Triumph in a Grim Setting

`Chattahoochee' traces one man's battle against inhumanity in a Florida mental hospital. FILM: REVIEW

`CHATTAHOOCHEE'' isn't a catchy title for a movie. It's not easy to spell, and there are probably theater marquees it won't fit on. But it comes from a real and notorious place: the State Mental Hospital in Chattahoochie, Florida, where - as this movie vividly shows - horrifying things occurred before reforms took place in the late 1950s. What led to those reforms is the subject of the picture, directed by British filmmaker Mick Jackson, a good choice for the project, since his previous movies have been documentaries and docudramas, and ``Chattahoochie'' was inspired by real events.

The most gripping part of the story takes place at the beginning, in a quiet South Florida town far from Chattahoochie's gates. A young man named Emmett, just back from the Korean war, gets up one morning and starts firing a pistol in every direction, terrorizing his neighbors and hollering for someone to call the police. It turns out he's trying to commit suicide - he hopes the police will kill him when they arrive - in a way that won't look like suicide to the insurance company.

But his plan doesn't work. After surviving the day, Emmett is declared insane and shipped off to Chattahoochie, where real mental patients mingle with plain thugs from an overcrowded penitentiary nearby. He soon learns he isn't going to to be cured or even treated in this hospital, just warehoused for the rest of his life.

Little by little he gets indignant over his situation, and outraged by the way guards and others treat the more helpless inmates. He gets in worse trouble when he starts writing letters to relatives of other prisoners, telling how they've been beaten and even killed. He also begins to study law from a single book, figuring out how to force the authorities into paying attention to him and the other outcasts. With help from his feisty sister on the outside, he finally gets through and alters Chattahoochie history.

This is an inspiring story, and the trouble with the movie is that it won't let us forget this. It spends a lot of time on the extremes of Emmett's situation: the squalor of his captivity and the glory of his victory. But it's not very good at showing the gradual progress that leads from one to the other. The climaxes of the movie seem forced and overdone, weakening the effect of the story. Also missing is any real exploration of what combat did to Emmett, and how his war experiences are related to the torments that plagued him after his return home.

What the film does have is terrific acting. Gary Oldman is known for offbeat roles in offbeat movies like ``Sid and Nancy'' and ``Prick Up Your Ears,'' and even in this more conventional project, he does a passionately energetic job of capturing the protagonist's best and worst moments. Frances MacDormand gives a sharp and earthy performance as Emmett's long-suffering wife. More good work comes from Pamela Reed as the sister, Dennis Hopper as another inmate, and Ned Beatty as an apathetic official. They keep ``Chattahoochee'' involving even when its story begins to wear thin.

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