The Bottom Line
A gripping, ominous, stomach-turning film centered around a fictional (but only slightly so) America in which Vietnam-era protesters and counterculturalists are rounded up, tried by tribunal, and forced to choose between 15 years in prison .. or a chance at freedom in Punishment Park.
The Rest of the Story
The year is 1971 (the same year the film was shot.) President Nixon has issued an executive order establishing extraconstitutional tribunals to arrest, convict, and punish those working against the national security of America.
The film itself is framed as a documentary by a crew of British filmmakers working for NBC News to show the public the tribunal's methods — and also explore the newly formed "Punishment Park", a 250 square mile stretch of desert between Glendale, California and Death Valley.
To wit: if convicted, the prisoners are given a choice — serve out their lengthy sentences in federal prison, or attempt to earn their freedom in Punishment Park by reaching an American flag planted in the center. However, they will be being pursued by National Guardsmen, riot police, and U.S. marshals, and if they are apprehended, they'll serve their prison sentence all the same.
The documentarians follow two different groups through the tribunal process: one group in Punishment Park vying for their freedom, and one group standing trial at the tribunal. Intercutting back and forth as both groups progress, the film rapidly descends into an Orwellian nightmare of "with us or against us" politics, unnerving brutality and terror, and the all-too-frightening realization that this is a fiction not far removed from the reality that inspired it. Its all-too-predictable end stands as a bitter epitaph to a dismal leftist fantasy — as one of the Park runners puts it, "when you are a nonviolent person in violent times, there is only one path left to you."
A film that makes you shiver uncontrollably practically throughout can only be described as memorable.
There is so much to recommend about this movie one hardly knows where to begin. The cinema verite cinematography is astounding, so crisp and energized and raw it's hard to believe the film is nearly 40 years old. The cast is outstanding, all the more impressive when considering it mostly consists of amateurs and actual counterculturalists. The editing is, of course, manipulative, but artfully done and at all times serving as a plodding dirge behind the dark spectacle laid before you.
The two things that really drive the film, however, are paradoxical: its timeliness and its timelessness. To see this film in 1971 could've been nothing less than a haymaker to the collective face of America, so thoroughly does it dash Vietnam chauvinism and establishment thinking against the rocks. (In fact, after its showing at Cannes it was only weakly distributed in America due to its incendiary politics.) For all its heightened brutality and Kafkaesque ironies, it feels like a natural extension of Watts, of Chicago, of Kent State. And again of Guantanamo and free speech zones and Jose Padilla, of a world defined by authoritarianism and its refusal to accept outside points of view. The film's primal fear, like 1984, stems from its plausibility and its Arendtian banality, where housewives and college professors can murder teenagers and pop stars with a signature and a psychopath (an outstandingly chilling performance by Jim Bohan as the police sheriff).
If there are any complaints, it would certainly rest in the one-sidedness of the film. Both sides of the trial spout tropes, but the defendants' tropes reek of poetry and practice while the members of the tribunal simply shake their heads dumbly at the demagoguery put before them. To its credit, the film only rarely overtly attempts to make the members of the establishment seem evil, instead preferring for a subtle ignorance of their place in history (when the defense lawyer reads a damning quote from Adolf Hitler, their only response is that that is "out of line.")
However, this is only a minor complaint. The film is so tautly paced, so grim, so rugged and nihilist, it's only when it's done that you realize you haven't breathed for 90 minutes. Check out the Masters of Cinema version, it's got some excellent behind the scenes footage (the film was shot on one camera in 2 and half weeks for $80,000) and interviews with cast and crew.
9 out of 10. Essential viewing.