"Brubaker" is based on the real-life efforts of former prison administrator Thomas O. Murton to reform Tucker and Cummins Prison Farms in Arkansas in 1967-68. Murton served as a technical advisor for the film. The warden impersonating a prisoner story element was fictionalized and was not derived from Thomas O. Murton's experiences. It has been suggested though that this plot device was inspired by Sing Sing Prison Warden Thomas Mott Osborne who in 1913 under an assumed name had had himself committed to New York State's Auburn State Penitentiary. This is one of two Robert Redford movies released in 1980 that were Oscar nominated. This film was an Academy Award nominee for Best Original Screenplay whilst the other movie Ordinary People (1980) received six Oscar nominations. "Brubaker" was a critical and commercial success. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said, "...The movie (refuses) to permit its characters more human dimensions. We want to know these people better, but the screenplay throws up a wall; they act according to the ideological positions assigned to them in the screenplay, and that's that. ... Half of Redford's speeches could have come out of newspaper editorials, but we never find out much about him, What's his background? Was he ever married? Is this his first prison job? What's his relationship with the Jane Alexander character, who seems to have gotten him this job? (Alexander has one almost subliminal moment when she fans her neck and looks at Redford and, seems to be thinking unpolitical thoughts, but the movie hurries on.) Brubaker is a well-crafted film that does a harrowingly effective job of portraying the details of its prison, but then it populates it with positions rather than people." I have wanted to see "Brubaker" since 1980 as a fan of Robert Redford and now I finally bought a copy. However, I think that "Brubaker" is a bit too long, a bit too slow and a bit too talky to be honest. And I think that most characters are under developed, but the acting is truly solid and engaging. Nevertheless, in 2014 this becomes a bit like just another clichéd prison movie with a Messiah like figure with his own agenda and ways of change. In 1980 this was most likely different, but it´s not more than a 3 out of 5 in my point of view on the last day of 2014.
The film isn't simply formulaic, but all-out clichéd, at least at times, in which storytelling falls too far into conventions as a prison drama whose familiarity could be easier to get past if the focuses of this character drama were more distinguished. The performances are convincing enough to help a great deal in selling you on the roles in this narrative, but even the performers' material is thinned down by thin characterization which does little to truly flesh out the depths of each major character. Maybe this film would have had more time to do some fleshing out for the leads if it didn't take some time to introduce ultimately inconsequential roles whose forced incorporation take away from the primary focus of this uneven plot, and add to a sense of excess. The film is a little too long, maybe even aimless in all of its dragging, despite doing a decent job of sustaining your attention that, even then, isn't particularly consistent. Actually, I don't know if the film is especially long, as much as it feels long, when backed by steady directorial pacing by Stuart Rosenberg whose cold spells range to dull from a certain blandness that is actually pretty prominent throughout the film, trying your patience time and again. Many ought to stand their ground against the coldness and be rewarded, and many others ought to be underwhelmed, if not worse, due to an overt thoughtfulness that fails to go justified by more unique, nuanced, even and tight storytelling. Still, the point is that, with patience, one ought to be decidedly rewarded, drawn to the subtle grace to and, for that matter, story concept behind the film.
Not much of anything is particularly fresh about this story, but potential still stands firm in this, in a way, unpredictable portrait on prison life, and how a new warden interprets it and works to better the system behind it, and yet, there's also something minimalist about this subject matter. Considering the flaws, this drama's minimalism could have driven the final product shy of rewarding, but the telling of the story ultimately proves to be strong much more than anything, even in a script by W. D. Richter that delivers on fair dialogue and memorable, subtly dynamic set pieces, whose believability helps in immersing you into this intimate drama. Richter does what he can to compensate for characterization thinness and an unevenness in the juggling of the many roles, but he started those problems, so he doesn't pay as much mind as he should towards mending them, thus, the characters have to be brought to life by the cast. At the same time, the thinness to characterization limits material, but when the performers are given something to do, just about all of them deliver, with the portrayers of the prisoners being particularly convincing and effective in their nuance. At least compared to his peers in the central cast, Robert Redford actually isn't particularly impressive, playing himself, but therefore delivering on plenty of charisma to help win you over, though still not quite as much as a certain offscreen performance. Director Stuart Rosenberg takes things steadily, but surely, and much too often, that blands things up, maybe even dulls things down, due to plot structure's being too questionable for all that much momentum to be sustained, but that sort of thoughtfulness, when realized, is solid in its impact, with a subtle tension and resonance that captures the edge of this drama. There is a lot of bite to this audacious and only slightly melodramatized portrait on harsh prison life, into which Rosenberg and his fellow storytellers immerse you enough to reward the patient.
