Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is a moving cinema verite documentary that breaks through the walls of one of Americas oldest maximum security prisons to tell the story ...
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Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is a moving cinema verite documentary that breaks through the walls of one of Americas oldest maximum security prisons to tell the story of the final months in the life of a terminally ill prisoner and the hospice volunteers, they themselves prisoners, who care for him. The film draws from footage shot over a six-month period behind the walls of the Iowa State Penitentiary and provides a fascinating and often poignant account of how the hospice experience can profoundly touch even the forsaken lives of the incarcerated.Written by
One of the best short documentaries in recent memory
"I have a feeling it ain't gonna be long; I'm ready. Eighty-two years is enough." - Private Jack Hall in Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall.
Edgar Barens' Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall personifies the idea and the convention we've long heard about "rotting in prison." Like its title explains, it focuses on the last days of Private George William "Jack" Hall, an eighty-two-year-old World War II veteran with severe respiratory problems that make simple walks to the bathroom a challenge to settle down from. Hall had a heart attack in 2001 and his been in the infirmary cellblock of the Iowa State Penitentiary and since then, has remained there, contracting pneumonia and developing worse breathing over time.
Barens gives us a shockingly intimate and personal look at the life of Hall, as well as the tireless efforts of the Iowa State Penitentiary's recently-hired hospice staff, who work around the clock at attending the needs of patients who can no longer help themselves. We learn early on in the forty minute short that 20% of prisoners are indeed elderly and few penitentiaries have adequate healthcare for their patients. Hall is one of the lucky ones, although judging by the nights he has had to deal with in recent times, he'd speak differently.
Hall has been serving a life sentence since he caught up with his son's dope dealer and murdered him in cold blood. Barens, however, devotes almost no time to explaining this and only allowing Hall to address in a very brief monologue in the beginning of the short. Now that we know why he is behind bars at this penitentiary, and because we aren't aware of all the details, it allows for a less judgmental affair when seeing how Hall spends his days coping with his many different diseases and his struggle to adapt to old age. Barens allows us to explore the idea of dying in solidarity - behind bars where there's little you can do about it - with the depressing sadness and brutal honesty this topic deserves. At some points in the documentary, we see Hall interact with his old pals, many of whom aging men serving life sentences for murder just like him, exchanging humorous obscenities and verbal banter, but only for a brief time as Hall's energy is dwindling fast. Even in a wheelchair, just to say two sentences in a row practically takes away the man's breath.
When Hall must cater to the idea of his own fate, he becomes very nostalgic, recalling the hells he faced during his turn of duty in Germany, stuck in a prison and making a three month commute from one specific base to another. "I'll never go to hell cause I been there," Hall states, recalling the suffering he endured in the German prison. Forced to watch him suffer is his son, the one who he saved from a life of drugs and torment in a criminal way. Even though Hall committed an atrocious act, it's easy to see the human side of this man throughout, and his talks with his son are as heartbreaking as they are natural and not put-on for the camera in any way.
Barens directs this short beautifully, never veering into mawkishness and simply showing the ugliness and the tedium of death at face value. The other subtlety Barens seems to marvel at for a while is the vulnerability of Hall over time. A man who was once somebody capable of taking another person's life is the same man who gets winded just by saying the man's name. This gradual change isn't shown, but obviously assumed, and Hall's final days are shown to polarizing effect, giving time for us to ponder how this man went from a killer to someone slowly being killed by his poor health.
As the title tells us, Hall dies at the end, and Barens handles it appropriately, not milking it, not over-sentimentalizing it, but simply showing it as is. Until this point, Barens has been given unprecedented access to the most personal moments of the Hall family's entire life. To treat it with any kind of emotional manipulation would be criminal. The fact that he gives an already amazing short documentary an amazing ending just adds to this being one of the best short documentaries in recent memory.
NOTE: Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall will air throughout April 2014 on HBO.
Directed by: Edgar Barens.
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