David Holloway / History Channel

Did Sarah's Interest In Alcatraz: Search For The Truth Reach Land, Or Drown?

History Channel's special on the notorious escape is a choppy swim.

High-Profile Show Attempted: Alcatraz: Search For The Truth

Topic: The 1962 escape of Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin has confounded sleuths on both sides of the professional divide for over 50 years. We know pretty well how they got off "The Rock" (if you've visited the Bay Area, you may have taken the tour); what we don't know is what happened next, but it seems like a good bet that all three drowned.

Still, the escape still has a local case agent, and brothers Ken and David Widner decided to reach out to Art Roderick, a retired U.S. Marshal detailed to the case for a long time, with evidence that their uncles survived -- and for a good long time -- despite a family history of (allegedly) getting harassed by, and therefore resenting, federal law enforcement.

How Far I Expected To Get: I didn't think I'd love it from a production-values standpoint, because very few networks stretch as little material as far, and/or as blatantly, as the History Channel. Repetition of footage (and not just a couple of seconds) before and after ad breaks, non-fiction-TV cliches like "the Ken Burns" and the chopping up the focus fields of a photo and dolly-zooming in on the subject of the show, cutesy music cues (I think one in Alcatraz is recycled from American Pickers, and lazily assigned to rural Florida).

But prison breaks real and imagined have made for some of the great narratives of our culture: Alcatraz, Prison Break, Shawshank, I could go on. Alcatraz specifically has a shot of the same appeal as the D.B. Cooper story, as well, the idea that a guy could get away with it, without really hurting anyone, and disappear into another life.

I wanted to believe; I expected to yawn a lot.

How Far I Did Get

21:07 (out of a two-hour special)

What Did It: I almost bailed at the kludgy re-enactment by Roderick of the initial phone call he received from the Widners, claiming they had evidence their uncles survived until at least 1975. After some muzzily-shot depictions of the harassment the family received, the Widners then melodramatically elected to call a meet with Roderick in the old-school Baptist cemetery that holds all their late relatives...except two. The Widners drive stagily up to the graveyard, and one of them burbles, "Hard to believe this is where all the Anglins are buried." Uh, you mean in a...graveyard? In your family's hometown. Where they all lived and died? Not exactly incredulous over here, except maybe at that horrendo line getting left in.

"You sure we can trust this man?" isn't any more believable or useful, but I rolled my eyes, made a couple notes, and tried to hang in for the evidence, which consists of 1) Christmas cards, left in the Anglin family mailbox with no postal markings and signed by John and Clarence; and 2) a 1992 photo taken by a family friend that ostensibly shows one or both brothers. I quit before the show elected to reveal an in-focus shot of the photo, so I can't really say what it contained, because once Ken Widner overacted that he still didn't trust Roderick and that they wouldn't let the cards or photo out of their possession, insisting on accompanying Roderick to visit the case officer as though we don't all know they're already on-camera and filming a TV special, I had to give up.

The photo's one thing; I think the holiday cards more likely indicate a prank of some sort (this wasn't exactly a cult news story) than anything else, since why would you get THAT close to the house but never make any other kind of contact? Yeah, I know you could explain that away too; Occam's Razor suggests they all drowned. But I didn't watch the special expecting it to convince me one way or the other. I did expect a baseline level of pacing competence that didn't rely on overmatched fame-whore relatives to sell the fiction that this meeting "just happens" to be taking place in a boneyard with a Marshal they have no choice but to ally with to Find The Truth.

Worth Taking Another Run At It? Doubtful.


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