Hurricane’s Story, One Hell of a Movie

In Norman Jewison’s new film The Hurricane , Denzel Washington gives the most dynamic performance of his career as Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, the boxing champ who was on the verge of winning the middleweight title when, one night in 1966, he was falsely arrested by a racist cop, accused of murdering three people in a bar in Paterson, N.J., mistakenly identified by a witness who was himself a suspect, convicted by two all-white juries, denied all appeals, and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences in prison for a crime he did not commit. He languished behind bars a broken and forgotten man, his marriage wrecked, his career terminated, his life destroyed, all because of a corrupt policeman who pursued him from the age of 11 in the same sadistic way Inspector Javert pursued Jean Valjean in Les Misérables . Here alone is the artillery for a penetrating drama indicting the criminal court system for a colossal, racially motivated miscarriage of justice. But The Hurricane is just getting started. It’s the miraculous story of how an innocent man is vindicated by a black teenager and his three Canadian social-worker guardians after 20 years in prison that makes this one of the most profound and inspiring films of 1999. As we enter a new century, the story of what happened to the man they call the Hurricane will have a lasting impact in years to come.

Mr. Carter, now 62 and living in Canada, has led a life few people could imagine, and Mr. Jewison, working from a meticulously researched screenplay by Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon, has paralleled the complex facts of his story with the mission of a group of dedicated Canadian social activists with high principles who set aside all self-interests and devoted their lives to setting him free. In real life, there were nine Canadians, but Mr. Jewison has condensed them to three for the purpose of an acceptable running time. Even with artistic license, their story is no less forceful. It is, however, so complex that only a director with Mr. Jewison’s skill could keep it moving from the 1940’s, when young Rubin is first hounded and sent to reform school by the perverted cop (played by Dan Hedaya), through the Army, and up to the point where he was taking the boxing world by storm. (The sequences in the ring are the most powerful since Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull .) The movie jumps around in time, ending in 1988, when the State of New Jersey was finally shamed into dismissing the indictments. The film does an admirable job of making everything crystal clear, yet the story is so unbelievable you would doubt what you’re seeing if you didn’t know it was absolutely true.

The frustration and despair of a man wrongfully framed is just part of Denzel Washington’s layered performance. The strength of his character transcends the hell he’s in. Refusing to wear a prison uniform, eat prison food or work in prison jobs, he eschews anything that might constitute an admission of guilt and concentrates his energy on exercise, spiritual growth and writing his autobiography. Years later, a troubled Brooklyn teenager living with a foster family of guidance counselors and social workers in Canada picks up a dogeared paperback of that book for 25 cents at a church sale and becomes so obsessed by Rubin’s innocence that he writes him a letter, enclosing money for a stamped reply. A correspondence begins between the boy who has found an idol behind bars and a prisoner on the verge of hopelessness who needs a friend.

Mobilized by the boy’s obsession, the Canadians decide to take matters into their own hands, move to America, rent hotel rooms near the prison, and plunge into the files of Rubin’s case, declaring “We’re not leaving until we all leave together.” Through the years, many celebrities gave their time and risked their reputations to help him, and Bob Dylan wrote a famous song about him that is used throughout the film, but the Canadians were the only ones who never gave up on his cause. The movie catalogues their efforts to reopen the case, interview witnesses and follow every lead, sometimes endangering their own lives, while Rubin himself is forced to overcome his distrust of all white people and learn to trust again. When Mr. Washington makes his last stand in Federal court, playing his ultimate ace before the judge (Rod Steiger), it’s the stuff of high courtroom drama. The gamble pays off and the end result is something of a miracle.

