October 13, 1996 -- To tell you the truth, I haven't been impressed with most of the films based on John Grisham novels, so I wasn't expecting much when I went to see the latest one, "The Chamber." If I wasn't a critic, with a responsibility to my readers, I wouldn't have gone at all.
I'm glad I did go. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience. It is a compelling story about an important subject, the death penalty. While it isn't as good as a recent film on a similar subject "Dead Man Walking," it makes a good attempt at addressing a very difficult subject.
The story is about a KKK bomber, Sam Cayhall (played by Gene Hackman), who has been on death row for more than 10 years for killing the young songs of a civil rights attorney in the 60s. Cayhall's grandson, Adam Hall (Chris O'Donnell), is determined to save him from the gas chamber.
It is a race against time as Hall gets the case with barely a month before the execution date. He uncovers evidence that Cayhall might not have planted the bomb after all, that he is taking the punishment for another Klansman who is still on the loose. But the edge is taken off that argument later when we find he really did murder someone else in the 1950s.
Hackman is brilliant in the role of Cayhall, a tragic figure who is clever, but not clever enough to break out of his self-imposed prison of bigotry. He finally sees the light, a little, near the end of the film. O'Donnell is also very good as the tortured young lawyer with the bitter past.
Like all Grisham stories, there is a character, in this case a governor's aide, who seems to be doing things way out of character. A black woman trying to exonerate a KKK killer doesn't make any sense. But she is a minor character.
The two main actors, O'Donnell and Hackman, carry the day. There is also good work in some of the bit parts. Faye Dunnaway is good as Aunt Lee, a socialite trying to hide from her past. Former football and baseball star Bo Jackson does a good job as Hackman's death row guard.
The movie does a good job of exploring the politics of the death penalty by getting down to the personal level. It rates a B.
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