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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Brubaker (1980)

"I am the man."
- Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford)

Review By: Jeff Rosado  
Published: June 02, 2003

Stars: Robert Redford, Jane Alexander, Yaphet Kotto, David Keith, Murray Hamilton
Other Stars: Morgan Freeman, Tim McIntire, Matt Clark, Everett McGill, Richard Ward, John McMartin, M. Emmet Walsh, Wilford Brimley, Jon Van Ness, Harry Groener, Noble Willingham, Ronald C. Frazier, Linda Hayne, Val Avery, Joe Spinell, John Chappell, Nathan George
Director: Stuart Rosenberg

Manufacturer: Panasonic MDMC
MPAA Rating: R for strong language, partial nudity, adult situations
Run Time: 02h:10m:27s
Release Date: June 03, 2003
UPC: 024543075387
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Brubaker is a powerful, engrossing and thought-provoking film, based on the true story of Thomas O. Murton, a Southern prison warden who battled corruption and inmate indifference while making drastic reforms at an Arkansas institution in 1968. Robert Redford had one of his best middle period roles as the film's renamed protagonist, Henry Brubaker, a superintendent who makes a daring and dangerous decision to go incognito as an inmate, prior to taking over a rundown prison farm.

On a dreary, rainy morning that echoes the darkness Brubaker is about to experience, a bus filled with new arrivals halts before entering the gates of Wakefield State Penitentiary. Rifle-brandishing men unload the body of a wounded inhabitant whom they say attempted to escape. Judging from the look of our warden to be, he's not buying it. Mud soaked grounds on the initial walk through prove to be the most appealing aspect of a rundown, overcrowded facility. Water-soaked concrete floors, not enough bunks, maggot-infested chow and of course, your usual quota of corrupt prison guards and veteran prisoners inflicting various methods of initiating their new housemates.

One day while performing sanitation detail, Brubaker has a fateful run-in with Walter (Morgan Freeman), a crazed inmate whose twisted mental state is the result of too much time in solitary. Grabbing the neck of an unlucky bystander and unleashing the fervor of a tent revival gospel preacher, the prisoner demands to see "the man" to call for an end to the madness that permeates his surroundings. In a calm, reassuring manner, Henry courageously enters the lion's den and admits that he is the authority figure in question. All the nearby prison trustees witnessing this interaction can do is laugh; one delusional nut telling another what he wants to hear. After taking Walter back to his holding cell, Brubaker leaps out of harm's way, locks the door and requests chief trustee Coombes (Yaphet Kotto) to serve as an escort to his new work area.

After former warden Cleeves (John Chappell) gets his walking papers, the undercover inmate formerly known as Stan Collins gets on with business big time. In a flurry of activity that sees such shameless tactics as payment for medical treatment, hoarding/selling of prisoner food and slave-type labor done away with, one would think Henry's reforms would make for one big happy dysfunctional prison family. Instead, skepticism and division ensue as the inmates divide into two camps. Even Coombes and lifer Bullen (David Keith), two of Wakefield's toughest, dance back and forth between full acceptance and suspicion.

Additionally, an unhappy prison board headed by old-school John Deach (Murray Hamilton) thinks Brubaker's changes are overzealous, which only makes him push harder for further reforms. In the process, Henry slowly alienates governor's aide Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander), his one true ally who urges compromise in playing the suits. But as further examples of wrongdoing continue to surface (including a chilling revelation from an elderly prisoner that uncovers injustices that may date back to the WWII era), such a give-and-take is not on his agenda.

Hollywood has always been slightly gun shy in tackling prison-based movies that portray the system as the bad guy; that's what makes Brubaker such a unique and gutsy piece of filmmaking. W.D. Richter and Arthur A. Ross's brutally frank, Oscar®-nominated screenplay (based on Murton's book The Dilemma of Prison Reform) is one of the reasons why, but even the best-penned material is nothing without the right actors. Redford has rarely equaled the passion he brought to this role in years since; even without much in the way of dialogue for the first reel and a half, the fear and disbelief registering on his face says more than a page of dialogue ever could. Had Redford not had the good fortune to be directorially involved with the accolade-drenched Ordinary People in the same year, there's no doubt in my mind that Brubaker would have garnered equally deserving attention instead of mere footnote status. Given its heavy subject matter, the film thankfully has its share of bitingly funny moments that are especially effective when you don't see them coming; in particular, a priceless exchange between Redford and veteran character actor M. Emmet Walsh, who portrays a crooked lumber salesman trying to play kiss up with a prune cake ("I hate prunes; they cloud my mind," Brubaker sarcastically retorts).

In a cast of standout supporting players, where does one begin? There's not a bad performance to be found: Kotto and Keith as the inmates whom Brubaker steers to his side, McIntire's just shy of sadistic prison guard, Alexander as the voice of reason, Freeman's brilliant bit part as the dangerous inmate and the unforgettable Richard Ward as the old con who's been kept three years past his sentence. Cult TV junkies will want to keep their eyes peeled for early performances by the likes of Noble Willingham (Walker, Texas Ranger), Everett McGill (Twin Peaks and Harry Groener in his film debut (Buffy, The Vampire Slayer). Last but not least, veteran character specialists Wilford Brimley and the aforementioned Walsh shine in brief but effective bits.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: In sharp contrast to its edgy subject matter, a warm, film-like transfer blessed with natural, spot-on color courtesy of a virtually discrep free print; one of Fox's best budget-title transfers ever.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Spanish, Frenchyes
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: English audio comes in mono and stereophonic flavors with the latter preferable due to its openness, but I hesitate to call it a true two-channel because it is extremely narrow. Trebly, slightly hissy and lacking in low frequencies, this dialogue-driven film doesn't demand much in the way of showiness, so no complaints.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
6 Other Trailer(s) featuring Bullworth, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, High Crimes, The Hot Rock, Men Of Honor, Norma Rae
3 TV Spots/Teasers
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:19m:54s

Extras Review: Fox must have high sales forecasts for this title, because I can't recall such a high number of trailers being included on a budget-line title. But when you consider Brubaker's highly discussable subject matter, it's too bad that a commentary track wasn't produced or at least a retrospective piece for the principals to convey their thoughts.

Three 30-second television spots for the film are included and are interesting if only to see how film advertising has changed dramatically throughout the years.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

A hard-hitting yet extremely accessible prison drama, Brubaker is one of the most overlooked films of the 1980s that deserves rediscovery on DVD. Although the slowing of plot developments after an exciting kick-off may test impatient viewers, those who weather these weak mid-point spots will be rewarded with a flawless final third. All in all, a movie experience you won't soon forget.


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