So The Hurricane succeeds on many levels-as a boxing picture, a suspense thriller, a challenge to the legal system more powerful than any fiction John Grisham could dream up, and a human canvas of courage and faith that connects to the emotions the way one of the Hurricane’s right crosses connects with the jaw. It’s the kind of picture that Norman Jewison does best, on the order of In the Heat of the Night and A Soldier’s Story , full of commitment and passion. And it’s the best kind of movie, because it builds a massive dossier of gripping facts, like a well-crafted but hard-to-believe detective story, leaves you open-mouthed because they’re all true, remains cinematic as hell, and ennobles us all in the process. The acting is uniformly excellent, but it is the nobility, serenity, humanity and tough-guy strength of Denzel Washington that gives The Hurricane its velocity. The movie is ultimately about the greatness of people who have the courage to test the best in themselves, and Mr. Washington seems to be very good at that sort of thing. He’s found himself one hell of a role in a movie with a lot to say and a director who knows how to say it in a dynamic and inspirational way. A very memorable movie indeed.

Homage To Ol’ Blue Eyes

Long after you and I are gone, future generations of sociologists studying the baffling contrasts of the human psyche will still be scratching their heads over Frank Sinatra. He was a bully and a thug, a contributor to charitable causes and a smasher of whisky glasses, a gentleman and a swinger drawn with equal fervor to millionaires and goons. He was also the most romantic practitioner of the art of the American popular song, and two years after his death, his influence on a younger generation of singers continues to have a profoundly vigorous effect.

Entertaining proof is currently on view in Our Sinatra , one of last season’s freshest cabaret acts at the Algonquin, now resuscitated and expanded into a full-length musical with intermission at the Blue Angel, a nightclub with a concert stage on West 44th Street. This engaging celebration of Ol’ Blue Eyes and his most durable songs features an attractive and musically gifted trio composed of Eric Comstock, one of the youthful treasures of New York’s vanishing breed of singing saloon pianists, the hip and lovely Hilary Kole, and Christopher Gines, a lanky beanpole crooner who bends ballads like saltwater taffy in a satiny style reminiscent of the boy singers who manned the mikes in the Big Band era of Tommy Dorsey and Harry James. The show is a happy, energetic, witty and tuneful spin on Sinatra’s legend, discography and contribution to the American songbook, and a marvelous time is had by all.

From a prolific career that included 1,500 recordings and 58 motion pictures, Our Sinatra distills the essence of the man and his music in 66 songs without making any attempt to imitate him, and the phony idolatry so many New York disk jockeys are guilty of is mercifully absent. A few brief biographical details are provided, but the emphasis is on music, as three intelligent and talented music lovers explore a variety of tempos and moods with a casual, humorous and most rapturous rapport. Even if you’re not a Sinatra fan, you’ll find it easy to fall under the spells of his songs-and the way these savvy performers sing them. Mr. Comstock plays sure chords and sings with perfect enunciation everything from Cole Porter’s lively “You’re Sensational” to a ruminative version of one of Sinatra’s trademark songs, “Everything Happens to Me,” that includes special lyrics written for him when he was in the autumn of his years (“Now I’m chasing rainbows with the losers in the class/ But pal, you don’t find rainbows in the bottom of a glass”). The zesty, curvaceous Ms. Kole excels on an up-tempo rendition of “I’ve Got the World on a String,” and the smooth brandy tones of Mr. Gines’ easy baritone add luster to a variety of standards, from a lusty “Old Man River” to a seamlessly gossamer “Last Night When We Were Young.”

My favorite part of the show is the section devoted to those deep purple torch songs Sinatra sang at 2 A.M., “In the Wee Small Hours,” “One for My Baby” and “Angel Eyes.” And because two hours allows barely enough time to scratch the surface, there’s a cleverly arranged, finger-snapping, no-time-to-waste killer medley of more than 30 staples from the Sinatra catalogue that, strangely enough, leaves you cheering for more. Of course the singer other singers called the Chairman of the Board unloaded his share of chopped liver, too, and this sophisticated cast tackles “Strangers in the Night” and “The Summer Wind” with enough parody to prove that hero worship has definite limitations. Our Sinatra is a fine way to spend an evening with three musical marvels with more on their minds than noise. They are sexy, charming and funny, and in the time it takes to down a couple of dry Manhattans, they will reacquaint you with the most important thing worth remembering about Frank Sinatra-the songs he sang, enriching us all.