A Movie A Day #108: Against The Wall (1994, directed by John Frankenheimer)


The year is 1971 and Malcolm Smith (Kyle MacLachlan) has just started working as a prison guard at Attica Correctional Facility.  Even though his father (Harry Dean Stanton) was a prison guard, Malcolm does not fit in with the other guards at Attica.  Malcolm is younger than them and is disgusted by the inhumane treatment of the prisoners.  If not for his wife (Anne Heche) and the child that they are expecting, Malcolm would just quit but he needs the money.  He fears that he is going to eventually turn into just another sadistic guard.

When a prison riot breaks out, Malcolm is one of the guards taken hostage.  While the psychotic Chaka (Clarence Williams III) wants to kill all of the guards, Jamaal X (Samuel L. Jackson) realizes that killing the hostages will sacrifice what little leverage that prisoners have.  If the guards are killed, Jamaal X reasons, the state police will have no reason not to storm the prison and violently restore order.  Over the course of the four-day riot, Jamaal and Malcolm become unlikely friends and allies but it turns out that, even with the guards being held hostage, the government has no interest in negotiating with the prisoners.

This moving, thought-provoking, and well-acted docudrama originally aired on HBO and it won John Frankenheimer a well-deserved Emmy.  Samuel L. Jackson is powerful as Jamaal X and this is one of the few times that Kyle MacLachlan got to play a thoroughly normal person with no dark secrets or weird quirks.  Malcolm Smith is just a regular everyman who finds himself in the middle of a history-making event.

For fans of Twin Peaks, Against the Wall features three alumni of the show.  Kyle MacLachlan, of course, starred as Dale Cooper while Clarence Williams III appeared in one episode as Roger Hardy.  Finally, Harry Dean Stanton, a longtime favorite of David Lynch, appeared in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.

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