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Film / Against the Wall

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Against the Wall is a 1994 HBO TV movie dramatizing the events of the Attica Prison riot directed by John Frankenheimer and starring Samuel L. Jackson, Kyle MacLachlan, Frederic Forrest, Anne Heche, Harry Dean Stanton, Philip Bosco, Clarence Williams III, and Tom Bower. The film takes place from the perspective of rookie prison guard Michael Smith (MacLachlan) who is held hostage during the riot, and prisoner Jamal X. (Jackson), one of the ringleaders behind the riot.

Compare 2021 documentary Attica.

This film provides examples of:

  • Angry White Man: Yates, who's desire to take on the prisoners is motivated by his grievances with society as much as it is to rescue the hostages.
  • Anyone Can Die: By the end of the film, half of the cast is dead.
  • Asshole Victim: During the climactic raid, Weisbad and Chaka are gunned down.
  • Ax-Crazy:
    • Chaka, a sadistic maniac who takes great pleasure in tormenting the guards and murders a few inmates. It's clear he's participating in the riot simply as a vehicle for his sadism, nothing more.
    • One inmate continuously tries to kill other people and randomly attacks them, ultimately resulting in Chaka murdering him to keep him from causing trouble.
  • Because You Were Nice to Me: Ramirez spares Smith during the start of the riot since he had earlier cleaned out Ramirez's leaking toilet against Weisbad's orders.
  • Composite Character: Jamal X is a combination of various prisoners the real Michael Smith met, including one who saved his life.
  • The Corruptible: Michael Smith initially serves as this to the other guards, being gradually pushed into dehumanizing the prisoners; during the riot, he has a Heel Realization and resolves to keep his own personal dignity no matter what.
  • Defiant to the End: Several characters during the raid.
    • Cecil realizes he's probably going to get shot during the chaotic battle and elects to go out fighting, charging at several cops and being gunned down for his troubles.
    • Chaka immediately attacks several officers and is promptly gunned down before he can kill anyone.
    • Weisbad is shot dead while he angrily shrieks at some officers for shooting at him and neglecting to take cover.
  • The Dog Bites Back: Cecil gleefully torments Ed while he is held captive, forcing him to beg for his pants in the same way Weisbad made him do earlier.
  • Doomed Hurt Guy: Willis is severely injured during the riot, and Jamal has him released to avert this trope, realizing that his death would mean the prison would be raided. He ultimately dies anyway, with the prison getting raided shortly after his death thanks to negotiations having broken down.
  • Downer Ending: The riot ultimately accomplishes nothing, negotiations break down, and most of the hostages and several inmates are killed.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Weisbad behaves like this in spite of not being a drill sergeant.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: Ed is gunned down so quickly during the raid that the audience may actually miss it.
  • Friendly Enemy: Jamal and Smith become this as they grow to respect each other.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: All of the cast participate or are complicit in some truly bad stuff at some point or another, but many of them have a few sympathetic or redeeming traits: even the otherwise vile Chaka and Weisbad get some humanizing moments.
  • Hate Sink:
    • Weisbad is a cruel man with a truly vile temper who takes great pleasure in abusing the prisoners, is implicitly racist, and behaves like an asshole even to his fellow guards should they give him any trouble. He, along with the superintendent, embodies the worst of the corruption in the prison system.
    • Chaka is an Ax-Crazy sadist who only helps the riot simply as a vehicle for his own sadism. He constantly threatens the guards with death and murders some other prisoners for being snitches or simply causing too much trouble, and generally shows nothing resembling redeeming qualities. The closest he has to a humanizing trait, his outrage at the treatment of himself and his fellow prisoners, stems mainly from his own selfishness and is overshadowed by his cruelty.
  • Irony: Even-tempered cop Jesse, who has shown nothing but apprehension towards raiding the prison and desires a peaceful solution, is the one to accidentally shoot Michael.
  • Jerkass: Lieutenant Weisbad, a callous, nasty, abusive man who leads the guards in mistreating the prisoners.
  • Karma Houdini:
    • The superintendent gets away with causing the raid and countless deaths.
    • Hal makes a point of forgiving Jess for accidentally shooting Smith, and he gets away with it. Given Jess's guilt over it, it's likely a case of The Punishment Is the Crime.
  • Made-for-TV Movie
  • Not-So-Well-Intentioned Extremist: Chaka mainly uses the riot as a means to vent his sadism and rage and gleefully anticipates the possibility of it ending in bloodshed, rather than any actual desire to change anything.
  • Pet the Dog: In spite of behaving like a colossal asshole most of the time, Weisbad angrily demands Chaka Take Me Instead when he believes that Smith is going to be executed.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • Jamal, who stopped the riot from turning into a bloodbath and tries his damnedest to negotiate.
    • Commissioner Oswald, who negotiates with the prisoners and is genuinely motivated by a desire to reform the prison system. Even after negotiations seem to break down, he still tries to resolve the situation with non-violence.
  • Take Me Instead: The otherwise loathsome Weisbad has a Pet the Dog moment when he begs Chaka to take him instead when Smith is dragged off to make a statement to the media, having assumed that they're going to kill him.
  • Uncertain Doom: Jamal X is last seen bleeding out from a gunshot wound.
  • Unfriendly Fire: During the riot, Weisbad and Ed are gunned down by the cops and soldiers supposed to be rescuing them.
  • The Vietnam Vet: Weisbad tells stories about his days in Vietnam while being held captive.
  • War Hawk: The superintendent, who continuously tries to push Oswald into raiding the prison and refuses to even consider a peaceful solution.
  • Whatever Happened to the Mouse?: What happens to Ramirez and Chichillis during the raid is left unclear.