Review by Michael Jacobson
Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio: Home Vision Entertainment
Features: See Review
Length: 90 Minutes
Release Date: October 5, 2004
January 13, 2003, two days before leaving office, Governor George Ryan of
Illinois made a decision to offer a blanket commutation to 167 inmates on death
row. For some, it was a victory in
the form of a man taking responsibility for a flawed system.
For others, it was a travesty and a blatant misuse of power.
came after weeks of clemency hearings where cases were opened up before a
special committee in which prosecutors and defenders made their arguments again,
and families of both victims and inmates spoke out for the final time.
Deadline is a look at the age old death penalty argument that
focuses on Ryan’s controversial decision as a starting point, but attempts to
expand the canvas by going back and looking at various points in history and
individual cases related to the capital punishment debate.
an interesting film, but a convoluted one, in that it takes an anti-death
penalty stance, but falters frequently with it over the course of its 90 minute
running time. Some are just out and
out missteps, others are just facts and numbers presented in such vague ways
that they say very little. Mostly
it relies on evoking emotional responses, which it does, but there are too many
emotions to go around. Do we feel
more sorry for the convicted inmate than we do the families who will never see
their loved one again?
whether it was the intentions of co-directors Katy Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson
or not, comes across as a an easily manipulated buffoon.
Members of the press recall his first ever capital punishment case as
governor…one actually says he “freaked out”, because each person who came
into his office to argue the case for or against the impending execution
temporarily won him over. He went
back and forth so many times that it became like the proverbial close basketball
game; whoever had the ball last was going to win.
until he made his final decision, he wavered on the use of blanket clemency.
Some days he said it would not be considered.
Some days it was on the back burner.
Some days it was on the front. But
there was a definite game clock at play, as the governor’s term of office was
coming to an end. The death penalty
opponents held the ball when time expired, and they won.
decision was based on the fact that 13 members of death row had been exonerated
when journalism students investigated their cases. At least as many (one of the facts the film is vague about)
had continued to admit they had committed the crimes that brought them death
sentences while still pleading for clemency.
Another vague “number of others” were convicted based on irrefutable
evidence….could be three, could be a hundred.
If the film wanted to examine how serious a problem there might be with
the justice system, exact figures would have given us a clearer idea.
problem is, I think the choice was deliberate.
Without coming out and saying so, Deadline tries to paint an
implicative picture that every person on death row is there because of legal
incompetence, corrupt police, withheld evidence…every reason imaginable except
that they might have committed the crime they were convicted of.
movie brings us up close to some current and former death row inmates.
One is a young man who trembles fearfully in front of the camera.
Later, in the clemency hearings, we learned he murdered a young man and
woman and raped the woman post-mortem. Another
man who got clemency, served time and was eventually released, talks about his
crime in a non-specific way, saying he didn’t pull the trigger but that he was
involved in the deaths of the people he was convicted of murdering.
way the clemency hearings are portrayed on film is extremely interesting.
The days and days of testimony are very emotional for all involved.
The first hearing shows both defense and prosecution make their cases.
The problem? The defense’s screen time can be measured in minutes, while
the prosecution’s in seconds. If
we’re going to take a serious look at a serious issue, why load the dice?
A later hearing shows the prosecution cases reduced to rapid clips, and
the music is brought way, way up so that only a word or two comes through here
and there. Why pretend to give the
opposition a voice only to silence it out?
one wants to see an innocent person put to death; that’s beyond reproach.
But has it actually happened? That’s
an important question. We read of
exonerations or overturned sentences of individuals convicted and marvel at how
close it came, but has the line ever been crossed?
such an emotional issue, we may never know the answer.
Attorney and law professor Mark W. Smith wrote, “(Opponents) can’t
name a single innocent person executed in the U.S.
If such a person ever existed, there is no doubt that the name would be
as famous in the U.S. today as Jesus, Elvis or J. Lo.”
He also argues that most of the reversals came from technical or legal
errors, not from the sudden production of evidence that the person was innocent
address any of these arguments, even to dissect and disprove them.
There is nothing dishonest about the movie; merely selective.
Perhaps even selectively selective wouldn’t be redundant; there are
moments when the film seems to inadvertently defeat its own arguments. One example is how a common defense is that inmates sentenced
to death had been tortured to extract confessions. They are beaten, we are told, or held against radiators so
their skin is burned. The
prosecution argues that their photos are taken afterwards when they are booked;
why don’t the photos show evidence of beatings and burnings?
Because the cops know how to do it without leaving marks, the defense
argues. I once inadvertently
touched my car’s hot radiator cap for a nanosecond, and had a big red welt on
my skin for at least a week. I kind
of wanted to hear the explanation of how a radiator burn could be inflicted
without a mark. I didn’t get it.
movie doesn’t make all of the points it wants to make, but it does make one
argument very successfully: the
death penalty is an extremely difficult issue to argue with clarity and
rationality because the emotions on both side of the debate are high and hard to
keep in check. Every decision made
regarding execution, whether in favor of or in opposition too, is steeped in
that emotion. Governor Ryan’s
decision was made based on emotion, as one opponent to capital punishment
persuaded him that if he didn’t commute all 167 sentences it would haunt him
for the rest of his life.
an emotional issue for families on both side of the courtroom.
It’s an emotional issue for the prison guards and wardens who have to
carry out the punishment when their states require it.
It’s an emotional issue for the exonerated, as well as for those who
lost loved ones to homicide and the actual murderer was captured, convicted and
sentenced. It’s emotional to
those who say the death penalty is not a deterrent, as well as to those who say
it doesn’t matter if it is or not, like columnist Don Feder, who wrote
“Executing a murderer is the only way to adequately express our horror at the
taking of an innocent life.”
emotion represents the true heart of the capital punishment issue, and it’s
the part that Deadline gets right and captures expressively.
If it hadn’t fallen victim to emotion itself, it might have been one of
the great social documentaries of our time.
But because it fails in that regard, it succeeds in cementing the
argument that an in-earnest dialogue about the issue can probably never take
place until we overcome our feelings and study it through the eyes of reason
rather than rage.
mostly on video and anamorphically enhanced for DVD by Home Vision
Entertainment. A certain amount of
limitations are inevitable because of the tape sources, but overall, the look of
the picture is adequate and not a deterrent. The rawer appearance and lack of polish is actually kind of
appropriate given the grim nature of the subject matter.
stereo soundtrack is perfectly suitable…nothing much about the presentation
lends itself to dynamic range, but dialogue is usually clean and clear (save for
the part I mentioned where the music deliberately covers up the speech).
disc includes an interview with the filmmakers, a couple of additional scenes
including an interview with George Ryan and a speech by Mamie Till Mobley, a
timeline, biographies, and a list of other resources you can to if you want to