It should have been a contender

The Hurricane (15) | Director: Norman Jewison | Starring: Denzel Washington, Reon Shannon, John Hannah; 150 mins
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The Independent Culture

The Big Picture

I suspect there are more than a few people out there who first heard the name of prizefighter Rubin Carter through Bob Dylan's incandescent protest song "Hurricane", which famously kicked off his 1975 album Desire. In 1967, Carter and a young fan, John Artis, were convicted on a triple murder charge and sentenced to three life terms in prison. An outcry ensued over the unreliable nature of the evidence and the alleged suborning of witnesses. Dylan's blast of righteous indignation ("he could-a been/ The champion of the world") has now found its analogue on screen in the shape of The Hurricane, an earnest biopic which seeks to elevate its subject to the level of martyr-hero.

What's surprising about Norman Jewison's film is how little it advances the debate over Carter's innocence - in two and a half hours' screen time we learn scarcely more about the case than what Dylan expressed in an eight-minute song. That a terrible miscarriage of justice occurred is taken for granted. At significant moments in the movie Carter (Denzel Washington) asks someone, "Do you think I killed those people?", but the film never invites the audience to ponder the question. Instead, Jewison and his writers, Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, present us with a wholesome apologia pro vita sua, refracted through the burgeoning consciousness of a black American teenager named Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon). He has been rescued from alcoholic parents and taught to read by three well- meaning Canadian guardians, Lisa (Deborah Kara Unger), Sam (Liv Schreiber) and Terry (John Hannah). His subsequent encounter with Rubin Carter's biography, The Sixteenth Round, inspires him to write to the author in prison.

Lesra and his guardians go from tentative friendship with Carter to active campaigning for his release, a simplification of the history which presumably offended a whole raft of activists and lawyers who had worked without reward on the case for years. Cinema's duty to entertain inevitably requires compression, though it's difficult not to suspect that the film-makers are also guilty of omission. Why, for example, was Carter's earlier conviction for three muggings not mentioned? Nor is reference made to another leading light of the rock fraternity who was unconvinced of Carter's goodness - Joni Mitchell went on record to say that the boxer was far from the innocent her liberal peers were claiming. The film refuses to pay its subject the honour of suspicion, a silence which dilutes his human complexity and foments more doubt than was actually required.

In its favour, the film has Washington in the title role, and if any actor can handle excessive moral authority, it's him. He's done the nobility of the suffering black man before, as Malcolm X in Spike Lee's 1993 biopic, and earlier as Steve Biko in Cry Freedom, and, amazingly, there is no sense of weariness in him or deja vu for us. There is something in the very shape of Washington's head that bespeaks a towering integrity, a willingness to carry the burden of every African-American who was ever wrongly imprisoned. In the early boxing scenes he's lean and quick, though even then one can see in his eyes the reserves of stoicism which he will later be forced to call upon. The film's one great sequence occurs when Carter arrives in jail and refuses to wear prison stripes - the warden sends him to solitary confinement for 90 days, where he soliloquises like a tortured soul in a Greek tragedy. One side of him rages blindly, shadow- boxing and howling execrations on himself and his fate; the other side is racked and whimpering on the edge of nervous collapse. This terrifying struggle of a self divided is one of the most powerful things Washington has ever done.

Sadly, it's the only time The Hurricane reaches beyond the complacent formalities of the biopic to something more abstract and difficult. When Washington isn't on screen, the film looks didactic and stodgy. Jewison and co have given their hero a Nemesis in the form of a racist copper who's hounded Carter ever since he was a kid, and Dan Hedaya all but snarls his way through the part. To balance things up Clancy Brown plays good angel, the white prison warder who respects Carter and the trials he endures. Again, you feel that tangled truths have been smoothed for the sake of narrative expediency. As for the presentation of Carter's three Canadian allies, it's harder to imagine a more pious picture of do-goodery; John Hannah, already struggling to keep his Scots burr disguised, does some hopeless mumming in his efforts to look "concerned". There hasn't been a trio as puppyish and sexless as this since those two guys and a girl on Rainbow.

By the time the Canadians have moved down to Trenton to be near Carter's penitentiary, the film is drowning in a flood of moral self-righteousness. "Hate put me in prison, love's gonna bust me out", the man declares, one of many clanking lines in the screenplay. Naturally there are moments when the strength of feeling brings moisture to the eyes, but most of the time it's accompanied by a cringe at the manipulation behind it. The Hurricane is really an object lesson in overstating a case; in genuflecting before their subject the film-makers do Rubin Carter a disservice, because they demean the kind of struggle he was engaged in. It wasn't just white folks and their corrupt judicial system he had to conquer, but the violence in his own nature, and to portray him as a folk hero rather than as a flawed human being is to compromise our willingness to believe from the start.