Doing Justice

Parallels abound between Philadelphia and Schindler's List. In both cases, you have to applaud the filmmakers for broaching the subject matter at all. If, before these films were released, someone had polled all the producers in Lotusland about their most dreaded box office poisons, you can bet AIDS and the Holocaust would have topped the list. Curiously, it's as if tackling such weighty subjects took the spunk out of Spielberg and Demme. Both films are meticulously politically correct and, by Hollywood's standards, timely. They're solid pictures that could have flirted with greatness had their writers and directors resisted the temptation to canonize their lead characters. And in both cases, the finished product is more valuable for its perceived sociological impact than for its artistic merit. If either picture can give pause to just one bigoted asshole, it will have accomplished its mission. These films may be important cultural happenings, but they're only better-than-average cinema.

Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father aspires to be something more, to go for the whole enchilada A big political statement and heart-rending personal drama rolled into one. No one's going to accuse Sheridan of watering down his lead character for mass consumption. His latest film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, a petty thief growing up in war-torn Belfast in the early Seventies. Conlon is a disaffected youth who plays a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with both British authorities and IRA volunteers. After he helps precipitate a rock-throwing altercation with British troops, the IRA snatches Gerry and threatens to blow off his kneecaps for drawing unnecessary attention to IRA hideouts with his antics. At his father's behest Gerry ships off for London to live with his aunt until things cool off. Upon arrival he passes on his aunt's hospitality and joins a hippie commune looking for, in his words, "free love and dope." He finds plenty of both. Unfortunately, anti-IRA hysteria in London has been mounting because of a series of bombings; one day blasts rip through a pair of pubs in Guildford, a small town outside of London. Five people are killed.

Public outcry is immediate. The police need to produce suspects, civil liberties be damned. Using the authority of a newly enacted law that grants sweeping powers to gather and detain suspects for up to seven days without counsel, the police round up Gerry and three of his friends and railroad them into signing confessions. So begins the saga of the Guildford Four, who will each spend fifteen years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

But that's only half the story. When Gerry's father, Giuseppe, tries to get his son out of prison, the police become suspicious and lock him up, too -- in the same cell as Gerry. Their relationship was strained to begin with; now overprotective father and rebellious son must learn to coexist in a hostile prison environment to which they've been unjustly sentenced.

In the Name of the Father is, to put it bluntly, a tour de force. Pete Postlethwaite as the deeply religious Giuseppe Conlon and Daniel Day-Lewis as his ne'er-do-well boy Gerry couldn't have played their parts any better if they'd really spent years in a cramped cell together. Day-Lewis's turn, in particular, is a stunner. His transformation from happy-go-lucky, rabble-rousing youth to bitter, defeatist prisoner to hardened middle-age crusader is an eye-opener almost on par with De Niro's in Raging Bull (although he doesn't gain 40 pounds). Take it from me -- I thought Wes Studi badly upstaged Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, as did Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence. But Day-Lewis's performance here blew me away.

What can you say? Every now and then a movie comes along that does damn near everything right. In the Name of the Father is such a film. One or two scenes feel clipped and abrupt, as if some expository material had been left on the cutting-room floor, but to dwell on these details would be like criticizing the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team for celebrating too profusely after beating the Russians. From the tumultuous early scenes of British troops clashing with a defiant mob in Belfast while Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" blasts away on the soundtrack, to mass demonstrations on behalf of the Guildford Four in the movie's final reel, neither Sheridan nor any of his actors hits a false note. The movie may end with a trial, but it's anything but another predictable courtroom drama.

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