In conclusion, conventions, as well as thinness and an uneven juggling of characterization join directorial cold spells in retarding the momentum of an already overlong affair, until the final product runs the risk of falling short of a reward value which is ultimately secured by the intriguing story concept, rich script, solid cast and thoughtful direction which make "Brubaker" an ultimately biting, maybe even immersively gripping prison drama.
3/5 - Good
I rather collect first film appearances. It's entertaining. I admit I missed Nicolas Cage in this; he's one of the prisoners, but I didn't see him. I did, however, see Morgan Freeman in his first credited film role, which is harder to miss. He was already forty-three, if you can believe it, and had been on TV for some nine years on [i]The Electric Company[/i]. It does not, I must say, exactly hurt my personal theory that he aged almost immediately and has been hovering about the same look ever since. I think I talked about this when I watched [i]The Pawnbroker[/i], too, but I quite like Morgan Freeman, so we're going over it again. His is a small but crucial role, that of the man who unknowingly leads to the big reveal. It could have been anyone in the part; this isn't a role that requires the patented Morgan Freeman Gravitas (TM). Still, I think he kind of prefers these roles now and again. They're more fun.
Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) enters the Wakefield State Penitentiary as a prisoner. There aren't enough beds for the prisoners sent there. The only way to ensure that you'll get one is to pay a bribe to a trustee. There are more bed frames, but they are falling apart and don't have mattresses. There isn't enough food, and what food there is, is disgusting. Prisoners even have to pay to be treated by the doctor (Roy Poole). As Brubaker and the others are being brought in, a prisoner is put on their bus who was shot trying to escape. They never do find out what happened to him, but they never see him again. One day, Walter (Freeman) goes a bit crazy, and Brubaker reveals himself to be the warden, who has gone undercover to find out exactly what's going wrong at the prison. As warden, he wants to resolve the problems being had at the prison, but he quickly learns that people are not, in general, interested in improving conditions for prisoners.
This is based on true events. Including the discovery of bodies behind the prison and the fact that those higher up the chain of command weren't interested in improving conditions for the prisoners. Though the way Brubaker got to know the prison before making himself known is not part of the original story of Thomas O. Murton, the historical figure on whom Brubaker is based, it is speculated that it is instead based on a former warden of Sing Sing who had himself interred at a different New York State penitentiary to get a feel for conditions as a prisoner. Whether that's true or not, it at very least makes for a good story and gets the attention. It's also certainly true that the story of the prison is not a pleasant one. That field wasn't just where those who died of natural causes while prisoners were buried. The real-life prisoners eventually sued over conditions and got the prison closed because their treatment was unconstitutional.
The people in the area of the fictional Wakefield are not interested in having the conditions in the prison improved. Either they are getting something out of it or else they believe that the prisoners are getting exactly what they deserve. Now, Brubaker is very honest at the beginning; he believes that the vast majority of the prisoners under his command are guilty of the crimes they were convicted of, and he has no qualms about making them serve their sentences. He doesn't even have a problem with having the prisoners work, provided that they actually get the fruits of their own labours. Why should they eat canned chili while the beef they raise gets sold to local restaurants at discount prices? But of course, the owners of those local restaurants are quite happy with the deal they have. The local contractor put a shoddy roof on the bunkhouse, and when it collapsed, there was nothing anyone could do. The roof wasn't insured--though some nonexistent farm equipment was.
I'm considerably worried about the idea of all the positions of trust in the prison's being filled by prisoners. Don't get me wrong; I do believe that prisoners can be rehabilitated, and I do believe that there are plenty of positions in a prison that can be filled with prison labour. Heck, come to that, it wouldn't be bad to teach them some decent skills, which would help on the assumption that any of these people are ever getting out. But the head guard, "Dickie" Coombes (Yaphet Kotto), is a prisoner. Another person I recognized, Everett McGill in one of his first roles as Eddie Caldwell, also appears to be both a prisoner and a guard. The people on the towers are expressly stated to be prisoners, and the people guarding the work teams as they go out into the fields are guards. This does not strike me as a sensible way to run a prison, and I can't understand why anyone would allow it. Yes, various authority figures speak disdainfully of the idea of spending more money on prisons, but that's still just weird.
"You gotta stop digging...because you have been salaryed to run one of the best conceved prisons in the country, sir. Because although Wakefeild is admittedly an imperfect institution, much like America herself, she is none the lessa grand experiment. Goverment of the man, for the man, by the man.-Senator Charles Hite (John McMartin)