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FIND ME GUILTY

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Vin Diesel, Peter Dinklage, LinusRoache, Ron Silver, Annabella Sciorra, Alex Rocco
Director:  Sidney Lumet
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  20th Century Fox
Features:  Conversations with Sidney Lumet, Trailer, TV Spots
Length:  124 Minutes
Release Date:  June 27, 2006

“He’s like Deepak Chopra with a pinky ring!”

Film ***1/2

You could say Sidney Lumet knows a thing or two about the courtroom drama, having directed such films as Twelve Angry Men and The Verdict.  But neither he nor we have seen anything quite like Find Me Guilty.  Sure, some things are as familiar and comfortable as a pair of old pajamas.  But other aspects are quite unusual.

It’s based on a real court case…that’s not what makes it unusual.  It’s about the trial of 26 defendants at one time in the state of New Jersey in an effort to bring down the infamous Lucchese crime family.  One of those defendants is Jackie DiNorscio (Diesel, almost unrecognizable with hair).  Early on, one of his own cousins shoots him, but fails to kill him.  This cousin then decides to turn to the FBI for protection, much to the delight of the eager prosecutor Sean Kierney (Roache).

When the trial begins, DiNorscio is already serving thirty years on a conspiracy charge.  Kierney offers him a deal: help put the other defendants away in exchange for a greatly reduced sentence.  But Jackie, despite his altercations with the law, is a man who values love and loyalty above all else.  There will be no deal.

He decides to go to trial and represent himself, despite no legal experience and barely a grade school education.  And that’s where things get quite interesting.  He may not know legalese, but he knows how to win the jury over, with his unpredictable and frequently funny musings.  It doesn’t please the judge (Silver), or some of the other defendants and their attorneys, who fear Jackie is the loose cannon that can blow their whole operation out of the water.  But the lead attorney Ben Klandis (Dinklage), a man short in stature but a giant in the courtroom, soon warms up to Jackie, even offering him friendship and advice from time to time.

It turns out to be the longest court case in American history, lasting well over a year.  A lot of things can and do happen in that time frame; some happy, some sad.  But Jackie remains the center of it all, an unlikely underdog with a sense of honor that we can’t help to warm up to.  And therein lies the brilliance of Sidney Lumet…do we warm to the point where we’re actually rooting for Jackie and other known criminals, murderers, drug dealers, blackmailers and other assorted felons against the somewhat brash and zealous prosecutor?  Just because we grow to like Jackie, are we willing to let justice fall by the wayside?

I wouldn’t dream of giving away the ending, but I have to make a remark about one aspect:  regardless of the outcome of the trial, Jackie is serving his thirty years.  At the end of the day when the lawyers go home and the other defendants are free on bail, Jackie returns to his small cell to prepare for the next day.  At the very end of the movie, he looks out from behind his bars and proclaims almost tearfully, “They love me.”  It’s a surprisingly tender moment, and one that makes us realize our cautious emotional investment was not in vain.

Vin Diesel is an actor best known for playing strong silent types.  As Jackie, he doesn’t know how or when to shut up.  I’ve always felt he was a better actor than he usually got credit for.  Find Me Guilty proves I was right.  The energy and gusto he injects into Jackie is constantly startling, amusing, and ultimately endearing.  The Jews call it chutzpah…I’m not sure what the Italians call it.

There are a few moments that don’t work…mostly, when we get away from Jackie and the courtroom proceedings.  Times when we focus on the defendants together outside, grumbling and musing upon the goings-on like some Mafia Greek chorus.  These aren’t pauses for breath so much as breaks in the momentum.  A little trimming would have made this movie an undisputed grand slam.  The best outside-the-courtroom moment is when Jackie’s estranged wife (Sciorra) pays him a surprise visit.  Talk about a ton of fireworks in only a few short minutes!

But it’s when Lumet has his day in court that he’s at his best…and Diesel too, for that matter.  His closing argument might be the most memorable one seen on the screen since Kevin Costner summed up in JFK.  We are told at the outset that not only is the story true, but most of the courtroom dialogue came directly from the transcripts. 

In summation, it’s the energy, the comedy, and the moments of tenderness that take us by surprise that makes this movie different from most of the legal dramas we’ve seen.  We’re told at the end that the real Jackie DiNorscio died during the making of the picture, so he never got to see it.  But he lived it, and I have a feeling wherever he is, he’s grinning and giving Sidney Lumet and Vin Diesel a big “Attaboy!”.

Video ***

The anamorphic transfer works well…most of the scenes are in prison or a courtroom, so there’s nothing about the visuals that are too demanding.  Detail level is good in all lighting levels, with minimal grain and softness.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio is serviceable, given this is largely a dialogue-powered movie.  I didn’t notice a lot of rear stage effects or much signal emanating from the subwoofer, but I didn’t miss them either.

Features *

There is a Conversations with Sidney Lumet featurette, plus a trailer and TV spots.

Summary:

The verdict is in:  Find Me Guilty in many ways is a story that could only happen in America…or maybe just in New Jersey.  Lumet’s veteran skills and Vin Diesel finally showing us all how capable he truly is at his craft make this energetic, strange, funny and touching courtroom drama a winner.

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