Judge Mike Rubino never knows when he's going to need a paper-mâché head.
"At dawn, on June 12th, 1962, the guards at Alcatraz are in for a nasty shock…"
Back before Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage tore the place apart with slow motion and method acting, Alcatraz was an impenetrable island prison off the coast of San Francisco. It was converted to a Federal prison in 1934, and housed such notable no-goods as Al Capone, "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Frank Lee Morris.
One of those three escaped.
The prison's exemplary record was shattered in 1962, when Frank Lee Morris, John Anglin, and Clarence Anglin escaped. They burrowed through their cell walls, built a raft out of rain coats, left paper-mâché heads under their sheets, and floated off to freedom. Or so we think. Their bodies were never discovered, and the men were never heard from again.
The Real Story: Escape from Alcatraz attempts to determine, once and for all, if their escape plan was even feasible. The 47-minute show recaps the entire plan and then puts their rafting methods to the test in a final bout of Mythbuster-ing. What follows is an engaging documentary that loses a bit of its focus during the final, critical escape plan.
Initially it's difficult to discern what The Real Story is trying to do: it's part factual re-enactment, part debunking of Clint Eastwood's Escape from Alcatraz, and part Mythbusters episode. All three aspects of the show are worthy inquiries, but in the scant 47-minute runtime, it gets more crowded than the mess hall lunch line.
The re-enactments, coupled with interviews from actual prisoners and guards, are by far the best part of the show. They also take up the most screen time. The actors look close enough to their real-life counterparts, and much of the narration originates from Allen West—the mastermind who was left behind and squealed to the FBI. Also helpful was the coupling of the re-enactments with scenes from Eastwood's movie. The differences between the two stories are minimal, however, aside from Eastwood's character (Frank Morris) being portrayed as the brains of the operation. Still, it was good to see the show go out of its way to get the footage in there.
It's the third part of the episode that feels out of place. The Real Story hires some coast guard guys to try and paddle in a dingy from Alcatraz to Angel Island (where the escapees supposedly tried to go). They succeed in proving that such a feat is barely possible. The coast guards then try it again in a homemade raft similar to what Morris and the Anglin's may have used. All this really does is provide more questions than answers, and The Real Story isn't about to offer up any firm conclusions.
Throughout the story there are a number of elements that add to the "did they make it?" mystery: a postcard was sent from the three escapees days after they disappeared, some debris was found on the shores, and some dude actually did make it to shore a few years later but was caught and brought back. All of these things deserved more exploration, but were relegated to passing mentions.
The disc itself is your standard history-show-to-DVD release, devoid of any special features or supplements. The episode is in non-anamorphic widescreen, so it'll be a tiny picture on your HD TV. At least the video and audio are sufficient.
The Alcatraz escape attempts are fascinating, especially Morris/Anglin's. The Real Story: Escape from Alcatraz is a quality overview, but it left me wanting more. It made me want to revisit Clint Eastwood's film…and maybe Michael Bay's.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Smithsonian Channel
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