The idea of Zoolander taking charge of a prison-break drama may cause your mouth to pucker and your eyes to squint. Well, wipe the skepticism from your face.

Ben Stiller turns out to be the ideal director for the nearly eight-hour miniseries, “Escape at Dannemora.” Against all odds, he manages to find humanity in a tale based on the real-life terror that two convicts brought to upstate New York in 2015 when they busted loose from a correctional facility, triggering one of the most extensive (and expensive) manhunts in American history.

Most ripped-from-the-headlines dramas would focus on how the prisoners, David Sweat (Paul Dano) and Richard Matt (Benicio Del Toro), managed to elude the law during their time on the outside. But screenwriters Michael Tolkin (“The Player”) and Brett Johnson (“Mad Men”) are more interested in life behind bars; the actual escape doesn’t take place until the sixth of seven episodes.

Keeping the majority of the story behind bars plays right into Stiller’s comic instincts. He accents the eccentricities and vulnerabilities of both the convicts and their keepers. David Morse is particularly touching as the guard who is so taken with Matt’s artwork that he shares his flask — and his troubles — with the inmate while counting down the minutes to happy hour at Buffalo Wild Wings. And it was genius casting improv giant Bonnie Hunt as the state’s inspector general, using her warmth and wit to lull suspects into confessions.

Playing the prison seamstress who helped bust out the inmates, Patricia Arquette uses a voice that borrows from both Melanie Griffith and “Fargo”’s Marge Gunderson. It’s a performance that borders on farce without ever crossing the line.

Stiller is a bit out of his depth when it comes to the actual escape. And while the music is top-notch — Gordon Lightfoot, Bob Dylan and Al Wilson are all represented — he hits the jukebox a few times too often.

But in his debut as a director of serious drama, Stiller shows he’s got Blue Steel.

 

Njustin@startribune.com

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Twitter: @nealjustin