- Brad Buchholz American-Statesman Staff
Michael Morton knows sorrow and humiliation beyond our comprehension. Weeks after his wife, Christine, was beaten to death in their Austin-area home on a summer’s day in 1986, Morton — still in shock — was arrested in front of his 3-year-old son, convicted of his wife’s murder and sentenced to life in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The quintessential innocent man, Morton spent the next 25 years in prison before his exoneration in late 2011. His experience was heartbreaking, fraught with disturbing questions. How could such a man — 32 years old, a family man, with no physical evidence tying him to the crime — be treated so terribly in a culture devoted to fairness and justice?
Morton has every reason to be bitter, resentful. Yet the free man we meet in the new documentary “An Unreal Dream: The Michael Morton Story” — directed by Al Reinert, premiering Monday at the South by Southwest Film Festival — is the epitome of serenity and grace. Morton’s spirit of “letting go” doesn’t just carry this extraordinary film. It is the living spirit of the film.
“Everything is different for me (now),” says Morton, as the documentary nears its climax. “The conundrums of life, the philosophical paradoxes, the metaphysical problems: I feel like I get it now. I understand suffering and unfairness. … I’m good with this. … I can’t think of anything better to receive than that.”
“An Unreal Dream” is the quietest movie you’ll ever see about murder and the miscarriage of justice. In an age when films tend to jostle and jolt their audiences, “An Unreal Dream” dwells in a realm of simplicity and understatement. It never raises its voice, never rushes through details. In tone, the film honors the essence of Michael Morton by reflecting the dignity of Michael Morton.
At its heart, “An Unreal Dream” aspires to tell Morton’s story. Simply. Without clutter or manipulation. As part of the narrative arc, Reinert’s film documents “justice denied” in Williamson County, the low-handed theatrics of the jury trial, the awful reality of Morton’s prison life. It highlights the persistence of the Innocence Project and the fortitude of Morton himself.
Yet it’s the intimate aura of the film — evident in the lighting and the pacing, the steady, knowing calm in Michael Morton’s eyes — that sticks with you long after the lights come up.
“Michael has great presence; he speaks with a kind of grace,” says Reinert, reflecting on Morton’s skill as a narrator of his own story. Reinert first uses the word “grace” in the first 30 seconds of this interview. And it’s fitting, for grace is the guiding energy of the entire project.
In the opening frames of “An Unreal Dream,” Michael Morton returns, for the first time, to the room that changed his life — the very courtroom inside the old Georgetown County Courthouse, where he was convicted of murder in 1987. Morton takes a seat in a witness chair. The chamber, bathed in amber light, appears completely empty.
Dressed in a dark polo shirt and light khaki slacks, Morton looks every bit the normal guy: fit, handsome, comfortable in his body. He scans the room, sighs heavily, takes measure of the space and its history. He lets us know this setting is a little difficult for him. Then he bears witness to his own story … without spite, without rancor.
“From the beginning, I knew I wanted to do the interviews (with Michael) in a courtroom situation,” says Reinert, chatting about the film over lunch at a South Austin Mexican food restaurant. “We scouted courthouses all over Texas, because I wanted a kind of old-timey ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ look, and to put him in the chair right in the middle.
“It turned out that the best courtroom we found turned out to be the real one. Still, I was very concerned that Michael wouldn’t want to go back there. He said, ‘No big deal, no big deal’ until we got back into that room. And he did stiffen up, initially, because the room brought it all back to him. But in the end, it made it more real. Michael is so genuine, so sincere (in these interviews) — and that room is a big part of it.”
Reinert, 64, is an affable, open-hearted rumple of a man. Not an ounce of pretension in him. He’s best known as the director of “For All Mankind” — an elegant documentary about the Apollo missions to the lunar surface, narrated by the astronauts who flew them, which was nominated for an Oscar in 1989. Like “An Unreal Dream,” Reinert’s going-to-the-moon movie is uncluttered, unrushed, with a clean narrative line, plenty of ruminative air and delicate spiritual undertones. The director does not intrude upon his story. He adopts a “let it be” approach.
