When accepting last year’s Irving Thalberg Award at the Oscars, Director Norman Jewison advised: "Just find some good stories to move people to laughter and tears. Never mind the gross, the Top 10, the demographics. Just make films about people, that reveal truths about ourselves.” With The Hurricane, Jewison has taken his own advice. It’s a powerful and inspiring film, anchored by a Denzel Washington performance in the title role that’s as rock-hard and affecting as a Lennox Lewis body punch to the solar plexus.
Rubin "Hurricane" Carter (Washington) was a promising contender for the middleweight boxing title. In 1966 he was wrongly arrested for the murder of three people at a New Jersey tavern, convicted, and sentenced to three consecutive life terms. A 1976 retrial produced the same unjust result. Years later, Lesra Martin (Vicellous Reon Shannon), a Brooklyn-born teenager living in Toronto, went to a library book sale and bought his first book – Carter’s autobiography, The Sixteenth Round. It served as the inspiration for Lesra and his Canadian foster family (Deborah Unger, John Hannah, Liev Schreiber) to contact Carter and mount a new appeal for his freedom, investigating a complicated trail of forged evidence, perjury and prejudice.
This story easily could have been turned into a windy sermon on racial bigotry, inhumane prison conditions, or corruption in the American criminal justice system. Jewison’s past films (In The Heat of the Night, A Soldier’s Story) have often presented a moralistic stance. But Jewison and screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon have wisely kept the film’s focus on a small group of people – Rubin Carter and the four friends from Toronto working on his behalf. They show us the effects that a long unjust prison confinement and judicial setbacks have on Carter, and the Zen-like degree to which he’s forced to withdraw into himself in order to serve his time while justice runs its slow and painful course and his friends battle on his behalf.
The primary focus on the Carter character presents its challenges for an actor, especially given his transition to a man of few actions and even fewer words. There are no extravagant action scenes, few epic speeches, and little or no grand philosophical posturing for an actor to wrap his arms around – in short, few of the traditional characteristics of an Oscar-caliber part.
Denzel Washington’s performance is remarkable. Considering the constraints, it’s a complex triumph of minimalism, nuance and soul. He changes from a brash, brazen, and totally external person – making his living with his fists and his rage – to one who’s decided that the only way to be free is to retreat into the quiet sanctity of himself, and forsake all dependence on other people or anything that the authorities may be able to take from him.
Lesra’s quiet prison visits with Carter become short life lessons for both participants. In one particularly moving scene Carter conveys his admiration for the power and magic of writing. In these scenes of few words, Washington manages to convey with a glance or a gesture more emotion and range than most actors wring from Shakespearean soliloquies.
The rest of the cast is serviceable, and Jewison deserves praise for a notable triumph of simplicity in the performances of Dan Hedaya and Rod Steiger. They’re both actors who never met a scene they didn’t try to steal, but here they play their roles with restraint and quiet intelligence. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is more unobtrusive than distinctive; the staging of Carter’s 1960s boxing matches appears largely cribbed from Raging Bull. There are a few minor structural flaws, primarily a confusing story chronology in the first part of the film and some plot points that could have been better explained, but nothing seriously detracts from the overall power of the message.
– Bob Aulert