Brubaker (1980)
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Cast: Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Yaphet Kotto
Extras: Trailers, TV Spots

When movies like "Midnight Express" hit theaters in 1978 it was very convenient to think that the sort of abuse, torture and brutalizing violence would only apply to jails in countries like Turkey, China, or the third world. Well, to make sure that especially American audiences would realize that things aren’t much better in their own homeland, Stuart Rosenberg shocked the world in 1980 with "Brubaker," a film that is equally based on real life events. It is showing that things are not right with the American prison system either and that change is a lost cause as long as corrupt politicians have a say in it.

As the movie begins we witness a group of prisoners being carted off to Wakefield State Prison. Along the way they are awakened to the fact that violence is very common here, as they take on a critically wounded inmate who has been shot by a prison guard and is effectively left bleeding to death in the bus without aid. Once inside the prison, Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford) witnesses events of brutality and abuse that border on the perverse. The flogging and torture of inmates is the order of the day, as is starving them to death and depriving them of any sense of humanity. What no one knows is that Brubaker is actually the prison’s new warden who has infiltrated the place incognito to study its conditions, and it is only when Walter, (wonderfully played by a bushy-haired Morgan Freeman) a solitary inmate breaks loose and threatens to kill a fellow prisoner with the guards watching, that Brubaker blows his cover and reveals himself.

He then takes on his position as reform warden of the penitentiary and starts working on change. Quickly he uncovers scam schemes among prison guards, extortion of the convicts, abuse of the inmates as slave labor and countless other offenses committed on a daily basis. Immediately he goes to work aggressively trying to improve the conditions in the institution and undermining the abuse. But his reforms don’t please everyone. A group of businessmen and politicians – the so-called prison-board – have vested interest in leaving things the way they are and do everything within their power to stop Brubaker dead in his tracks. Fortunately, his methods also make him a few new friends, and soon Brubaker finds himself fighting a fight on all fronts, never sacrificing his principles.

The film is wonderfully acted by all involved. Robert Redford truly shines in this part, as does Yaphet Kotto, as one of Brubaker’s highly skeptical trusties, who always – unintentionally so – plays devil’s advocate to Brubaker’s reform ideas. But also David Keith, Matt Clark and Tim McIntire are clearly making their parts their own. And, of course, once again Murray Hamilton is playing the part of a corrupt politician without conscience so convincingly that he is outright frightening in his fanaticism.
"Brubaker" is a gritty film with a visual style that is as harsh as the living conditions in the prison. The filmmakers have very effectively made use of color palettes to emphasize the emotions and the isolation of the inmates. From drab-colored jail cells to the lush green outdoors, the film makes poignant use of colors throughout.

20th Century Fox Home Entertainment is presenting "Brubaker" in its original 2.35:1 <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio on this DVD in a transfer that is <$16x9,enhanced for 16x9> TV sets. The image is very clean and no defects are evident in the print. A bit of grain can be seen in occasional shots but for the most part the transfer is of the highest quality. Colors are reproduced very accurately, restoring the movie’s drab look with a cold color scheme in interior shots, and vibrant hues for the outdoors to increase the emotional contrast. Skin tones are faithfully rendered ad the overall contrast of the film is very good. Black levels are solid, creating deep blacks and shadows with finely defined definition. No distracting edge-enhancement is visible in the presentation and the compression has been handled very well, ensuring that no compression artifacts made it into the presentation.

The DVD contains a stereo audio track of the movie, as well as optional mono tracks in English, French, and Spanish. The audio is a bit limited due to its age, giving the sound a bit of a harsh edge, but it is never distracting. No background noise or hiss is evident and only occasionally, slight distortion is audible in the recording – a technical limitation of the original sound elements.

Sadly, the DVD doesn’t contain any extras other than a number of TV Spots and trailers for this and selected other Robert Redford movies.

"Brubaker" is a powerful and gritty film that keeps you on the edge from its opening minutes to the end of its 130 minutes. The DVD is giving us a great-looking presentation of the movie, though the lack of extras, especially ones that further explore the true background of the story, is a bit of a disappointment. Nonetheless, this is a great release for all fans of Redford’s work, and anyone interested in seeing a good one-man fight for a good cause.