The Hurricane, 1999, 3 ¾ stars

Washington’s heart brings “hurricane” to life

Exclusive to MeierMovies.com, written in 2000

The Hurricane is an intensely directed, intensely acted look into the heart of a man none of us would wish to be but most of us would strive to be like. Director Norman Jewison and actor Denzel Washington work brilliantly together to take us into the heart of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the 1960s prize fighter falsely accused of murder and sent to prison, who fought a 20-year struggle for his release.

Carter battled both on the outside, against the authorities, and within himself. And it is that inner struggle that is captured best in this new film, which should claim several Oscar nominations, most deservedly for Washington’s deeply sincere portrayal.

The movie is overly simplistic in its characterizations and sometimes sentimental, striving to pull the audience’s heart strings to elicit a response.  But it manages to pull mostly the right strings, and these flaws seem to matter little as you watch Rubin Carter sitting in the courtroom in the movie’s finale waiting to hear the verdict that will decide the rest of his life. You can even feel your heart beating slightly in anticipation even though the outcome is fairly obvious at this point.

“Hurricane” Carter was a rising star in the boxing world in the mid 1960s when he was wrongly imprisoned. He was the victim not so much of a racist system but of the racism and hatred of one man, Detective Vincent Della Pesca, played passsionately by Dan Hedaya. This man has seemingly followed Carter his entire life, always being there to thwart him if he rises too high from his station in poor urban New Jersey.

The hatred of this man comes across in the film, but the screenplay never gives us an insight into his mind or heart. What drives him to hate Carter and go to such great lengths to send him to prison that he falsifies documents and commits perjury?  We never find out, and this is only one of the shallow characterizations that hold this film back from greatness.

It never quite reaches the power of Jewison’s classics, such as In the Heat of the Night. Admittedly, it does not aim to provide commentary on the racial ills of American, like Heat did. It instead seems content to focus on one man’s struggle, instead of the racial struggle overall. But it does lack the subtle power of Heat and pales in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s more in line with Joel Schumacher’s 1996 A Time to Kill.

We never fully understand Dan Hedaya’s character, or the sympathetic prison guard, played with subtle compassion by Clancy Brown. So much emphasis is placed on Rubin that the people who both hold him down and lift him up during his struggle are left behind slightly in the Sam Chaiton screenplay. We want to know more about what drives Lesra, the young Black from Brooklyn who identifies with Rubin so much after reading the book he wrote while in prison that he works tirelessly to get the verdict overturned. Lesra is played well by Vicellous Reon Shannon, although the three adults that pulled Lesra from the ghettos of Brooklyn and tutor him seem a bit out of place in the film.

Not only do we never fully grasp what drove them to pluck Lesra out of the slums and take him with them to Toronto, but we also have a hard time believing they would, later in the film, help Lesra with the months of work it took to get Rubin’s conviction overturned. That takes drive and conviction, and more than anything else, staying power. It’s something that celebrities from Muhammad Ali to Bob Dylan never had, even though they both briefly championed the cause of Carter, the latter writing a moving anthem for him, which is used powerfully in the film. How do these three young, white adults from Toronto who had never seen the inside of a prison come by it so easily?

Unanswered questions, shallow characterizations and often less than moving flashbacks and narration would drag the film down if it weren’t for Washington’s performance. His emotional control and maturity as an actor holds the film together and makes us believe in his character, which is really all a director can ask an actor to do.

The teary-eyed struggle and the desperation within himself comes through most successfully during his first trip to solitary confinement after being locked up. The camera cuts back and forth between Rubin’s different inner struggles. The audience literally sees the inner battle between the scared child and the fighter in Rubin, as we are treated to more than one Washington performance at a time.  It’s almost more than an audience deserves, and it’s the high point of the film.

The other high point is the culmination of the struggle in 1985, the stereotypical courtroom finale, where we learn the outcome of Rubin’s federal appeal. This is something we have seen countless times, but the poweful words, which were taken directly from the judge’s verdict, and Rod Steiger’s small, yet immensely dignified and powerful, turn as the judge, make it a fitting end to a somewhat formulaic, but nonetheless gripping picture.

We manage to get swept up in The Hurricane because of Washington and Lewison’s teamwork and the uplifting nature of the story itself. “The hurricane is beautiful,” Rubin says to reporters when leaving the courtroom. And despite its flaws, that goes for the film too.