FREEDOM WRITERS - Blu-ray review

The Blu-ray release of Freedom Writers is a notable effort to bring the story of Erin Gruwell into the living room, although it is not a large improvement over the recent standard definition release.


I had some initial apprehension towards viewing "Freedom Writers." I was expecting yet another rehash on the popular theme of having an outsider completely turn around the misfortunes of a band of inner city students and completely clean up a decrepit and unhealthy scholastic environment. Well, "Freedom Writers" is essentially another take on the themes made popular by films such as "Lean On Me." An unwelcome outsider does come into a violent environment and unfriendly classroom. And yes, the outsider does earn the respect of the unwilling students and help to turn their lives around. Thankfully, "Freedom Writers" is a far superior film to most of the other similar pictures and considering it is based on a true story and features the talented Hilary Swank, "Freedom Writers" is a better equipped motion picture.

Hilary Swank has pulled home two Oscar statues for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The first win was in 2000's "Boys Don't Cry." She took a second trip to the podium for her great performance in Clint Eastwood's 2005 film "Million Dollar Baby." She has won a healthy number of other awards for these two films and there is no doubt as to her ability to act. Having Swank take on the role of Erin Gruwell is a blessing to the "Freedom Writers" film and I'm certain it would not have been the quality film it is without the participation of the actress, who does look something like the real-life Erin Gruwell. Swank is not the only familiar Hollywood name involved in this project about special inner city children. Veteran actor Scott Glenn and television favorite Patrick Dempsey take on roles of Erin Gruwell's family and recording star Mario portrays one of the more troubled students of Gruwell's class.

The film is based upon the actual writings of the students who were part of Erin Gruwell's very first classroom. These writings are notebook diaries that were combined into the novel "The Freedom Writers Diaries" and detailed the harsh lives and tormented inner selves that were the words and thoughts of Gruwell's students. Gruwell (Swank) has always wanted to help minority children and was impressed by the human rights work done by her father Steve Gruwell (Scott Glenn). She takes on a job at a high school that has been recently de-segregated and has seen its scholastic aptitude scores drop significantly as warring factions of racial gangs now rule the classrooms and teachers who once took pride in their work now sit back and just hope to survive each semester and not get mugged or stabbed by their potentially violent children.

At first, Gruwell cannot relate to the children and they refuse to give her any of their attention or respect. They would rather posture against students of other races or social classes than be educated in English. Gruwell's students are not the only obstacle to the student's learning. Her section leader and principal refuse to allow the students to possess any of the books in their storeroom and they are forced to use used books that are intended for much younger children. After some time, Gruwell finds ways to connect with the children and show them that they truly are not too different than the peers of another gang or race. Gruwell takes on two jobs and brings strain to her relationship with her husband Scott (Patrick Dempsey). She does this to raise money to buy books for the children and take them on field trips. When Gruwell takes the children to the Holocaust museum, she begins to earn their trust and respect. When the students are educated on the "Diary of Anne Frank" and earn a chance to meet the lady that housed Anne Frank, "Miep Gies," they band together to raise the money.

"Freedom Writers" is a film that looks at the harsh reality that awaits these inner city children as they awake each morning. For them, the world is a violent place and they are never given the opportunity or shown that a different future can await them if they choose to not lead the life of a gang member and take part in the drive by shootings that slowly erode their numbers. It is also a look at a special woman that would not give up on the children and she eventually earned their trust and helped to turn their lives around. This is a true story and Hilary Swank and the filmmakers, including Executive Producer Danny DeVito, pay proper respect to Erin Gruwell's story. Today, Erin Gruwell's Freedom Writers Foundation educates others on her methods and allows for other students to have the opportunities given to Erin Gruwell's students.

"Freedom Writers" is presented in nicely detailed 1.85:1 MPEG-2 / 1080p widescreen. The film's picture quality is a noticeable improvement over the recent standard definition release and a respectable entry in the high definition marketplace. As was the case with the SD-DVD release, the source print used is clean and without any noticeable flaws. Colors are vivid and natural. Mario's character Andre wears the most colorful clothing and every outfit again comes to life nicely under this high definition transfer. Film grain and black levels are improved over the standard definition release, but still not as strong as I would have liked them to be. Hilary Swank is capable of being a lovely lady and the detail is strong enough to show the strong features of her face with a level of detail that was not capable without HD. While not being a film that is going to sell HD players on the merits of its visuals, this Blu-ray transfer is essentially identical to the HD-DVD release and is a step up over the standard definition offering. It is clean and detailed, showing strong colors throughout the running length of the film.

The film is presented with English, French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 multi-channel soundtracks. The Spanish option was not available with the standard definition release, but the English Dolby Digital 2.0 mix is now absent. This dialogue heavy film always delivers clear and intelligible discussion. The film does contain a couple notable song selections that feature strong bass and push the soundtrack nicely. Bass was perhaps the only area that was noticeably improved over the standard definition release. Once again, the rear surrounds contain a few environmental sounds, but are mostly silent. During an important scene where an Asian teen is gunned down, the gunshots ring loud and clear. "Freedom Writers" is a clean sounding film that does everything necessary to push its story, but the film is not an audibly impressive or intense experience, as the source materials limit the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and doesn't improve much over the original standard definition release.

"Freedom Writers" contains most of the supplements that were part of the original DVD release. The omissions are negligible in value and a high definition trailer has been inserted in their place. The real meat makes its way to both high definition releases. The most notable supplement is the Commentary with Director Richard Lagravenese and Actor Hilary Swank. A lot of information is provided on the real life Erin Gruwell and her students. Swank has some anecdotes on working with Gruwell and gushes with praise. For anybody interested in the true story of Gruwell and her Freedom Writers, this is a very informative commentary and Swank's involvement shows her resolve in telling the story of Erin Gruwell. The Deleted Scenes (11:01) are strung together and feature more moments with Swank and the film's students. Some of these are very nice moments and others are simply extended and alternate takes of existing scenes, but at 122 minutes running time, I can understand why they were not included. I would have liked to have seen the "Schindler's List" bit left in.

Making a Dream (5:26) looks at the musical involvement of the film and features segments with the recording artists who helped create the music for the film. This was a short and forgettable vignette. The Freedom Writers Family (19:22) is a slightly more interesting supplement and looks at the making of the film and the good times had by the cast as they brought the book "The Freedom Writers Diary" to life. There was a lot of respect and camaraderie on the set and the young actors enjoyed working with the far more veteran Hilary Swank. Aside from the commentary, the most impressive supplement was Freedom Writers: The Story Behind the Story (10:04). I was disappointed in the short length of this featurette, but it contained a lot of relative information on the film's subject matter and more time with the real Erin Gruwell. A high definition Theatrical Trailer replaces the photo gallery and previews that were contained on the standard definition release.

Closing Comments:
Hilary Swank brought passion in bringing the true life story of English teacher Erin Gruwell to the big screen. The real Erin Gruwell is a very special lady and her work with under privileged inner city children has been nothing short of commendable. Hilary Swank's work as an actress has been commended a few times by the Academy Awards. Swank's talent shines through as the special actress portrays the special English teacher. "Freedom Writers" is a solid effort to tell the story of inner city children who learned to look at life differently after unwittingly becoming Gruwell's very first classroom of students. If more people would look at life in a manner similar to Gruwell and see people for who they truly are, we would be living in a far better world. The Blu-ray release of "Freedom Writers" is a notable effort to bring the story of Erin Gruwell into the living room, although it is not a large improvement over the recent standard definition release. The sound and video are good, but nothing to write home about. Thankfully, the nice supplements make their way to the HD realm to add some value to this release.


Film Value