Treadmill Theater Presents: BRUBAKER Review
Release Date : 06/20/80
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: Robert Redford, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, and Morgan Freeman
Actual Gross: $37,121,708
Adjusted Gross (2013): $111,089,100
1980 Box Office Rank: 19
There is a new group of inmates at the dismal Wakefield Prison. As the days and weeks pass, one of those new inmates keeps a low profile and stays out of trouble, but he is in constant observation mode. He takes mental stock of everything that goes on, from the inmate hierarchy to the employee corruption and from the quality of the food to just how corporal the punishment can be. When circumstances with a lifer (Freeman) become too dangerous, the prisoner reveals himself as Henry Brubaker, the new warden of Wakefield Prison.
Brubaker has been brought in to reform the prison in three ways: improve their squalid living conditions, humanize the way they are treated, and root out the internal corruption. What Brubaker doesn’t expect is how much corruption he faces outside the prison walls.
To make a food analogy, imagine taking a handful of world-class chefs and putting them in the kitchen at a diner. This is how I feel about Brubaker: Like diner food, the drama sticks to the ribs, but the people making it are far better than their product limits them to.
In this film, those chefs are the actors. Normally I would say “led by Redford,” but this film is very much led by a spectacular collection of supporting players and character actors. THAT bunch is led by Kotto and Keith, as savvy inmates who help Redford reform the place, but also include Hamilton, Freeman, Matt Clark, Val Avery, Wilford Brimley, and the deliciously corrupt M. Emmet Walsh.
As for Redford, his role is the easiest in the film. As the highly moral and self-righteous reformist, he tears through the prison righting all sorts of wrongs which are easy to right because of how wrong they are. It isn’t hard to convince people that you think whipping inmates, and serving maggot-infested food, and allowing guards to charge inmates for medical care (!) is bad. It also isn’t hard to feel frustrated by a corrupt political system impeding your progress because your progress will cost the corrupt politicians money.
And this is what prevents the film from moving from good to great. The plot is terribly unimaginative, to the point that at an inefficiently overlong 132 minutes, it plays like a made-for-TV drama. The fact that it’s based on a real-life story gives it that ripped-from-the-headlines twist, but the entire story – even the pre-credits post-script – is vanilla.
According to both IMDb and Wikipedia, this film holds the distinction of featuring the first onscreen appearance of Nicolas Cage. Both sources cite him as being an extra in the film, and he is not listed in the official credits (nor would he be). I did not know this prior to watching the film, but if he is an extra, I doubt I would have seen him anyway. This film also marks an early entry in Morgan Freeman’s onscreen career. His biggest claim to fame to this point in his career had been his 780 episodic appearances in the the children’s TV show The Electric Company throughout the better part of the 1970s. were nominated for for this film, but lost to Bo Goldman for Melvin and Howard.
Brubaker was nominated for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar [W.D. Richter (screenplay/story), Arthur A. Ross (story)], losing to Bo Goldman for Melvin and Howard. It wasn’t all bad for Redford on Oscar night, though, where he went on to win a Best Director Oscar for Ordinary People. While the former film will always be overshadowed by the latter in a retrospective of Redford’s career, it is a fine entry that is worth watching.
Film Treadmill Distance: 5.12 miles
Film Treadmill Time: 2:13:48
2014 Treadmill Distance: 9.58 miles
2014 Treadmill Time: 3:47:56
2014 Films Watched, Walked, and Written: 2
For more information about Treadmill Theater, see the summary at the bottom of my Little Darlings review. All financial data courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com.