"Paul Freeman is like those people who run into burning buildings to save others," says actor Matthew Modine about his character in Redeemer (USA Channel, March 26, 9-11 p.m.).
The story is written by Los Angeles Times columnist James Ricci, who taught a writing course in a men's prison. He wrote a series of prize-winning articles about that experience and based his screenplay on it. The film is "inspired" by what Mr. Ricci learned teaching that course, Mr. Modine says.
In this intelligent televised movie, Freeman learns that one of his students, a former Black Panther named Charles Henderson (Obba Babatunde), was set up by the FBI and has served 20 years in prison for a crime he witnessed but did not commit.
The one thing keeping him in prison is the yearly letter written by the sister of the man accidentally killed in a Panther raid on what they thought was a dope house.
Without the prisoner's consent, Freeman seeks out the woman and tries to change her mind. But the "redemption" is really about reclaiming Henderson from rage.
What is most striking about this hard-edged humane tale is that Freeman does not give up when Henderson tries to stop his interference.
Freeman seems driven by something outside himself, putting up with scorn and outrage with an even-handed persistence. Modine doesn't overdramatize Freeman; he keeps him modestly assertive.
"I don't know where that desire to risk oneself for others comes from whether it's religion or from stories passed down for thousands of years in which it's just part of becoming a hero you have to risk your own soul for the good of others," Modine says.
Wanting to do good is part of what Modine sees as basic to the human spirit.
"It's not religious or political fervor those are man-made," he says. "It's as simple as 'We the People.' "
When looking at a photo of Earth from space, "we know that 'We the People' has to encompass the whole globe. The civil rights movement in America goes back to that.... We are all created equal.... I believe that with my whole heart, and you throw a script at me that helps me remind people of that, and I'm all over it."
TV scripts really are getting better, he says. Many of them seem to come from real life and better yet, the experience of the writer.
"It's the first time in my career that the scripts for TV seem to have more integrity than most film scripts. The sensationalism that has to happen to get financing for [feature films] gets in the way."
But the independent spirit still exists. And doing a film like "Redeemer" is fulfilling because "it's a manifestation of my own desire to shed light on subjects that are unappealing. People put their fears in a box, trapped and bound. But if you shed light on them, it's the best way to get rid of them. Why not shed light on things that make us afraid?"
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Sir Ernest Shackleton may not be a household name, but if not, he soon will be. Nova presents one of its best, most beautifully photographed and enthralling documentaries ever, Shackleton's Voyage of Endurance (March 26, 8-10 p.m.). And next month, A&E offers the dramatic miniseries "Shackleton," starring Kenneth Branagh (April 7 and 8). If that weren't enough, Imax theaters will present a version of the Nova show geared toward youngsters.
So, who was this guy? In his own time, he was almost Odysseus. In 1914, Sir Ernest Shackleton set out with 27 men on a south polar expedition intended to cross the continent. He had missed discovering the Pole a few years before by a mere 97 miles because to succeed, he would have lost some of his men.
That was his real genius whatever else might be said of the man, he cared first and foremost for the lives and sanity of his men. Underequipped, he made sure that he and his officers gave the best sleeping bags to the men. He made everyone, including the expedition doctor, carry their share of the daily workload. He never permitted disobedience of his orders, but he brought every man home alive.
And considering the disaster this expedition was and the constant danger of starvation, cold, and madness, his accomplishment seems far more heroic than that of poor old Odysseus. The expedition was trapped in pack ice for months, and it took Shakleton nearly two years in all to get his men to safety. The ingenuity, courage, and sanity it took to accomplish that feat is the real story.
"Shackleton saved the lives of his men [that accomplishment] dwarfed the original mission," says Paula Apsell, Nova's executive producer. "He was great when things went wrong. He didn't beat himself up, he formulated a new plan.... He was very flawed, he made a lot of mistakes.... "I admire him greatly as a leader, though I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be married to him. But he could bring out the best in other people and [help them] rise above their normal abilities.
"How can you get people to overcome their limitations? It's what makes Shackleton a compelling figure."