Julia Roberts — Darby Shaw
Directed By: Alan J. Pakula
Running Time: 2h 21min
Gray Grantham: Do you want to talk about the brief?
Gray Grantham: How'd you find me?
Justice Rosenberg: Any of those signs got my name on 'em?
Edward Linney: You know, when you came in... I thought I was hallucinating again.
Smith Keen: Didn't they also say they knew of no connection with the assassination?
Professor Thomas Callahan: I've decided my agenda for the future. I'll stay in bed, drink, make love and forget the whole damn business.
CoverUps.com Rating: 3 UFOs
By the CoverUps.com staff
Washington D.C. may not be the happiest place for most filmmakers, but it's been berry berry good to Alan J. Pakula. Though based on a bizarre premise cooked up by best-selling author John Grisham, "The Pelican Brief" is also indisputably Pakula's best thriller since "All the President's Men."
Pakula helms a rigorous and suspenseful investigation into the assassination of two U.S. Supreme Court justices. Beginning with an interview of Justice Rosenberg (played by Cronyn) by ace Washington reporter Gray Grantham, imbued with easy charm, deep integrity and quiet intelligence by Denzel Washington, Pakula weaves together a compelling collage of murder, conspiracy and coverups.
The director-writer's own integrity and intelligence separate the mysteriously titled "The Pelican Brief" — whose meaning is revealed late in the film — from last summer's "The Firm," also based on a novel by Grisham. Part of the strength of Pakula's film is a natural outgrowth from our national tendency to believe the worst in our government.
After the pointblank execution of Cronyn's Rosenberg and the garroting (in a gay porn house) of Justice Jensen, "The Pelican Brief" caroms between D.C. and New Orleans, where Roberts' Darby Shaw studies law at Tulane University.
In Washington, the administration of the president, played by Robert Culp with a mix of low craft, bonhomie and absurdity, strives to shield itself from political damage. Masterminding the show is the White House chief of staff, coolly acted by Tony Goldwyn as a shrewdly duplicitous power-behind-the-throne. Meanwhile, back at Tulane, Shaw investigates and writes what becomes known eventually as "The Pelican Brief."
Beginning with an analysis of what the two very different justices have in common, Shaw traces the motive behind their killings to an ecological case that threatens a species of pelican. But this pivotal element is cleverly not disclosed until fairly late in the film (though Grisham's myriad readers will, of course, know the secret).
To his credit, Pakula maintains the suspense as the web of intrigue widens, and witnesses who know of the brief are eliminated. The first to go is a former clerk for Rosenberg, Shaw's alcoholic law professor and lover, evincing a pungent and ruined Southern courtliness by Sam Shepard.
As the plot unwinds, Shaw recognizes that she is a hunted woman and goes underground, somewhat. Why she doesn't leave New Orleans right away, and why she continues using her all-too-traceable credit cards, is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps she's disoriented. In any case, Roberts, whose deep, doe-like eyes make her a perfect object for our fears and sympathies, fills her character with an edgy weariness and a determined resourcefulness.
Her struggle to stay alive in New Orleans puts her in contact with her murdered lover's friend, an FBI lawyer portrayed with a dash of humor by John Heard. Then, in one of the film's trickiest scenes, she meets with the justices' assassin, played as a totally versatile and amoral agent by Stanley Tucci.
At last, when it seems there is no one to help her, she meets the Washington Herald reporter, Grantham, in a clandestine rendezvous in New York City. Previously she has made blind calls to the investigative reporter because her deceased lover thought highly of him. He has been chasing down other leads, and been searching for another anonymous caller.
The rest of "The Pelican Brief" rushes breathlessly along — yet never with the sort of overwrought effort that undermined Tom Cruise at the climax of "The Firm." Instead Pakula applies his more cerebral, methodical touch to laying out the pieces of the puzzle.
Both Roberts, with her intense fragility, and Washington, with his thoughtful heroism, are highly effective in pulling us into the heart of the story. But there are countless good performances, most notably from John Lithgow as Grantham's enigmatic editor and from James B. Sikking as the comparatively decent head of the FBI.