Even when it was released in 1996, The Chamber was designed to test the audience's willingness to at least spend time with (if not necessarily sympathize with) a virulent racist. Viewing the film now in 2019, such a thing becomes even more challenging, especially during violent on-screen riots between people who want to see Sam receive punishment for his own inhumane actions and Klu Klux Klan members waving Confederate flags and dressed in full-blown Nazi uniforms. The film is frequently effective, thanks to a strong cast and a screenplay that was at least partially written by legendary screenwriter William Goldman (RIP) -- more on that later -- but there are also a handful of nagging moments where the film's idealism or simplicity undercut its idea of a message.
For whatever reason, the finished script seems to treat Adam's deeper motivation for trying to fight for his grandfather's freedom as a mystery that needs to be revealed...to whatever extent it really is. Adam is presented as idealistic, but when he goes to Mississippi, he doesn't seem to have a reason to believe his grandfather is innocent. Over the course of their first few interactions, there's a suggestion that Adam needs emotional closure over his father's suicide when Adam was ten, an act he holds his grandfather responsible for. It's never quite clear why Adam believes helping Sam would provide that closure; perhaps Adam feels that even attempting to help Sam would indicate his loyalty to the law itself over a personal matter, that doing so would be altruistic. However, that still doesn't explain why Adam would take on a case he has no idea if he can win, given his failure would only impact his career. There is also a bit of time given to the idea that the gas chamber itself is so inhumane that Adam thinks that would be a principle worth saving his grandfather's life over, but that quickly goes away when Adam starts to find real holes in the story of what his grandfather is supposed to have done.
The script is credited to Chris Reese in addition to William Goldman, a pseudonym for writer and filmmaker Phil Alden Robinson. Goldman was apparently dissatisfied with changes made to the script and never watched the final product. To Goldman and Robinson's credit, there is never any question as to whether or not Sam is as racist as he's thought to be. A mid-movie reveal, one of the film's more effective threads, firmly cements Sam as a guilty man, even if he isn't guilty of the crime in question. Hackman and Dunaway are especially good in the film, including a dramatically complex scene in the jail where she confronts him, and he lifts some of her emotional weight in a pointedly uncompromising way. At its best, The Chamber gets at the idea of America covering up its history, channeling hatred into boxes that can be more easily digested and understood. At the same time, there's quite a bit of the film's plotting that depends on chance or happenstance, with big shifts in the story occurring by chance or without much effort from the characters themselves, and the film's last 10 minutes finally give way to a bit too much sympathy, essentially providing those boxes for the audience that it had previously been avoiding. It's not a total wash, but even a gloomy version of neat is still neat.
The film was directed by James Foley, who is probably most famous for directing the film adaptation of Glengarry Glen Ross (as well as, more recently, the Fifty Shades sequels). Foley's direction is simple, but effective, making use of the grate window in between Hackman and O'Donnell in the early scenes in the jail, and staging the film's two harrowing, fatal incidents with a casual, non-showy effectiveness. Glen Ross felt very much like the play it had originated as, and there is plenty of opportunity for a drama like The Chamber to feel just as trapped, but Foley opens the action up fairly nicely, and lets his actors bring that theatricality to it instead.
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