FILM MARATHON: Julia Roberts #3 – The Pelican Brief [1993]

“It’s rally around the leader time”

It’s only fitting that the director behind one the of the great films of the 70s, All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula would be tasked with bringing John Grisham’s own look into political espionage and White House scandal, The Pelican Brief, to the screen. Admittedly I am not a fan of Grisham’s stories as they generally become convoluted and way to convenient, pandering to the audience at every turn, pretending to be suspenseful and unique. But I think perhaps this, along with The Firm, was chosen to open the floodgates into optioning his work for a reason. It seems to be one of his most competent yarns, fresh for not taking place in the courtroom, a common scene throughout his career. Besides that fact, however, I do think a lot of the film’s success rests in Pakula’s direction. He has an eye for the dramatic and is never afraid to compose his frames in shadows or hide the action going on. It’s a pleasure watching hired assassin Khamel (Stanley Tucci) commit his string of murders while never actually seeing him and his victims onscreen together.

Above all else—underlying oil contracts, the President’s impending decision on reelection, or even the deaths of two Supreme Court Justices at the center of everything—is the fact he film’s all about research and detective work, a reporter’s case for discovering those guilty of conspiracy and murder. Because of this, Pakula utilizes many of the tricks he did with Watergate two decades earlier, following the newspaperman and his contact as they search for the truth when the authorities cannot, due to the level of cover-up at play. The main difference between the two films is the fact that the President here is unaware of what is going on; unfortunately this fact doesn’t stop him from trying to sweep it under the rug. Robert Culp’s Commander-in-Chief seems a well-meaning man who has gotten caught up in the criminal activity solely because he took some campaign contributions. His right-hand man Fletcher Coal isn’t quite in the position to rest easy and hope people believe his boss is innocent, though, and thus must set in motion the kill contracts on anyone aware of the infamously out-of-the-box, yet able to scare those in a position to be scared, ‘Pelican Brief’. The fact the role is played by Tony Goldwyn only adds to Coal’s unsavory demeanor.

What makes the entire ordeal interesting, however, is that a 24-year old Tulane law student wrote the brief in question. Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), involved in an affair with her professor Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard), is jokingly tasked with hypothesizing on who would want to kill his former surrogate father and educator, Justice Rosenberg. It is said as more a way for her to stay with him and keep his mind off of his alcohol issues, but she takes the job to heart, spending a week researching and typing up the far-fetched essay implicating powerful men jockeying for the appointment of new, helpful to their cause, judges. The fact of the matter is, this brief is seen as a sort of joke itself, passed around from Callahan to his FBI lawyer friend to his FBI superiors all the way to the White House—the one place not laughing due to its actual plausibility. And that’s when the deaths begin to rack up; Shaw’s safety is constantly held in question as all aware of her paper seem to be blown up or shot around her. She has no idea where to turn or who to trust, and even when she feels someone is worthy, their own identity might be stolen to silence her.

So, it becomes reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) who comes to the rescue. Approached by an unnamed lawyer with the possibility of information into who ordered the hit on these judges, his trail runs cold right when the phone rings with Darby’s bombshell of trouble. At first very afraid, she soon opens up to Grantham and aligns herself to the fact she may be the only hope to achieve justice. The two then begin their search for answers and secrets, discovering who the lawyer using the name ‘Garcia’ is and how they can find cold hard facts to corroborate what Shaw speculates in the brief, the government’s reaction to it proving there’s much more truth than previously assumed. The real joke of the matter becomes how if not for Coal and the President getting nervous enough to hinder casework, the entire hypothesis might have been thrown out and dismissed as a young woman’s overactive imagination. But then that is how many conspiracies eventually become revealed, the fear of exposure ends up being the exact cause for it. And this film shows each step, never taking shortcuts. Not only does it span a fast two and half hours, it keeps a constantly high suspense level, leaving no one but Roberts and Washington untouchable.

And this is a major plus for me. Being such a long movie containing a plethora of characters, The Pelican Brief allows those that seem important to be expendable. Rather than most films combining parts to make things ‘less confusing’ for the audience, Pakula allows the world to breath, ebbing and flowing around the leads, as people serve their role and end up dead for their trouble. There is nothing worse than spending time with people who you know should be next to go, only to find the storytellers needing them a bit longer, prolonging their life and subverting all realism as a result. You can assume the stars are untouchable—at least until the end—but without stakes showing how valuable and precious life is, the thrill of suspense cannot exist. It was by far my biggest surprise when watching, consistently getting more and more invested in the plot as events progressed and new actors introduced. I could have done without the music cues manufacturing emotion, but it was 1993 and that heavy-handed use of sound was common. It still is a Grisham novel in the end, but rather than that mean watered-down and obvious, this entry retains some intelligence. Washington’s performance helps greatly in that regard, as does Roberts once her annoying ‘little girl’ voice with Shepard disappears.

The Pelican Brief 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

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