Published Oct 01, 2001The action film plot of "The Last Castle" is pretty decent, even if the context surrounding it is quite questionable. The film showcases Robert Redford as highly decorated and respected General Irwin, sent to a military prison after an error in judgement during a mission killed several soldiers under his command. The prison is run by the despotic Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini), who maintains discipline by degrading and dehumanising the prisoners, and occasionally administering lethal force. Irwin begins to lead a struggle against the inhumane treatment, instilling a sense of dignity and self-respect in the prison community that had been lost. Winter's initial respect for Irwin gives way to competitiveness and hostility when his famous charge begins to undermine his authority and galvanise the inmate population to rise up against him. The two leaders engage in a chess-like battle for control of the prison.
The film glorifies all of the inmates, completely making them the forces of good and glossing over the wrongdoings they must have committed in order to be sent to the prison. You can bet that Hollywood wouldn't make a movie like this were it about regular prisoners. Much is made in "The Last Castle" of having the inmates find the soldier within themselves, giving them instant nobility and righteousness. The only one vilified is Colonel Winter, who is mocked early on for never having actually been in battle and who ultimately fails not because he is evil, but because he is an inferior military leader and strategist. While glorifying soldiering, the film sanitises the reality of war by placing the action in a context where everyone is sort of playing at war with far fewer consequences. The inmates are kept in line with rubber bullets, there are very few casualties, and the fallout of taking over and seriously damaging a military prison is never recognised.
The plot of "The Last Castle" smacks of "Gladiator" (the general who becomes a slave but grows more powerful than the emperor), and like that movie it suffers from a lead character who, although well acted, is too purely good, well-intentioned, and noble to be that interesting. The flawed characters around him stand out more, such as Gandolfini's effective mixture of pride, envy, admiration, and insecurity that comprise his Colonel Winter, and Mark Ruffalo's morally ambiguous Yates, the only inmate at all critical of the uprising, who agrees to be Winter's informant. The script has some surprising touches of humour and lightness, and its focus on the evolving strategy of the take-over keeps it engaging almost right up until its unfortunate but predictably jingoistic ending. I found myself rooting for the "good guys" despite my better moral judgement, and I guess there's something to be said for that.