Last third makes it worthwhile7/10
Like the controversial book, the movie SLEEPERS is divided into three parts; before reform school, during, and after. But whereas the parts in the book all worked together into a satisfying(albeit disturbing) whole, the movie only really catches fire in the last third, which is enough to recommend it. Before I get to why, regarding on whether it really happened; that's irrelevant. It could have happened.
Part one of the book, like the movie, establishes our protagonists and their personalities, as well as draw out the supporting characters. We get to know and like them, and therefore the climax to the first part is quite disturbing. The movie, alas, relies too much on voice-over narration. A former friend once called movies like these "narration from hell" movies, and this one certainly qualifies. It tells us, rather than shows us, about the main characters. The four young actors are certainly appealing enough, but they're left with nothing to work with. Perhaps because it's so poorly written, Jason Patric, the one who narrates it, seems to do his job badly a la Harrison Ford in BLADE RUNNER. Or maybe he's just not good at it(he is a good actor). Only the supporting characters, like De Niro as the priest and the great Italian actor Vittorio Gassman as King Benny, come through.
Part II takes place at the reform school/prison, and it's the weakest part of the book, simply because it's all been done before, although this one is more sadistic than usual. What helps the movie, besides keeping DeNiro around, is the performances. Kevin Bacon is chilling as the head guard, and Terry Kinney, who usually plays weak-willed men, is surprisingly effective here as well.
Part III is the most controversial part of the book and movie, since it alleges a prosecutor threw a case, and a priest lied to help two murderers get off. Also, like A TIME TO KILL, it raises the question of whether revenge killing is justified. Unlike A TIME TO KILL, however, this movie and book don't take the easy way out, but look at both sides. You may not agree with what the priest character does, but you can't say it was easy for him, and like the book, the movie implies a little shame for having to ask him in the first place. And DeNiro's performance here is excellent; the look on his face when he hears for the first time what the boys went through in prison says a lot. The third part is where the movie finally comes alive, even though that annoying narration is still there, because the actors have something to work with, and they work with it. In addition to DeNiro and Gassman, I'm thinking in particular of Minnie Driver, Brad Pitt, and Dustin Hoffman. Driver and Pitt have to suggest earlier involvement, and they do in their powerful scene together in the subway when she reveals she now knows what went on at the prison(her reaction when she finds out is also powerful). As for Hoffman, one reason I am tired of courtroom movies and shows is the assertion that yelling is the only way lawyers examine people, and Hoffman resists the urge to overact. Watch him particularly when he destroys Kinney's character on the stand, with a low but probing voice that nicely plays against his questioning, rather than blow it up. And so, when the four main characters(along with Driver) come together for the last time, you really feel the moment, more than you'd suspect from the start. It's not a perfect movie, but stick with it and it is worthwhile.