REAL life is giving the movies some of their most provocative material these days.
Steven Spielberg treats actual events of the Holocaust in his superb ``Schindler's List,'' while Richard Attenborough's thoughtful ``Shadowlands'' is about British author C.S. Lewis and his American wife. ``Heaven and Earth'' is based on real incidents from the Vietnam-war period, although filmmaker Oliver Stone mishandles them. And to go back a couple of years, Peter Medak's underrated ``Let Him Have It'' turns an unusual murder case into a stunning indictment of flaws in England's criminal-justice system.
None of those movies has more emotional punch than ``In the Name of the Father,'' the new picture from director Jim Sheridan and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, who gave us ``My Left Foot'' not long ago. It's based on the autobiographical writing of Gerry Conlon, a young Irish man who served 15 years in prison for a terrorist act he did not commit. Despite its highly political and remarkably timely subject, the film manages to be about ideas rather than ideology, and to raise issues - such as the importance of due process and the insidiousness of demagoguery - that are relevant everywhere.
The movie begins by introducing its hero, Gerry, as a young Northern Irish man in the early 1970s. It takes about two seconds to gauge what kind of person he is: amiable and probably bright enough, but so immature and irresponsible that it's unlikely a political thought has ever passed through his head. His antics and petty crimes are equally irritating to the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the British troops whose presence in Belfast sustains an uneasy and interrupted peace.
For his own safety, Gerry's father sneaks him to London where he'll be out of everybody's hair for a while. There he moves in with a couple of English hippies, joined by an apolitical Irish friend whose resemblance to the IRA terrorist ``profile'' gets him wrongfully arrested for the bombing of a local pub. Held under a controversial preventive-detention law and beaten down by brutal interrogations, the friend names Gerry as an accomplice, assuming that the absurdity of this charge will be quickly apparent to all concerned.
He couldn't be more wrong. In an ensuing witch hunt, not only Gerry but also bewildered members of his family are arrested and jailed. After a bitter trial, Gerry and his innocent father are sent to live out their days together in prison. There they must come to terms with each other - no easy task, given their chronically tense relationship - and reconcile their very different responses to the injustice of their situation, which Gerry meets with cynicism and rage while his father works quietly for redress within the system.
``In the Name of the Father'' chronicles the social and legal wrongs visited on Gerry and his family, reaching its climax in a discovery that the prosecution suppressed evidence and covered up revelations from the actual pub bombers that would have exonerated the innocent parties.
Just as important, the movie is touchingly concerned with Gerry's growth into responsible adulthood under incredibly adverse circumstances - sparked partly by his growing closeness with his father, and partly by hard lessons he learns from the viciousness of a real IRA terrorist who is incarcerated in the same prison.
The film's triumphant ending celebrates both the correction of a miscarriage of justice and the culmination of Gerry's personal evolution toward maturity and uprightness. It also makes a valuable obser- vation on the issue of capital punishment, by calling attention to the statement of a judge who publicly asserted that he would gladly have sentenced Gerry and his father to death if legal technicalities had allowed. If this had happened, of course, the ultimate clearing of Gerry's name would have been tragically beside the point.
``In the Name of the Father'' moves at such a rapid pace that facts and faces get lost in the shuffle, and director Sheridan shows an occasional weakness for heavy-handed devices. But while his filmmaking is not brilliant or innovative, it's still remarkably powerful, building to a finale that's as wrenching and exciting as anything the movies have given us this year.
Praise also goes to the splendid cast. Day-Lewis outdoes his acclaimed performance in ``My Left Foot,'' making Gerry a character of palpable realness and complexity. Pete Postlethwaite is gently compelling as Gerry's father, subtly conveying the mixture of confusion and pathos felt by a man condemned to undeserved suffering in the company of his own son.
Emma Thompson is as vigorous as ever in her portrayal of a lawyer who works to vindicate the accused, although moviegoers should know her role is tiny despite her star billing. As the terrorist who shows Gerry the IRA in a new light, musician Don Baker makes a strong acting debut in a part originally slated for Gabriel Byrne, who served as executive producer but could not arrange his schedule to appear in the movie.
Sheridan wrote the screenplay with Terry George, and Peter Biziou did the vivid cinematography. Trevor Jones composed the score. Bravo to all.
* `In the Name of the Father' has an * rating. It contains vulgar language as well as several scenes of violence.