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Byline: Bernard Weinraub The New York Times

``Sleepers,'' the No. 1 film at the box office during the weekend, begins with a narrator saying, ``This is a true story about friendship that runs deeper than blood.''

But two questions hover over the film, directed by Barry Levinson and based on Lorenzo Carcaterra's best-selling book of the same name: Is that statement accurate, and does Hollywood care?

``You would hope that this doesn't overwhelm what we've done,'' said Levinson, who also wrote the screenplay.

The book was published as nonfiction last year by Ballantine Books and promptly stirred a surge of controversy when various critics and journalists termed as bogus its account of four New York City teen-agers who are sent to a brutal reformatory and take revenge on their tormentors. Carcaterra, a onetime New York Daily News reporter, said last year: ``The story is true. Names and dates are changed.'' But others have challenged virtually every detail in the book.

Hollywood studios often take liberties with facts. The current ``Michael Collins,'' about the Irish independence leader, and in recent years ``Schindler's List,'' ``Malcolm X'' and ``JFK'' all offer highly interpretive views of actual events. But few movies claiming to be based on truth have been questioned to the extent that ``Sleepers'' has.

In the book, Carcaterra writes about himself (played in the film by Jason Patric) and three young friends living in the Hell's Kitchen section of Manhattan in the 1960s. After they stage a street prank that unintentionally leaves a man seriously injured, the books says, the four are sent to a juvenile detention center, where they are brutalized and sexually assaulted.

Years after their release, two of the boys, now professional killers, accidentally encounter a former guard who took part in the assaults. The two promptly kill the guard in a restaurant, but to save them from prison, a third member of the old foursome, an assistant district attorney (played by Brad Pitt), privately manipulates the evidence in their behalf. He needs the help of a popular Roman Catholic priest (Robert De Niro), who is asked to perjure himself on behalf of the killers, whom he has known since childhood.

Strong challenges to the book's story were raised by the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church and School on the West Side of Manhattan (which Carcaterra attended), where priests expressed outrage about the author's assertions, and by the Manhattan district attorney's office. The office said there were no records of a case like the one described in the book.

Carcaterra declined to comment, but in a Time magazine article last year admitted that numerous details were fictitious: ``You have to change dates, names, places, people. The way they looked; you have to make them look a different way. If it happened here, you have to make it happen there.''

Clare Ferraro, editor in chief of Ballantine, a division of Random House, declined to discuss the book. A Ballantine publicity representative, Sally Marvin, said: ``Our feeling is this is an old story. We've been through this. We stand behind the author, and we stand behind the book.''

Despite - or perhaps because of - the controversy, film rights to the book were sold, after intense bidding, to Warner Bros. and Propaganda Films for $2 million. Levinson, the director of ``Rain Man,'' ``Good Morning, Vietnam'' and ``Disclosure,'' was promptly signed to take over, and a formidable cast, which also includes Dustin Hoffman and Kevin Bacon, was assembled.

Levinson speaks with some frustration and defensiveness about the controversy. The filmmaker said he read the book in galleys and was ``just taken by it.

``There were themes that ran through it - the concept of neighborhood, the influence of neighborhood, the pluses and minuses of that, that nature of friendship,'' said Levinson, whose early films, ``Diner'' and ``Tin Men,'' were based on the lives of friends and family members in his native Baltimore. ``I was fascinated by this.

``What also fascinated me was the idea that one incident, in one moment, can go wrong, and forever your life will be altered,'' he added. ``I think about it in my life, and some of the things I did, and how one slightly different move could have altered everything. I hate to think about it.''

Levinson said his conversations with Carcaterra convinced him that the book was accurate. ``Every time I spoke to Lorenzo, and I was asking questions about details that I was trying to use in the screenplay, he would just rattle off information,'' said Levinson, who lives north of San Francisco but was in Hollywood to promote the movie. ``If he was lying, it would be an astoundingly facile lie. To me, the book makes sense and is credible.''

The director said he believed it was unlikely that Carcaterra would have written about his own sexual brutalization by prison guards if it were not true. ``Do you know anybody who would want to write about that if it hadn't happened to them?'' Levinson asked. ``Do you know what I'm saying? What's the motivation for that? It just doesn't add up.

``I can only say that I've never heard anything that he's told me that would make me question him,'' said Levinson, who added that there was a ``basic truth'' to the book that overrides questions about specific detail.

The controversy over its accuracy dwarfs larger issues the book seeks to raise, he argued, like the way juveniles are dealt with in the criminal justice system. The truth of the book, he insisted, is not an overriding issue.

``I still don't know what is this big quest for the truth, with four boys no one ever heard of,'' Levinson said. ``What's this big thing we need to get into? There are no historical figures here. Outside of New York, it's almost like, `I don't know what it is.' ''



Photo: Few movies claiming to be based on truth have been q uestioned as extensively as has ``Sleepers,'' starring Ron Eldard, left, Billy Crudup, Brad Pitt, Jason Patric and Minnie Driver.
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Title Annotation:L.A. LIFE
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 23, 1996
Next Article:[0] UP & COMING.

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