Well-Crafted 'Deadline' Packs Powerful Punch

By Evans Donnell for NashvilleArts
February 16, 2012

Transcendent's Deadline is a film that goes by quickly but has much to say while it does. Its smoothly flowing 95 minutes are easy to follow, but the movie doesn't condescend: it simply respects an audience's ability to understand by not beating points into the ground.

The picture ably notes Southern faults and uniqueness while also acknowledging our strengths and shared humanity. Perhaps that's because the film and the novel "Grievances" that inspired it come from the minds and efforts of people who've lived in the South, or because those involved know how to tell a cinematic story; most likely it's a combination of both.

And Deadline also provides a colorful portrait of print journalism, though admittedly that framing of the Fourth Estate is painted with the broad brush of artistic license. But a fictional feature should paint its story with such a brush, so I'm not complaining.

A prologue takes us to the imaginary Alabama town of Amos in 1993. Teenager Wallace Sampson (Romonte Hamer) is preparing to leave for college - Fisk University in Nashville, to be precise - when an assassin's bullet strikes him down right in front of his girlfriend Vanessa Brown (Tucker Perry).

We then fast forward to the present, where a group of angry protesters are picketing The Nashville Times carrying signs that read "Racist Times!" and "No Black Hole." They're reacting to publication of a story titled "Taxpayer money goes down black hole" featuring pictures of African-American workers.

The byline on that story belongs to Matt Harper (Steve Talley), the latest in a venerated family line of journalists who's still quite wet behind the ears. His seen-it-all veteran colleague Ronnie Bullock (Eric Roberts) grins and says, "And actually it wasn't that bad a story." Harper glares at the elder reporter and replies, "Yeah, well, I'm not the one who wrote the headline and then decided to only use pictures of black people."

The police chief of Amos has just been murdered, but that story soon takes a back seat to the mystery of Sampson's death 19 years earlier after Trey Hall (Lauren Jenkins), whose family employs Sampson's mother Mary Pell (Jackie Welch), tells Harper about the cold-case murder. The journalistic odd-couple of Harper and Bullock are dispatched to Amos to see if they can shed light on the town's shameful secret.

Deadline utilizes some familiar film plot devices in its story; the different-types-thrown-together relationship of Harper and Bullock and a troubled romance between Harper and his fiancée Delana Calhoun (Anna Felix) are prime examples. But Mark Ethridge's tight script doesn't center on such devices; his story turns on its reminder that our chances for future prosperity often hinge on spending our present resolving the remnants of our past.

As a journalist who covered the burnings of African-American churches in the South less than 20 years ago, I know there's a ring of authenticity to aspects of the story dealing with Sampson's death and those who may have been involved in it. It may be tempting for some to think such horrific examples of social injustice stopped after the civil rights movement threw its righteous light onto racist behavior in the 1960s, but that's simply not true.

Deadline is clear where it stands, but it wisely leaves any preaching to one of its most intriguing characters, Rev. Young (Darryl Van Leer). The scene where Young asks for justice during a sermon is quite powerful, thanks to the writing and Van Leer's performance of it; the movie is appropriately economical when it comes to making its case without belaboring points, but it is not economical with the truth.

Those truths include the value of a strong free press: "You know, Matt, in the long run, truth doesn't need any help," Rev. Young tells Harper, "but in the short run, it uses people like you and your dad (a revered journalist played by J.D. Souther) to speed itself along."

And the movie also reminds us of how easily we can pass unfair judgments on others; when Harper curses the state of Alabama because of the racism he's seen and heard, Bullock admonishes the young man, "You're as bad as those rednecks, Harper. Don't stereotype Alabama. Trey, Mary Pell, Reverend Young, they're Alabama, too."

Van Leer's engaging work mirrors that of much of the largely Tennessee-based cast. Welch is a rock as Mary Pell; she clearly and convincingly conveys how her character has weathered storms and stands strong despite the heavy burdens life has given her. She and Van Leer's characters provide the Deadline's conscience and its triumph-over-adversity heart.

Another fine performance belongs to Jeremy Childs. His Texas-twang editor Walker Burns should bring a knowing smile to the face of journalists who've worked with similar supervisors in their newsrooms, but one doesn't have to be a journalist to appreciate his fully-fleshed characterization.

Souther, Felix, Tommy Cresswell as Judge Buchanan - whose charming mask makes racism much more chilling - and Maisha Dyson as the present-day Vanessa make good contributions in prominent parts, but so do such local acting fixtures as Jenny Littleton and Denice Hicks in smaller roles. And Nashville attorney Larry Woods and TV producer David Ditmore acquit themselves well - I've never met a publisher quite like Ditmore's Warren Baxter, but he was fun to watch.

Last but not least are the two leads. Talley and Roberts work well together and apart; both are completely believable, and bring out the humorous moments in Ethridge's screenplay just as sharply as they handle the serious situations their characters face.

Modern technology benefits the continuity and flow of Deadline, as director Curt Hahn and cinematographer Paul Marschall were able to film scenes using multiple HD cameras instead of setting up a master shot and then having to reset for close-ups of the same scene. That certainly avoids the matching problems an editor traditionally has to deal with in post-production since the same take can be viewed from different angles. Marschall's realistic framing and Robert Gordon's crisp editing make the most of that technology, Hahn's sure-handed pacing and the ensemble's strong performances, which are also well-supported by Dave Perkins' pulsating jazzy score.

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