Review – Punishment Park

March 27, 2008


I was all set for a night of good old-fashioned anti-government movie watching – Punishment Park was being shown on the Sundance Channel the other night.  With a smile on my face and a fresh tinfoil hat on I sat down to watch…one crappy movie.
The short synopsis: A television team back in the 70s informs us in voiceover that the US, rather than imprisoning political dissidents, is letting them try for freedom from all charges if they can survive in the California desert long enough to reach an American flag about fifty miles away from their release point, while also managing not to get caught by a crew of cops and soldiers.

Sounds pretty hard to screw up the premise, right?  The problem is, the director, Peter Watkins, spends way too much time on why the dissidents are being arraigned, and not enough on their struggle to both elude the cops and get to the flag.
The docu-drama style of the film worked well for the most part, except for some glaring errors.  Watkins made sure to ground his film in a particular time period, which probably seemed to him at the time to be a good idea.  So he got that shot of a portrait of Nixon, not thinking that Nixon, perhaps, wouldn’t be around for him to kick around a couple years later. He has some of the actors playing dissidents mention Vietnam, too.  Not the way to make your film evergreen…(I’ll bet the director of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes regrets having all the dogs & cats dying of a mysterious disease in his movie…in 1983).
A couple of embarrassing moments in the film as well – a sheriff who seems to be the head of the posse to hunt down the dissidents seems to be holding a class(!) for his students in how to use weapons. Perhaps this is a clue the film was written by a Brit –  I quote the sheriff: “The (shot)gun has no choke on it whatsoever. So consequently, the buckshot just flies out at any and every direction.”

 I quote him again: “They have a shotgun. That is the most dangerous weapon I can imagine.”

I dunno – I can imagine quite a bit!  You don’t see much of that kind of ignorance in American films…

 Also: what kind of wimps were they back in the 60s, anyway? At two distinct points in the film, dissidents get access to firearms – and finally! I’m saying to myself, those hippies are going to give the Man what for! – when one set of them takes a German Soundman hostage, rather than, I dunno, shoot at the cops.  Another set rushes some snipers, gets hold of a high powered rifle, then the rifle seems to disappear from the film. 


Hippies couldn’t have been this limp – they lack even the urge to give a little payback to their persecutors? Another quote from an actor playing a dissident: “I can’t see the good in fighting back.  If they kill me, what difference would any politics make. I would be dead.”

Another lapse of logic (swipe for Inviso-text) – the cops (no surprise) were lying when they said they’d release anybody who reaches the flag.  One group of dissidents gets beat down for their trouble, a la DNC conventions.  However, the lapse of logic in leaving any dissidents alive escapes me.  We hear in the film that part of the reason Punishment Park exists is that the US can’t build prisons fast enough – granted.  We also know from the rest of the movie the society in this film is very 60s conservative.  So why isn’t Punishment Park being used as an ad hoc capital punishment center?  To the best of my knowledge, 60s-era America wasn’t shy about the death penalty elsewhere.  Maybe Watkins  couldn’t find the stomach to implicate society as a whole?  Maybe he thinks Americans are barbaric, but not THAT barbaric?

Don’t waste your time, sez I.

%d bloggers like this: