Prison is Hell
The Last Castle
I am not an "America, Fuck Yeah!" kind of person. I've never gone in for wearing patriotism on my sleeve, and I think it's fair to have at least some skepticism about what your country does. Hollywood has a tendency to make, quite literally in some cases, propaganda that is overtly pro-American (they'll also do this for China as well, for similar reasons). Hollywood productions can get money from the U.S. military if they're doing a pro-military movie. But it has to be pro-military, and the U.S. Military PR corps will go over the scripts with fine toothed combs to make sure the message of these films reflects the "right viewpoint". If Hollywood wants military money to offset the costs of films, that's what they have to give up.
This, naturally, leads to a lot of films that are very "America, Fuck Yeah!" without any irony to them. Pro-U.S., pro-military, without any question about what's really right or wrong. Even films where you'd think there should be some stance taken, some viewpoint that says, "hey, you know, maybe we should really do something here..." tend to have those rough edges sanded off. They have to -- if they don't "fix" things the Military would complain about, they don't get their money. That's how we can get a film like The Last Castle, a movie about military soldiers that somehow manages to take no stance about anything at all. It should have one, maybe a commentary on the prison system, or abuses of power, but no. It avoids all commentary altogether through a few tweaks of its script.
The Last Castle is about a U.S. military prison run by Colonel Ed Winter (James Gandolfini). Winter runs a tight ship, so he says, and he doesn't tolerate disobedience from the prisoners under his command. Naturally you'd assume the same from (now former) Lieutenant General Eugene Irwin (Robert Redford). Irwin has been sent to the prison after pleading guilty to ignoring a presidential order to remove his troops from Burundi. This action lead to the deaths of eight under his command, prompting Irwin to immediately take the full prison sentence of ten years. He's stripped of rank, sent to the prison, and just wants to get through his ten years so he can go home and meet his grandson.
Except, despite his protestations that he doesn't want to lead, Irwin is shoved into a leadership role. Some of the prisoners come to him to ask for help. They state that Winter doesn't just run a tight ship but, more so, he is a cruel prison warden. He abuses the prisoners (past the point allowed in military code) and, under his command, a high number of prisoners have died. While Irwin shakes this off initially, he eventually comes to see just how far Winter is willing to go to "retain control" over the men. Soon Irwin realizes that the only way to save the prisoners is to overthrow the prison and, thus, get Winter ejected from the role of warden. Winter, of course, won't take this lying down.
The Last Castle wasn't a sleeper hit, it was just a straight up bomb at the Box Office (taking in just $27.6 Mil against a $72 Mil budget), and it's kind of easy to understand why once you've seen the film. Despite great performances from a stellar cast -- Redford, Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Delroy Lindo, Clifton Collins, Jr., Robin Wright -- the film feels oddly weightless, even disconnected from its characters. It struggles to get its emotional beats right, sometimes being hammy when the moment calls for quiet introspection, other times filming events with a cold eye when the scenes call for real emotion. The actors do their part, but the film doesn't understand how to use them well.
But then, this gets to the bigger issue of the fact that even the story doesn't really know what its trying to say. It's hard to set the scenes to drive home the right dramatic pitch when the story is all over the place with its tone and substance (or, really, lack thereof). It's a simple matter to pinpoint the issue: the film doesn't know if Irwin, disgraced Army general, is a good guy or a bad guy. It wants him to be a good guy, desperately needs him to be the moral center of the story, but he is a prisoner, one who was sent to prison for disobeying a Presidential order and getting eight of his men killed. Arguably he should not be the moral center of the story, not without more context.
Context is key, and it's also what the movie shies away from the hardest. Bear in mind we don't ever see the actions that led to Irwin getting sent to prison, we're only told about them. He never says why he disobeyed the presidential order to leave Burundi. We don't know if it was his own hubris, or if he was doing something important that had to get done and "damn the consequences." He takes the punishment, because he's a good soldier, but he often doesn't seem all that torn up over it. Hell, we never even know if he likes the president or not, so we can't make a judgment call on if the president is right or not. None of the information we need to make an informed decision about Irwin is ever given to us. Were left just assuming he's a good guy because he's played by Robert Redford.
But then, the same could be said for every prisoner in the joint. We're often told, "these are violent criminals," but we never actually get much context for this statement. Because we never seen anything that any of the prisoners did to end up in the joint it all feels airy, without substance. One prisoner, Clifton Collins, Jr.'s Corporal Aguilar, was said to have beaten another soldier over the head with a brick. But the soldier presented seems harmless, unable to raise a fist to anyone, buried within himself. His action, as we told about it briefly, seems to warrant sending him to a psychiatric facility, not a prison, as he clearly has mental issues. But then, someone like him probably wouldn't have even made it into military service (he has a stutter, and a bit of a limp, and likely would have been rejected the second he applied). How a guy like him gets to this prison is never explained. And what everyone else did to get in, and why this specific prison, is similarly never explained.
The one character given any kind of context is the warden, Gandolfini's Colonel Ed Winter, who we seen performing a number of "evil" actions. The worst offense he commits is having one of his riflemen, who are armed with rubber bullets, shoot Aguilar in the head for disobeying a command. A head shot with a rubber bullet, it should be noted, is a kill shot. This is the turning point for Irwin, leading him to think Winter should be removed from duty. That's fair, and I don't argue the point, but there's a lot of nuance the film fails to develop that, frankly, is needed. How did Winter get to this point where he thinks having a prisoner shot in the head (thereby killing them) is warranted. What happened in the prison before Irwin got there that maybe called for these kinds of actions. What in Aguilar's past made Winter think this was necessary. Is it evil for the sake of evil or was it motivated by past actions we neither see nor hear about?
And if Winter really is this evil, why hasn't he been removed from duty before this? Surely someone in military command should have noticed that this prison has a higher than normal death rate among the inmates. If they higher ups didn't notice, or didn't care, that seems like an indictment of U.S. military command (although the film, of course, can't make that point). But what if the death rate isn't higher than normal at this prison? That would mean Winter wasn't more or less evil than other prison wardens in the U.S. military system, which would paint Irwin in a less favorable light. These are questions that the story needs to raise, and doesn't, going for a simple good vs. bad story that doesn't suit the characters, setting, or context.
I think the worst offense, though, is that the film tries to go for the worst, most patriotic ending it can. It sets Irwin up to be a martyr, Winter as the villain, and the military coming to the aid of the prison as the real heroes, all while the American Flag flies proudly over the carnage. I'm not sure what message the production team was actually going for with this ending, but man doesn't it fail the film tonally on every level. It's a muddled ending that refuses to take sides, which robs everything that came before of even a little bit of nuance. It's a pat ending that the film simply doesn't earn.
Despite all of this, the film is at times somewhat affecting, and that does come down to the acting. Frankly, if Redford wasn't in this film it would be an utter and complete mess (more so than it already is). he sells it for all its worth despite a threadbare script and thinly drawn characters. But a strong central performance can only get a film so far and even with Redford in the lead The Last Castle can't bring it home. It's a film that wants us to root for the strength and resolve of the U.S. soldiers despite all the soldiers here being dangerous, career criminals. The film puts on its blinders and tries to act like the protagonists are heroes, the antagonists are villains, and it leaves all nuance and context at the door.
There's probably a darker, more interesting version of The Last Castle that could have been made, but that would require ditching all the "American, Fuck Yeah!" that was added in. That will never happen as long as the U.S. Military gets to treat Hollywood as its (willing) propaganda wing. Movies like this need to be allowed to challenge our ideas of the military and ask tough questions. The Last Castle doesn't do that. it's not challenging at all, and as not interest in even trying. A better version would be dark, and hard, and really challenge its viewers. That would be an artistically interesting film to watch, and likely much better than what we ended up getting here.