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TV REVIEWS : Unforgettable Prison Drama

March 26, 1994|JON MATSUMOTO

Intensely involving and socially trenchant, HBO's "Against the Wall" is the rare TV movie that contains the force and complexity of a quality feature film.

That this unflinching look at the 1971 Attica prison rebellion rises well above the general mediocrity of its made-for-TV competition isn't really surprising given the presence of noted filmmaker John Frankenheimer. The director of such enduring '60s feature films as "The Manchurian Candidate" offers a disturbing and unforgettable examination of the injustices and turmoil that brewed inside this unforgiving New York prison.

In this harsh environment, prisoners are treated with a haughty disrespect that turns them even more bitter and mean. Many of them are routinely mistreated by the prison's autocratic commander (Frederic Forrest), and their pleas for decent living conditions are routinely ignored.

When the inmates do finally overrun the penitentiary, they thrash the Attica guards with a vengeance that's depicted in positively bone-chilling terms. Few films have captured the boiling frustration and rage of prisoners as well as "Against the Wall."

Stuck in the middle of this clash between the film's rebellious elements and domineering authorities is new guard Michael Smith (Kyle MacLachlan). After he and a number of other guards are taken hostage during the prison take-over, Smith refuses to close ranks with his co-workers or to cede to the authority of his captors, eventually winning the respect of rebel leader Jamaal (Samuel L. Jackson).

A universally well-acted film, "Against the Wall"--written by Ron Hutchinson--also smartly connects the uprising at Attica with the volatile political climate of Woodstock-era America. The prison authorities appear symbolic of the nation's ruling elite, which is also trying to stem the tide of anti-war and pro-liberation forces. Frankenheimer infuses his film with a palpable sense of a country deeply divided.

* "Against the Wall" airs at 8 tonight on HBO, with repeats Tuesday, April 3, 7, 13, 17 and 22.

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