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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 04, 1990


Mick Jackson
Gary Oldman;
Dennis Hopper;
Frances McDormand;
Pamela Reed;
Ned Beatty;
M. Emmet Walsh
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Late in the movie "Chattahoochee," when fellow inmates Gary Oldman and Dennis Hopper part ways after weathering years of abuse and cruelty together in a state mental institution, the experience is strangely unmoving.

That's mainly because "Chattahoochee," based on the real story of Korean war veteran Emmett Foley's long ordeal in a squalid state hospital, concerns itself with the trappings of '50s institutional life -- grimy walls, nasty guards, mumbling lunatics, filthy overalls -- but fails to get inside the hearts and minds of the prisoners.

It is only Oldman's central performance as Foley, another of the British actor's engaging blends of childlike cuteness and fizzy energy, that gives the movie any vitality. But his efforts, energetic and credible as they are (his southern accent, for a Londoner, is quite an achievement), get imprisoned in a misbegotten, unimaginatively directed drama.

Moving episodically through the years ("One month later," "Six months later," etc.), the movie seems doggedly fixed on a triumphant individual-versus-the-system finale, while director Mick Jackson and script writer James Hicks steadfastly refuse rations to its characters, both inside (prisoner M. Emmett Walsh, chief doctor Ned Beatty) and out (Foley's wife Frances McDormand and sister Pamela Reed).

"Chattahoochee" opens with a promising mixture of small-town comedy and emotional tension: War hero Oldman goes haywire on Valentine's Day, 1955, running back and forth between his home and front gate to take pot shots at buildings, cars, pink flamingos, everything but his horrified Floridian neighbors.

"You trying to kill him?" says one wide-eyed Main Street, USA, police officer to his partner who's returning Oldman's fire but missing wildly.

"Yes, I'm trying to kill him!" whimpers the cop defensively.

But when Foley's life takes a turn for the worse as a result of that shooting spree, so does the movie. You're in for a long stretch at Chattahoochee State Mental Hospital, in which Oldman will meet Hopper, grow a fake beard, find habeas corpus, lose his wife, and come up against reform-resistant Beatty. And that system-busting finale doesn't seem that triumphant at all, despite a closing screen announcement that the Foleys' efforts resulted in 137 reforms.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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