“I’m not a a real ‘beat you over the head’ kind of guy, which is part of why I’ve had to struggle (at times) in Hollywood,” says Reinert, who started as a print journalist in Texas and lived in Austin for a time before embarking on a film career in the 1980s and later moving to California. “That’s what Hollywood likes to do: beat you over the head.”
“I didn’t want to make a preachy movie. I simply wanted to tell Michael’s story. … For better or for worse, I’m a story guy. I’ve been a journalist for 40 years. I like finding stories — and then getting out of the way as much as you can. That’s what traditional journalism is supposed to be about, though it’s easier said than done.”
Reinert hadn’t been involved in a major film project for more than a decade before “An Unreal Dream.” He was sitting at home in Los Angeles, watching television, the day Michael Morton was freed in October 2011 — and he was intrigued, immediately, upon hearing Morton speak. Reinert was impressed by his intelligence, his powers of articulation. Why not tell his story on film?
So he flew to Texas, met with Morton, met with his attorneys — and shook hands with them on the film project in January 2012. They didn’t come to really know each other, however, until they began to work on the film. Morton has watched the movie take shape before his eyes, even sitting in on a few of the editing sessions.
“Part of why I like being a documentary filmmaker — and struggled a bit as a Hollywood screenwriter — is that real life is always more interesting than make-believe. This story proves it,” says Reinert, who was nominated for an Oscar as part of the screenwriting team for “Apollo 13” in 1996. “There are so many things in his story you wouldn’t dare make up.”
At the same time: “What happened to Michael is a classic story. I mean, that’s what ‘Les Misérables’ is. An innocent man goes to prison. That’s been an interesting subject for a couple hundred years now, since the dawn of Western literature.” And from a storyteller’s standpoint: “It’s a lot more interesting than lawyers arguing.”
Reinert’s belief in the story led him to visit three different prisons to interview inmates who knew Morton behind bars. He sought to interview guards as well, but was denied permission. Still, Reinert achieves one of the most genuine moments in his film when he lets the camera linger on the face of a convicted murderer named Richard King. Clearly, a tough man. And yet: He sees the truth of Morton’s innocence more clearly than the Williamson County jury that convicted him.
From the opening frames, Al Reinert coaxes us to connect with subtlety in “An Unreal Dream.” Even the film score, composed by Austinites Chuck Pinnell and Rich Brotherton, is wispy, unobtrusive. Reinert wants to draws our attention to Morton’s posture, his bearing — and the amber light of the courtroom — as much as the precise language he uses to tell his story.
“Innocent people think that if you just tell the truth, you got nothing to fear from the police,” Morton says early in the film, sitting in the empty courthouse, reflecting on his feelings in the days before his arrest. “If you just stick to it, the system will work. It’ll all come to light. Everything will be fine.”
It’s a touching moment, no question — especially in the understanding that this tragedy could have befallen any of us. We’re all at the mercy of the system, the people who enforce the law. But it’s most significant that Morton delivers these words calmly, absent of any tension or irony. It’s not so much what he says; it’s the way he says it.
Reinert invites us to seek truth, too, in the eyes of inmates like Richard King … and in the eyes of Morton’s devoted attorneys Bill Allison and John Raley … and in the eyes of Williamson County jurors … and in the eyes of Michael Morton’s son, Eric — who estranged himself from his dad as a teenager, thinking his father a murderer. (The son’s comments in the film are richer, more moving, than any statements he’s made in print.) Their candor, along with Reinert’s tact, fortifies what we already know to be a compelling tale.
The most discordant moments in the film? Several film clips from Austin’s local nightly news, circa 1986 and 1987. Reinert’s film is so reserved, so understated that some of the anchors’ assessments of the arrest and trial come across as shrill, melodramatic, superficial. They are more jolting than the clang of jail doors.
For all its heartache, “An Unreal Dream” is ultimately a story of transcendence. In the film, Morton talks about sensing God — and coming to peace — in the moment of his greatest desperation. At the same time, there’s a strong Buddhist feel to the entire movie. It’s about suffering. The recognition of suffering. The universality of suffering. And coming to terms with suffering.
Michael Morton knows sorrow and humiliation beyond our comprehension. He has lived it. He has accepted it. He has shared it with us in a movie. And he has come to let it be.