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Watching Deadline, a heart-wrenching documentary about capital punishment, it's hard not to be struck by the contrast between two Republican former governors: Illinois' George Ryan, who put capital punishment on hold in his state before leaving office, and Texas' George W. Bush, whose state executed more people during his six-year tenure than the entire country executed between 1981 and 1990. For Ryan, the choice of whether to legally put another human being to death was a burden almost too grave to be granted to anyone, while Bush seemed to view rubber-stamping state-ordered executions as a routine task to be handled without reflection or deliberation.

Before stepping down as governor, Ryan granted blanket clemency to everyone on death row in Illinois, an act indelibly chronicled in Deadline, which uses his radical move as the springboard for a far-ranging exploration of the death penalty. His experiences alone could make for a riveting film, and at times, it seems Deadline would have been stronger had it focused more narrowly on Ryan and the too-strange-for-fiction aspects of his story, like the spunky journalism students whose muckraking profoundly influenced him, or the embarrassing fact that in Illinois, more death-row prisoners had been exonerated than had been executed. Deadline often sacrifices focus and depth for breadth and scope, opting for a big-picture take on a system too often compromised by racism and the pressure to win convictions and harsh punishments in high-profile murder cases.

Though sober and straightforward, Deadline doesn't pretend to be even-handed. Of all the groups affected by capital punishment, victims and their families who favor the death penalty get the least screen time, though a courtroom scene in which a criminal's ghastly crimes are recounted goes a long way toward illustrating the anger that can lead the grieving to seek the ultimate sentence for those who have caused their anguish.

The desire for retribution is a powerful human impulse, but the late-film appearance of a group of murder victims' family members—including Emmett Till's mother—speaking out against the death penalty stands as a powerful reminder that the role of both justice and civilization is often to transcend the need for vengeance in favor of loftier aims.