'Hurricane' takes a beating

Controversy: It could've been a contender. But with the Oscars coming up, a storm of criticism is boxing the film into a corner.

February 14, 2000|By Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- When Universal Pictures launched "The Hurricane" at the end of December, the studio not only thought the film starring Denzel Washington was a potential hit, but a formidable Academy Awards contender. But in the weeks following its release, the studio and Beacon Pictures, which co-financed the picture, have been embroiled in an ugly media battle over the movie's veracity, which many in Hollywood believe has badly tarnished its Oscar aura.

The film, which recounts the saga of boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's imprisonment on a false murder charge, was billed by the studio as a "triumphant true story of an innocent man's 20-year fight for justice." But a growing body of stories contends that the film is as much fairy tale as truth. The heated debate, which has spread from the establishment media to the Internet, has Universal back on its heels, forced to defend the film against charges that it has distorted history and presented a false version of Carter's legal battles.

"Sometimes I wish we'd made a movie about Julius Caesar," groans Universal publicity chief Terry Curtin. "At least none of his Roman legions are around to complain about whether every little detail of his life is accurate or not."

"The Hurricane's" defenders say the film is true to the spirit of Carter's struggle. They contend that the film has been wronged by self-serving attorneys and reporters who feel the film slighted their roles in winning his freedom. But the film's detractors say the movie confuses sentiment with truth, transforming Carter into a cardboard saint by smoothing over the rough edges of a complicated man.

They say it has not only distorted minor details -- portraying Carter as being robbed in a fight for the middleweight title when he was beaten fairly, for example -- but has played fast and loose with larger truths, especially in the creation of a fictional racist police detective who stalks Carter from childhood to prison.

With Oscar nominations to be announced tomorrow, some in Hollywood are wondering why the studio didn't react more quickly to the attacks. It also calls into question whether Universal was fully aware of the factual discrepancies surrounding the film and the likelihood that the film's truthfulness would be questioned.

The drumbeat of debunking began Dec. 19, a week before the film's release, when veteran New York Post columnist Jack Newfield blasted the picture as a "horrible falsification of history." But the story that most influenced Oscar taste-makers was a Dec. 28 broadside by ex-New York Times reporter Selwyn Raab, who called the film a "fairy tale" that rewrote history "for dramatic effect." The piece carried a special weight since Raab's original reportage on the case uncovered evidence that played a role in overturning Carter's original conviction.

In recent weeks, stories critical of the film have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Miami Herald, Entertainment Weekly and the Nation. Cal Deal, a former Passaic Herald News reporter who covered the case, has even established a Web site -- www.graphicwitness.com/carter -- devoted to criticism of the film and details about the case he claims the film ignored.

The attacks affected respected film reviewers, who traditionally influence Oscar voters. New Yorker film critic David Denby described the movie as an "untrustworthy exercise in righteousness," calling it a "liberal fairy tale" that felt "false, evasive and factually very thin."

The filmmakers have vigorously defended the picture with rebuttals, letters and full-page ads that ran in the Hollywood trades late last month. Producer Armyan Bernstein dismisses Raab's debunking as "an opinion piece by a man who was upset by being left out of our film."

Damage done

The filmmakers say the controversy has obscured the film's noble message. "Our picture has been tarnished by the ill will of a handful of men with a self-serving agenda," says Bernstein, who heads Beacon Pictures. "If this controversy taints our film, then we'll have to rethink `Gandhi,' `Lawrence of Arabia,' `Silkwood,' `All the President's Men' and a lot of other great movies. It's like someone has suddenly raised the bar on how a drama is supposed to deal with the truth."

In fact, Oscar campaign experts believe that the damage to the film's reputation may be difficult to repair. DreamWorks marketing chief Terry Press, who saw "Amistad's" Oscar chances fade after a respected black author accused the filmmakers of plagiarism, believes that any high-profile media attacks can severely undermine a film's Oscar chances.

"Whether it's real or imagined, it casts doubt on a film," she says. "Once the stories start, you're on the defensive."

`Based on a true story'

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