Stephen Gaghan's politically charged thriller Syriana (see review, page 55) recalls the films of the late 1960s and 1970s, an era when movies weren't afraid to make bold statements about corruption and conspiracies at the highest levels of power. And while Syriana brings to mind such great films as All the President's Men and Network, even those pale in comparison with Punishment Park, a long-lost classic-waiting-to-be-discovered from 1971 recently released on DVD.
Using the style and tricks of cinéma vérité and neo-realism, British filmmaker Peter Watkins crafts what the DVD packaging proclaims to be "one of the most controversial films ever made"—a bold statement that hardly rings untrue. Set in America of 1970, when the war in Vietnam was a rallying cry of civil unrest, Punishment Park posits that President Nixon has declared a state of national emergency to restore order. Those labeled as "dissidents" are charged with federal crimes, and face either long sentences in prison or a stint at the Bear Mountain National Punishment Park, a training facility where law enforcement and National Guard troops are taught how to deal with unpatriotic hippies who don't know their place. This teaching exercise amounts to little more than overzealous soldiers and cops hunting those found guilty of questioning the government.
With terrifying ease, Watkins and his cast of unknown actors blur the line between what is real and what is false, creating a film of such stark realism it is easy to be fooled into thinking you're watching an actual documentary. But even more unsettling than the levels of reality the film emulates and honest emotion it conveys is how relevant it remains today. Panned by many critics for the way it portrays American politics, Punishment Park died a quick, painful death at the box office when it was briefly released in 1971. It has remained largely unseen, until now. But now, over 30 years after it first came out, Punishment Park stands as the most politically provocative release of 2005.