"The Exonerated," an affecting new telefilm based on the off-Broadway play devoted to the stories of six people vindicated after wrongfully being sent to prison, reminds us of the simple power of words when delivered by fine actors.
Writers Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen used interviews, court documents, depositions, testimonies and letters to craft their script, an anthology that plays as a scathing critique of American justice.
Brian Dennehy, Danny Glover, Delroy Lindo, Aidan Quinn, Susan Sarandon and newcomer David Brown Jr. star as six people incarcerated on death row for two to 22 years for crimes they did not commit. If you think that kind of thing doesn't happen in America, you are in for a rude awakening.
Director Bob Balaban wisely retains the minimalist spirit of the stage version, which he also directed. He and director of photography Rufus Standefer focus their attention squarely on the actors, gently bathing them in bright, unwavering light against a backdrop of dark nothingness, echoing the characters' emergence from their years of confinement.
The actors, backed by an excellent supporting cast led by Lee Tergesen ("Oz"), economically recount the stories with just the right amount of emotion and flair. The flames of bitterness and rage are kept stirring just below the surface.
The movie flows gracefully through three parts. In the first, the characters remember the moments when their lives were taken away from them.
Dennehy's Gary Gauger recalls being arrested for the brutal murders of his parents and having a "confession" coerced from him during 18 hours of interrogation. Sonia "Sunny" Jacobs, played by Sarandon, and her husband (Bobby Cannavale) were placed on death row when the actual killer of a police officer cut a deal to testify against them.
A black poet traveling the country on a spiritual journey in the early 1970s, Delbert Tibbs (Lindo) was railroaded in Florida and convicted of raping a white woman. Racism and homophobia played large roles in the arrests and convictions of Robert Earl Hayes (Brown), David Keaton (Glover) and Kerry Max Cook (Quinn).
The film's second section is equally harrowing in detailing life behind bars. Cook was incarcerated for more than two decades, during which he was repeatedly raped and brutalized. An epithet was carved so deeply into his skin that even plastic surgery cannot remove it.
Despite the bleakness of their stories, each character radiates some level of the hope that enabled them to endure. Robert's steely defiance stands in marked contrast to Keaton's bewildered faith. Gauger patiently marked time, teaching himself needlepoint. Jacobs lived for the letters she exchanged with her husband.
The last part of the film relates the varying outcomes of the cases. DNA evidence, the recanting of witnesses, the work of law students and years of appeals led to the eventual exoneration of all six. The damage done, the tragic loss of time and the difficulties faced in their lives after imprisonment, however, are injustices that can't be overturned or erased.
Lindo's resonant voice, speaking Tibbs' eloquent words, opens and closes the film, providing a thoughtful assessment of the frailty of the American justice system. "The Exonerated's" powerfully evocative stories and frank language combine to make a stern case against capital punishment.
Where: Court TV
When: 9 p.m.
Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)
Susan Sarandon...Sunny Jacobs
Danny Glover...David Keaton
Brian Dennehy...Gary Gauger
Delroy Lindo...Delbert Tibbs
Aidan Quinn...Kerry Max Cook
David Brown, Jr....Robert Earl Hayes
Executive producer and director, Bob Balaban. Writers, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen.