Review: The Oscar-Nominated ‘Prison Terminal’

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall is a 40-minute documentary nominated for an Oscar in the Documentary Short category. It is straightforward in its approach, storytelling and subject matter, just like the introduction of this review is straightforward and without color: the film documents the final days of a terminally ill inmate serving a life sentence for murder.

The documentary debuts on Monday, March 31 on HBO.

There’s not a whole lot to say about Prison Terminal, which is directed by Edgar Barens; it  is a snapshot of a man’s life, an individual who clearly isn’t a horrible human being but has spent the last 21 years in prison nonetheless (the documentary unfortunately never elaborates on the details of his conviction). Furthermore, it shows other men, other prisoners, showing compassion and caring for this man, a WWII veteran, because he is their friend.

It’s a sad movie, and one that resonates. The documentary doesn’t appear to have much of a motive, which is both a blessing and a curse. So many documentaries these days – at least the most popularly known ones – come at the audience with an angle, a pitch, something to convince you that what they’re showing is either good or bad. This approach makes them more powerful, but it also makes them biased.

Prison Terminal’s one weakness is that it doesn’t try to make a compelling case for anything… it doesn’t suggest that Mr. Hall should have been released for prison, or that prisons should provide hospice care, or whatever. It doesn’t punch you in the gut. At the same time, this lack of motive is refreshing. If anything, Barens captures that even people in prison can be good people, compassionate people, people deserving of comfort and friendship, and capable of friendship. Through this movie he shows that prison is more than just the Hollywood stereotype; there are real people behind bars.

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall isn’t a groundbreaking or flashy documentary, but it offers a unique perspective on a segment of the population we rarely see, and shows us a stage of life that is rarely captured on camera. It’s touching, even sad at times, but there is something uplifting about it, too.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Awards & Oscars, Documentaries, Movie Reviews