ON THE SILVER SCREEN: TV SCRIPT, DIRECTION BUILD A CASE AGAINST LESS-THAN-CINEMATIC "CONVICTION"

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By Brian Lafferty

 

October 22, 2010 (San Diego)--Conviction has a well-told, if formulaic, story. The acting is OK, although I felt at times Hilary Swank was trying too hard. It somewhat touched me emotionally and I got mad at times, in a good way. However, I cannot recommend it because of its one major flaw: it’s nothing more than big screen television.

 

The movie is based on the true story of Betty Anne Waters. Her brother was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole on trumped-up charges. She refuses to believe he did it. She is so determined to free him that she decides to become a lawyer. She goes to law school, passes the bar, and eventually frees him after several decades.

 

As I write this I recall some of the most famous courtroom movies. Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, and Billy Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution come to mind and those are just for starters.

 

The problem with Conviction is that, unlike those movies (and many other good courtroom movies) it isn’t cinematic. It plays like a made-for-TV movie only with a bigger budget and a star (it isn’t surprising, as much of director Tony Goldwyn’s previous work lies in directing TV dramas). There is nothing that elevates it from TV courtroom series such as L.A. Law, Perry Mason, or Matlock. The sets, cinematography, and shot compositions may be serviceable on the small screen but when blown up in a movie theater, they get tedious and plain.

 

The movie also lacks drama at the most important moments. In one pivotal scene, a witness recalls to Swank how she was coerced into testifying against her brother. The approach of this scene goes against one of the basic tenets of screenwriting: show, don’t tell. The scene would have been more powerful if we saw how the woman was forced by the detestable, corrupt policewoman to lie on the stand.

 

There are times when what we don’t see is more dramatic than what we do see. Sometimes it is just enough for characters to recount a painful memory, with the performance adequately conveying the horror and trauma. In the case of this scene, it was not satisfactory for me to just hear it. My eyes began to roll and then glaze as the woman began to describe for a few long minutes stuff that should have gotten me fired up. Instead I had the same emotional response as hearing someone tell me the dream they had the previous night, a sense of indifference and boredom.

 

Despite the TV atmosphere I found the characters believable. Some of the relationships aren’t developed well, especially Swank’s relationship with her husband and kids. However, I thought the relationship between Swank and her brother was well-written, despite coming off as slightly manipulative. It is believable because writer Pamela Gray shows the deep bond between them, allowing us to invest our time into watching her efforts to prove his innocence.

 

However, that is not enough. I wouldn’t spend upwards of ten dollars for a ticket to see Conviction. There are other good movies in theaters right now. This film is better off seen on the format it is best suited for: television.