It's billed as a dramatization, and some of the names are changed, and some of the characters are composites. But "Attica" should not for a moment be lumped in with those queasy-making assaults on history, TV's beloved "docudramas."
"Attica" is simply, a television milestone.
The two-hour movie special, based on Tom Wicker's book, "A Time to Die," airs on ABC Sunday night at 9.
It is about the 1971 riot at Attica State Prison, which had a higher death count even than the bloody Santa Fe debacle, where 33 died. Attica took 39 lives, became a racial battle cry, and revealed once and for all the smallness of former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
From the first moments of the film, when the prisoners stand silent in the yard, wearing black armbands, the suspense builds, ominous and quiet. There was no music in the version I saw. A little has been added to the final version, ABC tells me, but I can't imagine how it could possible heighten the effect achieved by the raw clang of iron doors, the scrape of heavy shoes on concrete, the ticking stillness.
The people are just right: Charles Durning, sloppily fat but intelligent, as police commissioner Russell Oswald, George Grizzard as Wicker, shaven-headed Roger E. Mosley as the black leader Frank Green, and lynx-eyed Anthony Zerbe, looking even more like William Kunstler than Kunstler himself.
The setting is right too, though it turns out to be not Attica itself, but the Lima State Hospital in Ohio, a nicely Swiftian irony. As the siege takes shape, we see its modern paraphernalia: coffee urns and helicopters and enough guns to win World War I. And litter: War always was a litterbug.
Soon the first rush of action ends, and we are in stalemate, with 1,200 rioting convicts and their 40 hostages free and yet still imprisoned. "It's sort of a cross," someone says, "between Mardi Gras and the French Revolution and Watts in the summer of '65."
We afeel the tragedy developing inexorably, in Wicker's eyes. The opposing sides prove unable to rise above the roles they assign themselves. The convict leader postures before his audience; the prison officials retreat behind the dry words of the statutes.
At last, the parleys fail. Rockefeller, a jovial voice on the phone, has ducked the issue, has scampered away from the battlefield as fast as his feet could take him. We are down to a tableau: the prisoners massed in the yard; police marksmen ringing the roof like Indians on the skyline in an old Western; hostages standing blind folded, each with a knife to his throat.
In the restless silence, one hostage calls out in a clear, firm voice, "I don't want to die. I don't want to die," over and over and over. "I don't want to die." He grows hoarse . . .
Then the place blows up, the Law moves in, 39 people die, including 10 hostages, in six minutes.
To the credit of "Attica," we are told the other things that come out after:
It was the police, not the prisoners who killed the hostages. Police used buckshot, hardly the abest thing for pinpointing a target, and dumdum bullets, banned in two world wars because of the atrocious damage they do.
A good dramatization of history takes us back to the original, not off on some wishful tangent of its own. "Attica" recreates the sights and sounds of those five days. And more, it warns us that we must not forget.