Review by Michael Jacobson

Directors:  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

Film **

On 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. 

It 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.

It’s 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?

Ryan, 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.

Up 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.

The 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. 

The 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.

The 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.

The 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?

No 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? 

With 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 after all.

Deadline doesn’t 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.

The 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. 

It’s 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.”

This 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.

Video **

Deadline was shot 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.

Audio **

The 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).

Features ***

The 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 learn more.


Deadline is a sobering but slanted look at the state of the death penalty in the United States, capturing the emotion of the issue but failing to examine it with moral clarity.  It looks at a complex debate that is frequently clouded by personal emotions, and finds itself lost in the same fog.
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