Last week, on a geeky politics podcast I’m partial to indulging in when not evaluating Insane Clown Posse merchandise or reviewing CGI owl movies, the topic was the Supreme Court and its upcoming consideration of John Thompson’s case. Formerly on death row for a murder charge, Thompson was exonerated after a private investigator hired by the defense found mounds of evidence the New Orleans District Attorney’s office failed to release to Thompson’s lawyers that ultimately proved his innocence. After 18 years on death row, Thompson got a new trial and was acquitted in about 30 minutes. On October 6, the Supreme Court heard arguments on Thompson’s civil suit taping the District Attorney for $14 million in damages. The political commentators on the podcast raved that the case, which they assumed would be found in Thompson’s favor, would be one of SCOTUS’ most open-and-shut.
The radio wonks obviously hadn’t seen Conviction. If there’s one thing that’s apparent from the two-hour and 17 minute-long film, it’s that this type of justice is rarely swift. Based on a true story, the plot is much like Thompson’s tale: In 1983 Kenny Waters was convicted of murder based on his bad reputation and the fact that his blood type was the same as that found at the crime scene, a notion that seems frighteningly quaint in our DNA age. His sister, Betty Anne, had conviction (get it?) that her convicted brother was innocent and spent the better part of two decades acquiring evidence to get him exonerated. To do this, she put herself through college and law school and appealed to the Innocence Project for help. After miraculously locating the presumed-destroyed 16-year-old evidence, the Waters still had to wait months to have the DNA tested. Even after it came back negative, they had to wait some more as a politically-scheming DA threw out roadblock after roadblock to prevent admitting her own wrongdoing.
Not to be a downer, but in real life Waters only lived for six months after his 2001 release, dying instantly in a freak accident near his New England home. Why that tear-jerking scene isn’t tacked on to Tony Goldwyn’s Oscar-baiting Conviction is baffling. If there’s one thing the Academy loves it’s long, harrowing films with a jarring final twist. The Academy also loves Hillary Swank (winner, Best Actress for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby), who realistically portrays the overstressed Massachusetts mama near delirious in her belief of her brother’s innocence. She’ll probably get nominated, although, because she doesn’t die a horrific death in this film, it’s debatable if she’ll win a little gold man next spring. Who should win is Sam Rockwell, assuming the perennially-snubbed actor is nominated at all. It’s his portrayal of the wronged Kenny that makes the film so heartbreaking. In his brief, pre-prison scenes, we see Waters as a loveable jackass, with one too many run-ins with the Keystone-ish cops of his small town. In prison, in contrast to Betty Anne’s forced cheeriness, Kenny sees a bigger picture, withering not only under federal penitentiary conditions but also under his own distrust of the legal system. While the film itself is perfectly stylish and thoughtful, it’s Rockwell’s weary face that delivers the true pain of wrongful conviction experienced by Waters, Thompson, and 257 (and counting) others in this country. If he doesn’t at least get an Oscar nod for this, well, there really is no justice. •
Dir. Tony Goldwyn; writ. Pamela Gray; feat. Sam Rockwell, Hillary Swank, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo