Swank and Rockwell bring passion to Conviction, Restrepo is riveting

by Mark Burger

Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell make their bids for awards consideration with strong turns in Conviction, a factbased legal drama lent urgency by its performances and the compassionate direction of Tony Goldwyn (his best effort to date in that capacity).

The film details the efforts of Betty Anne Waters (Swank) to prove the innocence of her brother Kenny (Rockwell), convicted in 1983 of the first-degree murder of a woman in a trailer park three years before.

Kenny Waters was no saint, nor does the film portray him as such. He’d been in and out of trouble and had numerous scrapes with the law over the years, but it’s made fairly clear, and fairly early, that he wasn’t a murderer. A drinker and a brawler, for sure — but the notion of him committing homicide was so unthinkable to his sister (and his supporters) that it drove her, at the expense of her own marriage, to attend law school, pass the bar exam and become a lawyer herself. The only reason she did so was to prove her brother’s innocence.

Before focusing on Betty Anne’s efforts to prove Kenny’s innocence, the story shifts easily back and forth through time, depicting their relationship as children, which led directly to their closeness as adults and, as a result, lends an extra measure of dramatic credibility to Betty Anne’s crusade. The rest is left to Swank and Rockwell to convey this relationship, which they do in persuasive fashion. It’s not entirely unexpected, given how talented both actors are. (Swank’s two Academy Awards aren’t for nothing, and Rockwell has proven his versatility numerous times, even in such lesser films as Charlie’s Angels.)

As an actor himself, it’s not surprising that Goldwyn allows his cast a lot of appropriate room to find their characters and make them distinct. Swank and Rockwell understandably dominate the film — and both, not surprisingly, are the ones primarily being touted for awards — but there’s good work all around: Minnie Driver as Betty Anne’s best friend, Peter Gallagher as lawyer Barry Scheck, Clea DuVall, Karen Young, Melissa Leo and Juliette Lewis, especially impressive in a tiny but pivotal role as a witness for the prosecution whose testimony might well have been swayed.

Conviction is weighty but never heavy, an important distinction. Too much preaching or sentiment would have quickly sent the film spiraling downward into TV-movie territory. Although the outcome of the case has been well-publicized (and is not a great surprise), tension and suspense are generated by Betty Anne’s painstaking, agonizingly time-consuming attempts to make even the slightest dent in the case.

The story is so compelling that it’s almost surprising how long it has taken for it to reach the screen. At least once, the project was canceled outright, and Swank (who also receives an executive-producer credit) stepped into the role of Betty Anne when Naomi Watts stepped out. The fight to make the film has interesting parallels to the actual story. It took a lot of time, a lot of work and a lot of frustration, but the end result was worth it.

Restrepo (now playing at the Carousel Luxury Cinemas, Greensboro), the winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, offers an up close and personal look at the conflict in Afghanistan, as recorded by producer/ directors Sebastian Junger (of The Perfect Storm fame) and Hetherington, who spent a year alongside the men of Second Platoon, Battle Company 173 rd Airborne, on deployment in the Korengal Valley — a region referred to as “the deadliest place on Earth.”

The region lives up (or down, depending on one’s point of view) to that description. The title of the film is derived from one of the platoon’s casualties, the popular and wellliked “Doc” Retrespo. Unfortunately, he’s not the only casualty during the 12-month stint in what might euphemistically be called Afghanistan’s Valley of Death.

Occasionally, the cameras are turned on the soldiers after their tour has ended, as they look back on things, but for the most part the film concentrates on them during that tour, as they fight, negotiate with the indigenous populace, and do their best to stay alive and in control — both of their emotions and of the situations they find themselves in.

One does not envy the soldiers of Second Platoon, but it’s near impossible not to admire and appreciate them. They’re doing their job, following orders, risking their lives, and pining to go home.

There have been many documentaries about this nation’s military involvement in the Middle East, some of them quite good. Restrepo is one of the best to date. It would be nice to hope it could also be one of the last.

Restrepo will also be released on home video this month by Virgil Films & Entertainment/National Geographic Entertainment. The DVD retails for $19.99, the Blu-ray for $34.99.