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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Deadline (2004)

"There are days, but they don't count. They're all the same day."
- Gabriel Solache, an inmate on death row

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: October 04, 2004

Stars: George Ryan, Scott Turow
Director: Katy Chevigny, Kirsten Johnson

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (intimations of violence, difficult and upsetting subject matter)
Run Time: 01h:29m:21s
Release Date: October 05, 2004
UPC: 741027171792
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

In our Crossfire culture, no subject is more polarizing, no topic generates more heat than light, than the death penalty. The two camps are entrenched: those opposed see the practice as barbaric, inhuman, cruel and unusual; those for it see the forfeiting of your life a necessary and appropriate price to pay if you're guilty of particularly heinous crimes. But what if even one of those we send to the electric chair or for lethal injection is innocent of the crimes for which he or she has been convicted? That dreadful possibility, the specter of that irreversible error, is at the heart of Deadline, and on the conscience of George Ryan, the former governor of Illinois, who brought the topic front and center in late 2002, during the waning months of his administration.

The proximate cause here was, curiously enough, a journalism class at Northwestern—as part of a class assignment, the students were able to establish the innocence of at least three Illinois convicts sentenced to death. A close look at the system brought up many deeply disturbing facts: the suppression of evidence, the worst sort of collusion between prosecutors and the police, astonishingly incompetent lawyering by inept defense attorneys. Governor Ryan, then, ordered new clemency hearings for each and every inmate on Illinois death row, giving each of them an opportunity to have their case heard once again, and to revisit whether or not the state should put them to death.

Of course, along with some jurisprudential malfeasance, the clemency hearings revealed once again that many of these convicts, either admittedly or demonstrated by incontrovertible evidence, had committed some sickening, repellent, unforgivable crimes; even the most ardent death-penalty opponent would have to be made queasy by some of this, things like the young man who blew off the heads of two of his neighbors, then sexually molested the corpse of one of them. The documentary gives voice to those from many perspectives, including Chicago Tribune journalists covering the hearings, and Ryan; crime novelist and lawyer Scott Turow, appointed by the Governor to a panel to oversee this process; the families of the victims, forced to re-live the worst moments of their lives; and the convicts themselves, in many cases bad men rightly fearful of facing their own mortality. The filmmaking occasionally wanders off a bit too much into the specifics of particular cases; and there are occasional attempts to provide more historical context, to situate the Illinois situation in the continuum of capital punishment in the United States, with the principal benchmark being Furman versus Georgia, a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court decision which outlawed capital punishment as cruel and unusual. (The decision was overturned four years later.)

Even though this is a societal issue, it's not surprising that the most moving aspects of this documentary are the most personal. Especially tormented is Donald Cabana, former warden of a maximum-security prison in Mississippi, discussing the psychological impact of executions on his prison staff. Who mixes the chemicals? Who's too eager to participate? Similarly, institutional lying and the suppression of evidence are inexcusable, but there’s a humanity to the cops, who are sweating it, and feeling the pressure, on a big murder investigation, to come up with someone, with anyone, to slake the mob's bloodlust and vengeance. And members of a group of murder victims' families against the death penalty speak with equal measures of mournfulness and equanimity—they include the father of a woman murdered in the Oklahoma City bombing, and the mother of Emmett Till, and they all know that closure is something you find only on Dr. Phil, not in your heart, not from yet another death.

The film is very good at illuminating these variegated aspects of capital punishment, and doesn't come to any sort of pat moral, just because the running time is close to up. The directors have been blessed by the Governor by providing a structure for their movie, but it's the details and the dirty business of death row that are likely to stay with you, no matter your stance. 

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Good, solid technical values, especially given the mix of archival material, newly recorded interviews, and stock footage. Blacks are solid, and the scratches are few.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: A bit of hiss here and there, but that's to be expected on a documentary of this sort.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 10 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in Spanish with remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
5 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. glossary of terms associated with capital punishment
  2. chronology of George Ryan and the death penalty
  3. accompanying booklet with an essay on the film by Howie Movshovitz
Extras Review: In an interview (12m:22s), directors Katie Chevigny and Kirsten Johnson discuss the genesis of the project, and their desire for moral complexity, which is evident in their final cut. Five deleted scenes are essentially complete takes of events excerpted in the feature, including a speech from Governor Ryan (09m:33s) and an interview (03m:20s) with him; a conversation (06m:49s) with death row inmate Gabriel Solache; a look (06m:21s) at the impact of Furman versus Georgia on one particular inmate; and a speech (05m:49s) by Emmett Till's mother. Weblinks are provided to a variety of sites dealing with capital punishment.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Even if your stance on the propriety of capital punishment is unshakable, Deadline is worth your time, for it's an evenhanded, complex, intelligent and soulful look at the ultimate power that can be exercised by the state. In many ways it's got more ethical dimensions than even very good movies like Dead Man Walking, and belongs on the shelf with books like The Executioner’s Song and Shot in the Heart as launching points for a difficult though necessary public discussion.


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