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Review: Escape at Dannemora

All the more remarkable for being true and so recent it feels ripped from yesterday’s headlines, Escape at Dannemora is a seven-part series that stands among the best fact-based miniseries, including The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

It’s grim, certainly, befitting the gray prison it inhabits, but always compelling and with just enough subtle humor.

Convicted killers David Sweat (Benicio Del Toro) and Richard Matt (Paul Dano) are prisoners in Clinton penitentiary in upstate New York near the Canadian border. Sweat finds out about a passageway behind their cells and recruits Matt into exploring the possibility they might be able to break into it and then break out to freedom. Key to their plans is Joyce “Tilly” Mitchell (Patricia Arquette), a repressed, married civilian prison worker who gets sexually involved, first with Sweat and then Matt. Another key is a generally lax setup in their “privileged” wing at Clinton, abetted by a guard played by David Morse who befriends Matt and looks the other way at the wrong times. Ben Stiller directed all seven episodes and excels at both the quieter scenes and the action sequences.

The performances are phenomenal and the characters are likeable, or at least sympathetic enough, though writers Brett Johnson and Michael Tolkin’s storylines cleverly fill in the nastier parts of their histories in later episodes.