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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
A Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
by Donald Levit

Though it gained currency in 2000 when the Coens used the Fairfield Four version for an aborted hanging, traditional “The Lonesome Valley” will always belong to the quavery Richard Dyer-Bennet rendition, radio theme for “Midnight Special.” The stark lyrics tell of life’s solitary journey towards death, and it is doubly relevant here in that that folk-revival program aired in 1960s Chicago. Deadline more or less begins in that city and ends there when, about the emotions of the issue, outgoing one-term Governor George H. Ryan answered by asking what could be more charged than death . . . and life.

Co-directed by experienced award-winners Katy Chevigny and Kristen Johnson -- also respectively producer and cinematographer -- the story opens in Fall 2002 and closes three months later. Between these two points ninety screen minutes apart, is not only “as the events unfolded” suspense, but also archival footage and interviews, the latter unusually useful for historical context information. Wrongfully condemned men now at liberty, others still on death row and their loved ones as well as those of victims, lawyers of both persuasions and scholars, even the humane, skeptical former warden, now superintendent, of infamous Parchman, appear and give an idea of the scope of the debate.

Non-fiction film is often successful when dramatizing, that is, threaded along a plot; some of the most renowned are, in fact, essentially re-creations and thus, strictly, “pseudo-“ rather than “document.” The separation is not clearly drawn (or insisted on) along the wide gamut to an opposite extreme of real shots and narration frequently spliced with endless close-up heads talking about the thing. Rarely will the result actually affect mass opinion, for people’s preconceptions enter the theater with them, but the age-old emotion and complexity that surround capital punishment are ably captured, unfancied-up, by Chevigny and Johnson.

Because of that very complexity, however, the fundamental knot remains too sprawling to untie, and ancillary issues like conservative bloc pressure remain on the sidelines. In method, Deadline is not out of the ordinary -- the present, the archival past, the interviews. What it does do, is to give as reasonable a summary as can be expected of arguments debated as much internationally as in an America with the world’s second largest prison industry.

The filmmakers’ advisedly chosen handle is an avuncular small-town ex-pharmacist now his state’s highest officeholder. Earlier, while a tough-on-crime pro-execution Republican legislator, Ryan had voted in favor of restoration of capital punishment when, five years after 1972’s Furman v. Georgia the U.S. Supreme Court reversed in Gregg v. Georgia to allow states’ discretion in the matter. Although the Governor quotes from both late Justice Harry Blackmun and small-town Illinois’ Abe Lincoln on the advantages of mercy over punishment, his volte-face was gradual and so agonizing that until the moment of decision, “I’m not sure about anything.”

About the time Ryan took office, almost by chance university undergraduate journalism majors uncovered last-minute evidence of a condemned “murderer’s” innocence. Other similar instances arose, prompting a Chicago Tribune investigation that revealed common miscarriages of justice, incompetence, “testilying” and “blue wall of silence” corruption within enforcement and judiciary branches. Alarmed, under powers newly vested in him, the Governor established clemency hearings for every death row inmate, a half-hour for the defense and another for prosecution, with families on both sides participating.

Elsewhere, O.J. dream team legal counsel Alan Dershowitz has written of police corruption, prosecution advantages, racial and economic inequality, and recommends, not limiting the recourse of the wealthy, but increasing resources available to poor defendants. Interviewed in Deadline, liberal lawyer-author Scott Turow casts doubt on capital punishment as a deterrent, qualifying it as, rather, a vengeful symbol of victims’ worth, and the camera is witness to the uncontrollable sorrow of their families, as well as to the forgiveness of a father who lost his only daughter in the Oklahoma City bombing and, forty-seven years afterwards, of the mother of Emmett Till.

No film can solve this problem, not in Illinois or in other, more trigger-happy states. Nor can George H. Ryan, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 and 2004, relieved and admirable in his human, imperfect decision: “I’ll bear it,” he assumes.

(Released by Big Mouth Productions; not rated by MPAA.)

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