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'Conviction' does a true story justice

Courtesy of Fox Searchlight
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BY IMRAN SYED
Daily Arts Writer
Published October 28, 2010

Sometimes when the true story is just too amazing, the movie can only be a letdown. "Apollo 13," "Secretariat," the "Miracle" on ice — such incredible stories have a certain indescribable wonder specifically because they're true. But, dramatized and sanitized for Hollywood, that amazing true-life story can come across as sappy, false or downright boring.

There really isn't a more unbelievable true story turned into film than “Conviction.” The film manages not to deflate the magic and impossible triumph that is its true story — even if there's a little more schmaltz than most will care for.

Kenny Waters (Sam Rockwell, “Iron Man 2”) was the town screw-up; always in trouble, though he never really meant harm. So his sister Betty Anne (Hilary Swank, “Million Dollar Baby”) wasn’t too shocked when she was called to the police station one day to bail him out. However, this time was different: Kenny was soon charged with brutally murdering a woman, and would be convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Convinced of her brother’s innocence, yet unable to afford a lawyer with the concern or skill to help him, Betty Anne decided to become that lawyer. Despite having to raise children and hold a job, she obtained a GED, a college diploma and finally a law degree. Eventually, with the help of the Innocence Project in New York City, she exonerated her brother by proving through DNA evidence that he could not have been the murderer.

Filmed entirely in Michigan, and partially on the University campus, “Conviction” is — despite its despondent core — an uplifting tale of pleasant people. While there are more than enough scenes of misery and rejection, the film focuses on the resilience of its larger-than-life characters, and rightly so.

For a simple, uneducated woman to do what Betty Anne Waters did requires an absurd amount of dedication and strength of character. And in a dramatic depiction of such an amazing person is a golden opportunity to analyze the vigor of human willpower and the systems that work to dissuade it. Lesser films get too caught up in personal emotion to engage with the larger implications of that one-in-a-million accomplishment. “Conviction” pulls no such punches.

The depiction of the tedious, almost futile work done every day by law school innocence projects across the country is appropriately somber. The public only hears of the one percent of cases that succeed and lead to a very public exoneration, but there are hundreds of innocent people who cannot be saved. As the movie portrays quite poignantly, there comes a point in our system of justice where guilt or innocence are no longer the question; the fate of an innocent man turns instead on sometimes entirely arbitrary rules of finality in judicial judgments.

From Kenny and Betty Anne’s unimaginable triumph, we can learn a lot about the fragility of freedom, even in the fairest, most considered legal system in the world. In giving us this consequential question to ponder, Rockwell’s powerful performance is unflinchingly raw, yet touching. Swank is solid as well, though her depiction never rises above a politely earnest inquiry.

Kenny Waters was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years. The film chooses not to mention that Kenny died within months of being released from prison. That omission reeks of disingenuity, but it’s the only part of the film that does.