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In the first place, Michael J. Moore, the
documentarian who created Legacy: Murder and Media, Politics and Prisons, is not
Michael Moore, the documentarian who created Roger and Me. The difference is humor.
A lighter hand could have gone a long way in Michael J. Moore's deliberate cinematic
critique of California's "Three Strikes and You're Out" law.
Not that the history isn't compelling. In 1993, after 12 year old Polly Klaas and 18 year old Kimber Reynolds were both murdered by men who had been in and out of the justice system for much of their lives, their fathers, Mike Reynolds and Marc Klaas, along with Klaas's father Joe Klaas (Polly's grandfather), banded together to begin the process that led eventually to a ballot initiative. But the public outcry over the Polly Klaas murder was too great to contain. Before the initiative could even be voted upon, the California legislature passed a law that became known as Three Strikes. Under this law, committing three felonies results in an automatic 25-year-to-life sentence for the perpetrator.
The difference between a law and a ballot initiative is crucial: a law can easily be amended, but a ballot initiative takes a two thirds vote in both houses of the legislature to make the slightest change. Reynolds had promised that if a Three Strikes law were passed he would cancel the ballot initiative. But he did not. Marc and Joe Klaas foresaw the difficulties a cast-in-stone initiative would present, and broke with Mike Reynolds over it. While Reynolds stumped the state for his initiative, the Klaases campaigned against it. Ultimately it passed by overwhelming numbers.
It is hard to disagree with Moore's contention that the Klaases were right. Today many more prisons are being built than schools, and judges are forced to give an automatic 25 year sentence to felony offenders, the great majority of whom have not committed violent crimes. The public voted to keep violent criminals off the streets, not necessarily to give Draconian sentences to pot dealers and parole violators.
But there is a difference between facts and film. The problem with Legacy is that it feels like propaganda, less a feature film than a political treatise. The reason is that it is so one-sided. When Three Strikes came before the California electorate, it passed by a 77-23 margin. Moore tries to blame the huge margin of victory on political chicanery, big money, even racism. But he avoids an equally likely reason the initiative passed so easily: a nerve in the populace had been touched. People felt even a bad law was better than no law at all.
Because Moore chooses to gloss over this and other issues that cloud his evangelical vision, there is no tension in the film and the ending is a foregone conclusion. Although the main characters, especially Marc Klaas, come off as dedicated in their devotion to their cause (California Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell is also very compelling in her reasons why Three Strikes is bad law), the film itself seems less a documentary than an infomercial.
So if you already believe fervently in the filmmaker's viewpoint, that Three Strikes are not nearly enough, you will continue to do so. If you think the issues are far more complex than Moore will admit, you will not find company here. Perhaps the heart of the issue is spoken by Mike Reynolds at the beginning of the film: "Statistics don't mean much until you become one." This is what everyone would like to avoid.
(Telecast by P.O.V. on PBS - Tuesday, June 1, 1999)