ATTICA (1980)

Movie Info

Movie Info

Marvin J. Chomsky
Run Time
1 hour and 28 minutes
Not Rated

VP Content Ratings

Sex & Nudity
Star Rating
★★★★4.5 out of 5
The prisoners take over a large yard at Attica. (c) Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

This made for TV film is one of 4 contained on the bargain DVD “4 Film Collection: Movies of Excellence.” * This is one of those times when the claim for the films is true—at least for this one. (I actually bought the disk for a film I will report on later, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.) Helmed by veteran director Marvin J. Chomsky (among his many credits is the miniseries The Holocaust), the film offers almost an hour by hour straight-forward account of those terrible 4 days beginning on September 9, 1971 when the authorities at New York’s Attica State Prison were confronted with one of the largest prison rebellions on record.

If it were not for the 42 guards and staff members held hostage, the authorities probably would have moved in sooner with guns blazing. A negotiating team that included trusted NY Times journalist Tom Wicker (George Grizzard) and activist/civil rights lawyer William Kunstler (Anthony Zerbe) is sent into the yard which the more than 1200 prisoners control—though on the nearby roofs a squad of prison guards keep their rifles aimed at the crowd. Tensions are so high and the prisoners mistrust the state officials so much that the team has been made up of men the prisoners trust will listen to their side. During the negotiations the guards are kept blind-folded most of the days, and at times, knives are held at their throats to remind their rifle-pointing watchers of what could happen were an attack to be launched.

A list of almost 30 items the prisoners are demanding include better food, sanitation and health services, more humane treatment by the guards—all to which Commissioner Russell Oswald (Charles Durning) and Superintendent Vince Mancusi (Arlen Dean Snyder) agree. However, the demand for amnesty is rejected because of the poisoned atmosphere created by the prisoners’ treatment of the first guard they had seized. At the beginning of the take-over, before cooler heads could prevail, some angry prisoners had beat him and thrown him out a window. He lingered in a hospital for a couple of days and died.

At first radical lawyer Kunstler makes matters worse when he delivers a rousing speech to the prisoners in support of their rebellion. Wicker is appalled, but eventually the lawyer realizes that some compromise must be reached. By then tempers have risen so high on both sides that any giving in appears to the other side as selling out. The negotiating team asks that Gov. Nelson Rockefeller come and speak, but he refuses.

The real names of many of the participants are used, but when it comes to the prisoners, scriptwriter James S. Henerson, using Tom Wicker’s book as his main source, combines real characters and gives the composite person a fictional name. Thus Morgan Freeman is Hap Richards, not a leader, but more of an observer and interpreter of events, similar to his role as “Red” in Shawshank Redemption. Lesser known, but equally competent, actors play the leaders who address the crowd and the outside world. Even Bobby Seale (Noble Lee Lester) of the Black Panthers is called in, but he proves ineffective, and is soon gone.

When it is apparent that negotiations are at impasse, and the Governor continues to refuse to come to the site, the heavily armed state troopers, equipped with a helicopter that drops tear gas, are sent in out of fear that the prisoners will carry through a threat to execute some of the hostages. Although restraint is called for, it is the opposite that results, overly-excited troopers firing into the crowd indiscriminately. In several instances we see officers actually executing unarmed convicts. By the time the tear gas and smoke clear, 9 of the hostages and 29 inmates are killed. The Governor tried to blame the death of the hostages on the prisoners, but this was proven false except for the revenge killings of 4 of the inmates by fellow inmates. Indeed, one hostage testified that it was a prisoner who saved his life, and eventually it was reported that Muslim prisoners had warned others to leave the hostages alone or else.

Although improvements were made in the prison system, the film stands as testimony to the need for two sides to listen to each other and try to understand the other side so a compromise can be reached. And above, all of the futility of using violence to solve a delicate situation. If Governor Rockefeller thought his decision would help him in his Presidential aspirations, at a time when being “tough on crime” was popular, he was wrong, Attica becoming a dark stain on an otherwise progressive record of achievements.

  • I have just learned that the 4-film set is no longer  available from retailers, though ATTICA itself is available on Amazon for a ridiculously high price. HOWEVER, if you go to eBay, you will find it for sale both in the 4-film set and as a single-film DVD, and the prices vary from $4 to over $30, so be sure to scroll through the many offerings. Postage is extra, so my advice, if you are not in a hurry to see this, is to look for it at a flea market dealer or a pawnshop. That is how I obtained my copy–for $2.

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the June issue of Visual Parables.

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2 Replies to “ATTICA (1980)”

  1. thank you for the overview and review. Attica was a story of my childhood. As a little white kid in San Francisco I was I remember being horrified. So much was going on then in SF and around the country. It was a time of such potential, only some of which was achieved.

    Now we’re in another such time, a time when we can have a new reckoning with race, one that’s been put off for hundreds of years.

    I got here by listening to an interview with the director of “Attica”, a documentary nominated for the 2022 Academy Awards It also sounds excellent.

    It documents voices that we need to hear as we revise history for the sake of accuracy and healing.

    1. Thanks for this comment and observation. We do indeed need to hear such voices. I have not seen the documentary you mentioned, so thanks for the link also.

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