THE PELICAN BRIEF (Alan J. Pakula, 1993)

On the same night, two U.S. Supreme Court justices are assassinated. Why? Researching the matter, Darby Shaw, a law student, theorizes on the basis of whose business interests—oil; anti-environment—would be furthered by the current U.S. president’s projected replacement nominees. (The named culprit was the lead financial contributor to the president’s campaign for office.) Her brief, laying out her theory, evidence and arguments, now makes it a desirable property to appropriate and suppress, and herself a target for assassination. She is on the run, eventually aided by a newspaper reporter, Gray Grantham, who wants the scoop for the Washington Herald.
     From a novel by John Grisham, the plot of The Pelican Brief is a bit unpleasantly fanciful, especially since writer-director Alan J. Pakula lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s wit. Even so, the film is most pleasantly “light” in one respect: it lacks the paranoia that might have weighed the material down. It’s a breezy thriller—one punctuated by fits of violence that are elliptically, ingeniously presented before segueing from creepy suspense—reminiscent of Pakula’s Klute (1971)—into a terrifying flight for Shaw’s life. We really do care that she makes it out alive.
     Nevertheless, this immensely popular entertainment has drawn mostly negative—indeed, derisive—reviews. It seems to me, contrarily, to “do the job” and do it exceedingly well.
     For better or worse, the film is infamous for something that constrains the whole by forfeiting the romance that the glamorous lead casting promises: Denzel Washington, who plays Gray, refused even to kiss Julia Roberts, who plays Darby, explaining that young male African Americans should not mistake interracial sex as model behavior: an unfortunate stance on the grounds of both sexual self-determination in an (at least aspirationally) egalitarian society and Washington’s apparent preening self-importance. Roger Ebert may be looking at the wrong end of things when he insists that it would be inappropriate for Darby to jump into a new relationship on the heels of her lover’s murder in any case; I would have opted for the removal of Darby’s affair with her law professor—sometimes a professor should be just a professor—for the sake of the spectacle of a Gray-Darby romance.
     Indeed, Roberts’ enactment of Darby’s shellshock after the assassination of her much older lover-mentor is the one weak part of what evolves into one of her most compelling performances. (And she is full-blast gorgeous in this film.) Washington is not so good; but the worst acting comes from Robert Culp, who plays the alarmingly dumb president, and John Lithgow, as Gray’s editor, whose sinister aspect is a total distraction and red herring. Who gives the best performance? Jake Weber, as “Garcia,” who stumbles onto “the Pelican Brief” and loses his life as a result. This man’s videotaped posthumous message to his young widow is the film’s emotional high, its incontestably great moment. It would still be this even if the British Weber’s American accent weren’t so spot-on.
     Throughout the film, James Horner’s score quickens the pulse.

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