"Forgotten Prisoners: The Amnesty Files" is entertainment television with a social conscience.
The TNT cable production, which premieres at 8 tonight, is the kind of made-for-TV movie that not only works as entertainment but also tries to put a social issue on the front burner of public consciousness -- as "An Early Frost" did with AIDS. It is the entertainment arm of television doing what the news side is supposed to do but often doesn't. It is television the industry can be proud of.
"Forgotten Prisoners" is about political prisoners in Turkey and the Amnesty International attorneys who investigate their cases and try to win their freedom. It stars Ron Silver as Jordan Ford, an American attorney working for Amnesty International, and Hector Elizondo as Hasan Demir, a Turkish lawyer working with Ford.
Ford comes to Turkey to observe the trials of several people arrested on political crimes. The prisoners include a 63-year-old shepherd, a playwright and a political cartoonist. The cartoonist (played by Aziz Azim) and his torture and Ford's efforts on his behalf become the dramatic center of this film, which is based on Amnesty International files and made with the international rights organization's cooperation.
The movement of the film is back and forth between the prisoner's torture and the efforts of Ford and Demir to investigate his case and get him out of prison. It makes for an effective point-counterpoint.
The torture scenes in the prison dungeon will remind some viewers of "Midnight Express." Tight camera shots of sweaty faces, hands, eyes and the instruments of torture are piled up until you feel as if you are in the room and choking on the pre-torture currents of fear and sadism passing back and forth between the questioner, guards and prisoners. Often the film cuts away before the torture ever starts. And the cutaway is welcome.
Meanwhile, Silver and Elizondo make for a terrific pair. The cross-cultural exchanges between Ford and Demir offer an unexpected humor. The quirky Demir looks for traffic jams to sit in when he is tense. He says it relaxes him. The jumpy Ford complains because he thinks the Turkish government agent tailing him looks like Tom Cruise. "A Turkish Tom Cruise is tailing me -- I can't believe it," he moans. Ford says he'd "kill for a hamburger" after several days in Turkey. Demir says a hamburger could never compare with a "nice, ripe apricot." He delivers the pronouncement with the crackpot certainty of Mel Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man.
Their humorous interplay makes the film's serious message all the more compelling. "Forgotten Prisoners" not only reminds us of the horrible abuses of human rights in our world, for some viewers, it will make instances of that abuse impossible to forget.