Murder in the First is a story about one of the most infamous prisons in the world, Alcatraz, and a statement about the American system of justice. The idea that criminals who commit horrific crimes should be locked up and forgotten is appealing, but people who propound such ideas usually do not allow for error. This movie, starring Christian Slater as a young lawyer, and Kevin Bacon as the innocent who survives the ravages of the justice system, serves as a reminder that power corrupts, and that no justice system is perfect.
The plot is based on a true story which apparently led to closing down of the Alcatraz. Henri Young (Bacon) is charged with committing a federal crime when he steals $5 to feed his younger sister from a store which doubled for a post office. In the typical absolute vein of the current legal system, he is sentenced to serve time in prison.
The Alcatraz prison, which was conceived to hold people like Al Capone and George "Machine Gun" Kelly, also held prisoners who were convicted of lesser crimes, like the one committed by Young above, in order to justify its existence. In fact, a vast majority of the 1545 inmates in the prison "were not to be found on wanted posters adorning post office walls." It is said that spending time in its solitary confines has driven dozens of people insane. Young, who spends time in the solitary confines after an escape attempt, kills another inmate who traded security in exchange for testifying against Young. James Stamphill (Slater) is given his first case: to defend Young on a murder charge. When everyone expects Young to be sent to the gas chamber for his crime, Stamphill puts the Alcatraz prison and its Wardens on trial.
The performances are all superb. Christian Slater plays the role of the freshman lawyer well, and Kevin Bacon's portrayal of a prisoner on the verge of insanity is brilliantly convincing. Milton Glenn (Gary Oldman) is ruthless and cruel as Alcatraz's Associate Warden. There is enough drama in the movie to keep the audience from getting bored, even though there is little action. I think a bit more time could've been spent exploring how the post-Depression post-Prohibition era mentality among the American people allowed such an institution to exist.
The most powerful moment of the film comes when the Warden of the prison (Stefan Gierasch), who is nothing more than a paper pusher, is on the witness stand and keeps repeating "he tried to escape" to justify the human rights violations of the inmate. I firmly believe that there is no crime that justifies punishment that could potentially penalise a single person not deserving of that punishment.