Smithsonian Channel // 2008 // 92 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 14th, 2010
A revealing look at the country's most notorious places.
The Real Story: Part 1 is a collection from a Smithsonian Channel series (originally called The True Story) dedicated to exploring historical legends -- and the show does uncover some new stories and explode some myths. The episodes collected here are generally well-researched and presented, although the choices are not as good as one would have hoped.
The first episode, "Escape from Alcatraz," is the better one. The story of how three convicts -- Frank Morris and John and Clarence Anglin -- planned an elaborate escape from the infamous island prison in the early 1960s has become celebrated, especially after a 1978 movie in which Clint Eastwood played Morris. The real mystery remains whether or not the three men actually survived, since they definitely broke out of the prison, but disappeared as they attempted to steer their handmade raft from Alcatraz Island to the mainland. There's no definitive answer, but the show's producers do manufacture a raft using the same materials and probable design that the convicts used and prove that the raft probably didn't hold together long enough for the escapees to survive in the frigid and turbulent waters of San Francisco Bay. The episode also explains that, contrary to what was depicted in the film, Morris was probably not the mastermind of the escape plan -- that was a fourth prisoner, Allen West, who ultimately decided against escaping that night and later gave a statement to the FBI outlining his role in the plan. All of this is explained clearly and thoroughly, with plenty of documentation and even interviews with some surviving ex-convicts who knew of the plan but did not reveal so at the time. It's an excellent account of this story with plenty of revelations and information that make it a must-see for anyone curious about this story.
The second episode, by contrast, is much less successful. "The Amityville Horror" examines the story of a house in Amityville, New York, that was the site of a supposed haunting in the 1970s and was also the basis for a movie. The show does give a full account of some horrifying murders that predated the supposed haunting, and may have even caused the atmosphere that led many to believe in ghosts. The actual content about the theoretical ghosts, however, isn't very illuminating. Of course, it's much harder to prove or even speculate about the existence of ghosts, but all of the conjecture gets boring after a while. Much of the story is simply implausible, and the theories by various paranormal experts are downright silly. The best parts involve an attorney involved with the house who brazenly proclaims that he made up many of the juiciest stories as a way to drum up publicity and make money, which is the sort of revelation you won't see on many historical shows. Nonetheless, this is still not a very good episode, since it doesn't really dispel many myths or provide many new insights. There have been other episodes of this series dedicated to less speculative topics, like Al Capone, the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre, and Jesse James. Why not include one of those episodes instead?
Technically, the disc isn't great. The 1.78:1 transfer is nice enough, but why is it non-anamorphic? Smithsonian Channel is an HD channel, so there's no excuse for this. There are options for both a 5.1 mix or a stereo mix, but both sound identical, since the 5.1 mix doesn't really use the surrounds much. Both are decent, though. There are no extras.
Ultimately, it's the episode choices that make it hard to recommend this disc. The first episode is worth watching, but the second isn't particularly. You'd do better to preview both episodes before deciding whether or not to spring for this disc, especially since the technical transfer isn't handled so well.
Guilty of not presenting a good show well.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Smithsonian Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: The True Story: Escape from Alcatraz
* IMDb: The True Story: The Amityville Horror