Brubaker is based on the real-life experiences of Tom Murton, who worked as a warden in a primitive Arkansas prison in 1968, improving conditions and irritating the corrupt prison officials until his discovery of three bodies buried on prison property led to his dismissal.
He hasn’t worked in the prison system since, and it took him almost eleven years to get his story to the screen.
It’s a harrowing story, made even grimmer and more terrifying by the filmmaker’s poetic license, and the first hour or so (during which Redford pretends to be a prisoner, to get a firsthand glimpse of prison life) is as shattering as anything you’re likely to see in a movie.
Sleeping in filthy beds that become available only when someone dies in them, sitting on floors of mud, kept awake by homosexual rapes all around him, forced to watch the worst beatings since slavery was outlawed, Brubaker witnesses enough cruel and beastly punishments to make the Black Hole of Calcutta look like Disneyland.
After Redford admits his true identity, he shaves, dons a plaid shirt and clean jeans, and becomes the same Redford who could just as well be lecturing at Yale, campaigning for ecology, or running for political office.
Redford, or Brubaker (it becomes impossible to distinguish between the two, which is a credit to the actor but ends up backfiring on the movie itself) encounters as much graft, corruption, and hostility on the outside as he does in the barracks.
The guards hoard the food supply, reselling it to the inmates for a price; the state police are on the take; the trustees are sabotaging the prison crops; the local businessmen are ripping off the prison and the prison board members are making a profit.
Brubaker makes the prisoners feel like human beings, but he won’t play the politician’s crooked games, so he loses because he won’t compromise his principles. It’s a perfect role for Redford – the brave, noble hero fighting the system.
Stuart Rosenberg has done a fine job of documenting the details, there is authenticity in W. D. Richter’s screenplay (even though some of the events have been manufactured) and the actual Ohio prison locales lend an almost documentary realism to the grisly events.
Fine, concerned performances abound – by Redford, Jane Alexander as a state government employee with high connections, Yaphet Kotto as a tough prisoner who is the last to come around to Brubaker’s ideas, and Murray Hamilton as a slimy politician.
Brubaker is an honest attempt to examine the evils and injustices in the prison system, but ultimately the film holds no real excitement and no thrill of new discovery.
Redford is so self-righteous, so determined, and so unyieldingly heroic that there’s nothing left in his performance for the viewer to discover. His jaw is so set you can almost hear the bones crack.
Richard ‘Dickie’ Coombes
Larry Lee Bullen
C.P. ‘Woody’ Woodward
M. Emmet Walsh
Jon Van Ness