanimously upholding the decision. In real life, Carter's boxing career waned after that, easily losing most of his top fights and slipping into obscurity over the next year or so. It was a fateful night in 1966 that then provided the basis for the story.
Two black males robbed a bar, killing or gravely wounding all inside. A witness described the men and their car, the police picked up Carter and another guy nearby minutes later (with out of state plates among other things) in a car matching the description and the survivors at the hospital could not identify them as the shooters. A cursory search of the car found a bullet and shotgun shell that later matched those used at the crime scene, the pair failed lie detector tests, and after another witness stepped forward, Carter and his accomplice were convicted. The movie spends little time on the trial and subsequent retrial with the movie clearly showing the robbers as two white men (again, it was never in dispute that they were black but it sets the stage better that way) and maligning the detective from Carter's childhood (again played by Hedaya; though even Carter never wrote it was the same guy) while Carter is sent to prison for life. After a series of unbelievable confrontations with the prison authorities, Carter writes a book that gets published, sparking interest in a commune in Canada who work to get the man freed. The second trial is shown as a kangaroo court too (records indicate that it had a few black men sitting on the jury, contrary to the assertion it did not by the movie) and after a series of personal interactions via a young black male at the commune, Carter is freed to the cheers of his followers.
This was one of those times when I wished I never listened to the director's commentary since he was so adamant about Carter's innocence yet continually explained away the myriad of changes made to the facts as "it happens all the time". It's one thing to play slightly fast and loose with the facts (again, see Erin Brockovich for an example like that) but almost every significant fact was altered to build Carter up as a champion, ignoring his lengthy criminal history, the specific facts of the case, and essentially failing to even look at Carter's own public statements that contradict his earlier works and speeches. Surely Jewison could have found a better subject or at least provided a more detailed view of Carter that would have been an excellent character study rather than continually take the cheap route and set up a series of strawmen to knock down as the mustache twirling villains as was done here.
I know some people believe that it's okay to fudge the facts if the result is to draw attention to an injustice but the way it was done here was so irresponsible that Jewison probably should have skipped doing a commentary (especially after Carter beat the woman that helped free him, Carolyn Kelley, in a drunken rampage). The entire movie was merely a furtherance of the propaganda machine that held Carter was innocent and after years in jail, two jury convictions, and a slew of false claims being his only defense, I can see why the prosecutors walked away 22 years later (the costs mounted and so many of the witnesses were gone by that point, another trial would be foolish in light of the public pressure led by the starry eyed media quest to "free an innocent man"). So, if you're looking for a historically accurate accounting of what took place in the life of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, avoid this one as much as you would refrain from swallowing hexavalent chromium in large amounts but if you're simply looking for a drama with Denzel Washington as a charismic prisoner (ala his Malcolm X tale) fighting the brutal forces of established racism, it was worth a Rent It (just avoid the commentary track or you'll want to avoid propaganda pieces by director Norman Jewison altogether).
Picture: The Hurricane HD-DVD was presented in 1080p with the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 as originally shot by director Norman Jewison for Universal Pictures. The disc was encoded with the standard VC-1 codec and looked substantially better than the original release from years ago. The level of clarity and detail was such that it provided improvement over the cable clips I had seen over the years but the movie was always a little too dark and dreary, the enhanced resolution providing a slightly more graphic representation of the circumstances than before but never utilizing the medium to its fullest. The deleted scenes were presented in SD using 480i so for a quick idea of the improvement, you can use these scenes for comparison purposes to give you a head's up about the differences.
Sound: The audio was presented in a 5.1 Dolby Digital + English offering, with a corresponding 2.0 track in French for those who care. The subtitles were the usual English SDH and French for those who care but the English ones seemed to accurately reflect the spoken word when I spot checked it. The vocals were suitably handled with a moderate amount of separation in the front channels. The rears and subwoofer kicked in during a few points, including some sound effects like the jell cells slamming shut, the shouts during the boxing matches, and the more action packed sequences that took place so sparingly. I liked the soundtrack, it was a shame an isolated score wasn't included as a bonus here, with the music mixed in quite well most of the time, including Bob Dylan's well known hit about the man.
Extras: There were not a lot of extras included in the HD DVD package and I have decidedly mixed feelings about the one I would have otherwise enjoyed the most; the director's audio commentary with Norman Jewison. I know it isn't popular to listen to these things and based some of the qualitative score on what was said but I can't ignore that it opened my eyes to the truth of the subject matter. Jewison spent a lot of time discussing the technical preparations that went into the movie and the difficulties he faced making it. He had been the original choice for the Malcolm X tale but was "out blacked" by Spike Lee, so it struck me that he set out to specifically elevate Rubin Carter's status back to hero using any means possible. Using the wealth of material from the two books this was based on, he crafted what amounts to a propaganda piece that goes well beyond acceptable limits established for Hollywood works, outdoing even Carter's rants in the process of sculpting the racism angle so heavy-handedly that it greatly lowered my appreciation for the film as well as how he made it. Film is a powerful medium and that Jewison got me to check out a multitude of sources to uncover a more balanced view of Carter's life, is evidence that he should work for the government; perhaps his next series of spins will tell the world what a great war we have going in Iraq, how terrorists are simply misunderstood hippies or so other nonsense. In any case, do not listen to the commentary if you want to enjoy the merits of the movie with any replayability. There was also a Spotlight on Location short feature that provided interviews and older clips, essentially a fluff piece but entertaining all the same. I also liked the deleted scenes, noting that Jewison's introduction of them was a nice touch, even if most of it was disposable.
Final Thoughts: The Hurricane HD-DVD had some interesting ideas about telling the story of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter as seen through the naïve eyes of a urban youth as much as through the self serving words of the man himself. Where the movie itself fails is in how Denzel Washington, a fine actor in any sense of the word, is given the vast majority of the meat to work with at the expense of almost every other character. The two dimensional villains were more fitting for wartime propaganda or comic books circa pre-1960's and the supporting cast was almost as bad. That the events were so over the top altered to construct what amounts to a fable is only harmed by the label I hate more with time, "based on a true story", but if you can wade through the mindless stereotypes, the technical improvements of The Hurricane HD-DVD are a step up from the previous release (containing the same basic extras, without an updated commentary track that might have shown Jewison with more reticence towards his creative efforts to turn Carter into a hero at the expense of so many others unfairly attacked).