How do idealists react in those situations where reform depends upon compromise? This is the central moral issue in Brubaker, a serious film about prison politics and corruption on the inside and outside. The screenplay by W. D. Richter is loosely based on the experiences of Tom Murton, an academic who took over an Arkansas prison farm in 1968, made major reforms, and then lost his job when he dug up several bodies suspiciously buried on the institution's property. This factual backbone to the film gives it clout and authenticity.
Brubaker (Robert Redford) has a first-hand look at the brutality and filth of Wakeland Prison when he poses as an incoming convict. The food and cells are abominable; prisoners are tortured and used as slave labor for local businessmen. Once he assumes the post of warden, Brubaker finds further examples of corruption a doctor who treats only prisoners who pay for services, inmate "trustees" who sell the kitchen's canned goods and meat, and a member of the prison board who issues insurance policies on machinery which the institution doesn't own.
Several key prisoners are wary of Brubaker's reformist zeal. An inmate guard (Yaphet Kotto) retains a "show-me" attitude, and a lifer (David Keith) finds it difficult to believe that any warden could care about the dignity of convicts. Eventually they both are won over. Brubaker doesn't fare as well with the prison board. They don't like his self-righteousness or his unwavering belief in the distinct difference between right and wrong.
Perhaps the most interesting rift develops between the governor's aide (Jane Alexander) and Brubaker. She got him the job in the first place and initially helped fight for his reform program. But when he sets out to expose a history of murders committed inside the prison, the two part company. Viewers will have to decide for themselves whether Brubaker's single-mindedness is realistic or desirable in the long run for those he wishes to help. The film is a good one, especially for its examination of zealotry and the politics of compromise.