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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

DVD Review: An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story

The judicial branch is the one branch of government that you really want to be able to have complete faith in. You want it to be fair and to be honest, and for truth to win out in all cases. Because you never know when it could be you that’s relying on that system. An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story is an incredible documentary film about a man who was wrongly convicted of murdering his wife and served twenty-five years in prison.

The film opens with Michael Morton seated in an otherwise empty courtroom. He says, “This is the room where my life changed.” He is allowed to tell his story through an interview conducted in that very room. He tells the story of meeting Chris at school, and we see still photos of them from early in their marriage. He talks about the birth of their son. And then he gets into that day in 1986 when his wife was killed. And Michael really gives us an idea of what it was like to be a target of the investigation, and the helpless feeling that results. He says, “You get the sense you’re at these people’s mercy, and you hope to God they know what they’re doing.”

An Unreal Dream allows the story to be told in chronological order, and features interviews with many of people involved, both in his trial and in the fight to free him. Sometimes when watching a documentary, you feeling that some of the information from interviews is a bit extraneous. Not so with this film. Every piece of information that is revealed through the interviews feels pertinent and important, and helps move the story forward.

The film includes interviews with trial attorney Bill Allison, Barry Scheck (co-director of the Innocence Project), Nina Morrison (senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project) and attorney John Raley. It’s interesting that the film also includes interviews with Lou Bryan, one of the jury members, and Mark Landrum, the jury foreman. Lou says she didn’t see much emotion from Michael, and Mark says that the jury looked up to the district attorney, and admits there wasn’t much deliberation.

Michael talks about his prison experience, and there are also interviews with several former inmates, some who have been released and some who are still behind bars. Michael candidly says: “Some of the best people to be around were the murderers. They usually don’t steal from you. They’re usually not drunks.”

Some of the most moving scenes are about his son, whom Michael was allowed to see every six months, because of court-ordered visitations. His sister-in-law, who was raising Eric, brought him, and she clearly believed Michael to be guilty. Michael talks about how hearing Eric call his sister-in-law “Mom” was jarring. His son became a stranger to him, and then at age eighteen legally changed his name. Michael says, “That’s what broke me.” This film gives us Eric’s perspective as well, through interviews with him.

The injustice of it all is infuriating and depressing, as the prosecution deliberately withheld evidence that would have acquitted Michael (and perhaps saved the life of another woman - the real murderer killed another woman two years after Michael's wife was killed), but Michael Morton’s outlook is so positive and he is full of forgiveness, that the film ultimately leaves you actually feeling good and optimistic, which surprised me. This is an excellent film.

Special Features

This DVD includes a lot of excellent bonus material. The first thing is a collection of highlights from Ken Anderson’s Court of Inquiry. This is sixteen minutes of footage from February of 2013, when it was decided whether former DA Ken Anderson violated the law during the case.

There is also footage from Ken Anderson’s plea deal hearing. This hearing was on November 8, 2013, regarding the settlement of civil and criminal proceedings against Ken Anderson. This special feature is approximately fifteen minutes. Anderson was sentenced to ten days in jail, community service and a very small fine. (That’s it? He should be sentenced to twenty-five years.)

The DVD also includes highlights from a Q&A with Michael Morton, director Al Reinert and attorney John Raley. This was from a screening at the Houston Cinema Arts Festival on November 10, 2013, and is approximately thirteen minutes. There are some good questions asked. Michael Morton is asked about his feelings regarding the miniscule jail sentence for Anderson. Also, someone asks about his current relationship with his sister-in-law, something I myself was wondering.

There is a short segment on the SXSW film premiere. There is also a music video for “Whispering Hope” included in the bonus features. By the way, a soundtrack for this film is available.  I posted a review of it, which you can read on Michael Doherty's Music Log.

An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story was released on DVD on April 1, 2014 through First Run Features.

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