'Punishment Park' Review: I Am Not Immoral
For my first written review of Mockumentary March, I was assigned a film called Punishment Park. When one hears the term “mockumentary”, one usually thinks of the comedic and self referential documentaries such as Confessions of an Action Movie Star, which follows the rise and fall of a stereotypical 80's action movie actor. These films are often entertaining in their absurdity and their humor. Punishment Park is not one of those films, and I was honestly not prepared for what I saw in the film. Punishment Park was released in 1971, during the later years of the Vietnam war. It is set roughly at the same time period, and tells an exaggerated but not unbelievable fiction.
The movie tells the story of documentary film makers from European countries as they film the American justice system's approach to deal with radical extremists. The camera men are seen and heard frequently over the course of the feature, becoming more and more involved in the story as it progresses.
The film is divided in to two parts, the first being a group of, for lack of a better term, hippies, or as the establishment refers to them, degenerates, as they are put on trial in front of a tribunal in a tent in the desert. They are brought inside in chains, with no knowledge of why they were arrested, and they are immediately told that they are guilty. The tribunals that follow are akin to the real life footage of the McCarthy hearings during the red scare. The tribunal is chaired by a house wife, an automotive worker, a psychologist, a defense attorney, and a group of senators. The hearings boil down to scolding lectures in which the defendants eloquently state their point of views, ranging from pacifist draft dodging to people's army militarism and everything in between. As they state their case they are shouted down, insulted, and sometimes even gagged. Many are carried out of the tent while still shackled to the chair because the tribunal decides to stop listening to them. Any objections made by the defense attorney present on the grounds of constitutional violations are overruled by the tribunal. Eventually the prisoners are sentenced to harsh prison terms, but given the option of serving their term in the penitentiary or spending four days in punishment park. They all choose punishment park.
The second story arch of the film focuses on punishment park itself, following both the police officers operating the park as well as a group of previously sentenced dissidents. The police officers explain that the objective of the park is to not only punish voluntary convicted criminals, but also to train national guard members and police officers in the correct methods of operating a man hunt. This is accomplished by having said criminals walk a predetermined, fifty mile course through the desert till they reach an American flag. The criminals will have a two hour head start, and their inevitable apprehension will be peaceful so long as they give up when directed to do so. They are also informed that attempting to leave the course or being caught by officers will result in the criminals being forced to serve their original sentences. The camera men follow the criminals and watch as the group splinters in to different groups, some intending on ambushing officers and escaping with force, others trying simply to sneak out of the containment area, and others remaining pacifistic and following the path to the flag. Voice over narration explains the effects of extreme heat and a lack of water on the human body, and shots of the police officers being told that the weapons they carry are designed specifically to kill are intermingled with scenes of the convicts explaining that they doubt the officers actually intend on killing anyone.
Unfortunately the film follows the pah that any attentive observer could predict. The convicts are all either killed, brutally beaten, or die of dehydration. By the end it is shown that they never had any chance to reach the flag, as a line of officers stands between them and their objective. An eighteen year old national guardsman that kills a group of the prisoners explains that he didn't want to kill anyone, but that he was simply doing as he was trained to do. The tribunal begins another hearing, and the prisoners who we follow through the trial doom themselves to the same fate. It is a thoroughly depressing movie, and one that, while exaggerated, is made all the more disheartening when the viewer understands that the only progress made between the political dissent of the early seventies and modern day is that the American people have more or less come to accept the system. As a man already filled with cynicism about the world, and one who already agrees with much of the thought expressed by the criminals on trial, and one who understands the historical influences on the film, I ended the feature with a profound sense of dread, something I do not usually watch movies to gain.
All in all the film is well put together, and it has an interesting message, and provides an intense examination of the troubled history of the American government, but as a man who views films, and wishes to make films, primarily as a form of distraction, it was not a film that I would have chosen to watch of my own accord, and one that I am conflicted about suggesting that others view. If what you have already read suggests that you might be interested, then be sure to check it out, as the detailed dialogue and visuals make the movie an excellent piece. If you watch movies because you're already sad enough and want to laugh at jokes or watch things explode, give it a pass.
Final Say: Well made, but depressing as all get out. It's your call.