There’s little doubt about the earnestness of this film adapted from Richard Price’s novel about the social tensions arising from an explosive accusation that a white child has been kidnapped by an African-American car-jacker. Director Joe Roth obviously wants to use the story in the same way that Norman Jewison did with “In the Heat of the Night” back in 1967, to dramatize how often suppressed racial animosities can be released and made gruesomely apparent under the stress of a horrible crime. But good intentions aren’t enough; skillful execution and clarity of vision are necessary components, too. Jewison’s film possessed them; Roth’s doesn’t. “Freedomland” wants very much, as Spike Lee might say, to do the right thing, and it’s truly unfortunate that it goes so wrong, especially with two formidable leads.
Samuel L. Jackson stars as Lorenzo Council, a cop in Dempsy, New Jersey, who has an especially protective (yet stern) attitude toward the residents of the Armstrong Houses projects on the edge of town. One night he’s called in to interview Brenda Martin (Julianne Moore), an injured, shell-shocked woman who stumbles into a hospital ER claiming that her car was jacked while she was lost in the undeveloped area separating the projects, where she works as a volunteer in a day-care center, and her apartment in the adjacent white-collar town of Gannon. Under Council’s questioning, she blurts out that her four-year old son was asleep in the back seat, setting off a mad scramble that includes the Gannon PD descending upon the Armstrong complex like an occupying army and refusing to let anybody leave while Council tries to find out the truth about what really happened from Brenda, a recovering addict with a hot-tempered brother (Ron Eldard) on the Gannon force. The level of tension escalates as the child remains missing, with pressure on Council coming from Armstrong residents Felicia (Aunjanue Ellis), her troubled boyfriend Billy (Anthony Mackie) and a frustrated Reverend Longway (Clarke Peters) to halt the police pressure on the projects and from his own superiors to crack the case. Along for the ride is Karen Collucci (Edie Falco), the intense head of a group of community activists who work to locate abducted children.
All of this sounds like the basis for an hour-long episode of some network police procedural–one produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, probably–and though Roth strains to give it greater depth, he fails. Part of the fault is his own: his direction lacks subtlety in the intimate scenes, where he goes for the emotional jugular too intently (an early example is the initial meeting of Council and Martin, which is positively frenzied, an effect only exaggerated by the hyperkinetic camerawork of Anastos Michas), and power in the crowd scenes, which are curiously small-scaled and anemic (in a riot sequence he tries to obscure the limited numbers by Eisenstein-style cutting, but the effect is contrived). But a good deal of the blame belongs to the script by Price, who adapted his own book. It fails to clarify even so basic a point as the administrative relationship between Dempsy and Gannon, whose police seem to intrude on one another’s jurisdiction without so much as a by-your-leave. But worse, it has a penchant for inserting Big Speeches into the action on the slightest pretext, and they stop the movie dead in its tracks. Maybe it was those monologues that attracted Jackson and Moore to the project–actors generally appreciate such opportunities to shine (visions of Oscars dancing in their heads)–but if so they miscalculated badly; they’re among the weakest parts of performances that don’t show the stars at their best. Jackson, wearing his hat askew and keeping his intensity level high in ways that suggest a 2006 version of Gene Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, does nothing we’ve not seen from him before. And while Brenda is supposed to be a woman perpetually close to the edge, Moore makes her so fragile and tremulous a creature that she becomes more caricature than character. Falco, on the other hand, is so tightly wound that you’d think she’s been sipping prune juice between each take, while Eldard, Ellis, Mackie and Peters play consistently at too high a pitch–evidence, perhaps, that Roth is too insensitive a helmer to know when to ask his actors to hold back. The only member of the cast who comes through unscathed, in fact, is William Forsythe, whose bemused calmness as Council’s partner is a consistent breath of fresh air in what’s otherwise a maelstrom of overacting (and melodramatic music from James Newton Howard).
And what, ultimately, does “Freedomland” (the title is derived from a nearby park with a deserted orphanage which is one of the areas searched for Martin’s son, and the place where the truth about his disappearance is discovered) teach us? First, that racism and discrimination are alive and well, ready to emerge under the slightest provocation. Second, that the only answer is for good people of both races to work together (and, if you believe one character, to believe in divine providence). These are not exactly major revelations. And while it’s always good to have such lessons expressed anew, the hard truth is that the job was done better by both Lee in his great film and by John Singleton in a similar story (though in period trappings) with “Rosewood” in 1997. Doing the right thing means watching, or rewatching, those movies rather than this one.