Special Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton, Brett Harrelson, James Cromwell, Donna Hanover, Crispin Glover
Director: Milos Forman
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround, Spanish Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Columbia Tri Star
Features: See Review
Length: 129 Minutes
Release Date: May 6, 2003


Film ****

Some movies may carry within them a message of some sort, but very few are able to convey them in a powerful way. Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt is such a movie. In some cases, if a movie beats its viewer over the head with a message, it can be very excruciating, but not here. Why, you ask? Because the argument that the movie presents is, as one character puts it, absolutely vital to the health of our nation. I am referring, of course, to that of free speech. Recently, free speech has been stretched to unnecessary lengths and wretched instances (Michael Moore, anyone?), but that’s another fact that the film reminds us about, which is in order to live in a free society, we sometimes have to tolerate things that we do not like. Who would’ve ever thought that a pornographer would end up as a hero in this matter? It might sound unlikely, but Larry Flynt did just that.

The movie, itself, is an all-around triumph, blending in both a remarkable crusade to defend the first amendment, as well as a memorable love story. Larry Flynt, played by Woody Harrelson, whose first gig is running a nightclub, named The Hustler Go-Go Club, alongside his brother, Jimmy (Brett Harrelson, Woody’s real-life sibling). Poor business leads to Larry wanting to break the barriers by advertising his business in a monthly newsletter, even in the midst of strict obscenity laws. At the nightclub, where Flynt employs scantily clad female dancers, he is taken by the presence of the seductive Althea Leasure (Courtney Love). Soon after the two are hard in love, and not excluding promiscuity from the picture, Flynt wants to take his newsletter further.

Along with selected staff, Flynt starts what would eventually become Hustler Magazine. The year was 1972, and rival publications Penthouse and Playboy were already twenty years into the market, but Flynt wanted his offering to include something a little more extra, if you know what I mean, in the pictorial area. The first issue doesn’t have a glorious sale, but when a foreign photographer contacts Flynt claiming he has obtained explicit photos of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy, he encounters sales of a million, at least.

In the midst of a glorious high life, Flynt pays the price for it, several times. He is arrested for obscenity right in his office, just as Hustler is enjoying its sales. He then meets his attorney, Alan Isaacman (Edward Norton), who admits to not liking what Flynt is engaged in, but is clearly a defendant of civil liberties. He is later arrested again when flying down to Georgia to personally sell his magazine to people after hearing that several outlets have refused to do so.

During the course of his legal battle in Georgia, two unexpected events take place. Flynt receives a phone call from no less than religious figure Ruth Carter Stapleton (Donna Hanover), who takes an interest to the man. Flynt finds himself converting to religion, though it doesn’t inspire him to quit his business. In fact, as a result of his conversion, he will now blend in Christian symbolism with his explicit photos. The other unexpected event is when Larry is hit by a sniper’s bullet, which will result in him being paralyzed from the waist down for life.

In the aftermath of the attack on his life, Flynt vows to fight back at the system. As Flynt puts it, “They took away my manhood, but what they didn’t take from me was my brain.” He soon in court again after leaking a videotape to the press, revealing John De Lorean being set up by the FBI before being busted for drug smuggling. His courtroom antics excel as he repeatedly denies the judge’s request for the source of a tape. He even wears an American flag as a diaper during one point.

Then comes Flynt’s most known legal battle; that with religious personality Jerry Falwell. After discovering an ad in Flynt’s magazine, which tells of the Reverend losing his virginity to his mother, as well as being drunk while preaching, Falwell sues. This has a unique backlash when Flynt counter sues Falwell for copyright infringement, since copies of the ad were made and sent in newsletters for fundraisers. The case between Flynt and Falwell reached unexpected proportions when Flynt appealed to the Supreme Court in 1987, with victorious results.

A fascinating element about the film is the way it manages to find comedy in Larry Flynt’s struggles. A scene where Flynt refuses to give up to authorities until he’s certain his story is covered on every network is priceless. Watching the man in court is hard to do without giggling, as Flynt’s courtroom shenanigans provide some unexpected laughs.

One thing that is for certain about Milos Forman is that he sure knows how to select a pitch perfect cast of actors. Woody Harrelson delivers his most profound movie performance to date as Flynt, terrifically capturing the details of the actual man from his early days to his now handicapped position. Courtney Love, who was considered a risky choice by the filmmakers at the time, is nothing short of a pure discovery as Althea, who may have succumbed to drugs later in love, but had undying love for her husband. In all honesty, my favorite performance of the movie is that of Edward Norton as Alan Isaacman. Norton’s scene in front of the Supreme Court is a scene one of outstanding perfection.

The People vs. Larry Flynt is both an incredibly entertaining movie and a very important one. The notion that the freedom of free speech was prevailed thanks to the efforts of a smut peddler is utterly fascinating, and I’m forever grateful that Flynt’s battle, as well as his eccentric life, was able to be told through film. This is hands down one of the best films of the 90s.

BONUS TRIVIA: Larry Flynt himself appears as the trial judge of Flynt’s first court appearance.

Video ***1/2

I happen to have owned the original disc for this movie ever since it first came out. It was double sided, containing both the widescreen and full screen. Thankfully, Columbia Tri Star dumped the full screen for this version, which includes a much improved anamorphic transfer. The movie’s grand production design, which doesn’t hold back when displaying Flynt’s extravagant lifestyle, as well as the outstanding cinematography by Philippe Rousselot pay off very well in this presentation. I noticed a case or two of minor softness, but nothing worthy of distraction. Very nicely done.

Audio ***1/2

From what I gathered, the performance of the 5.1 mix is not at different from that of the original disc, so it therefore remains a superbly sounding audio track. The score by Thomas Newman is indeed the highpoint, in addition to numerous sequences in set pieces such as courtrooms, and at a free speech convention where Flynt speaks to a crowd. Dialogue is clear as can be, making this a surprisingly effective sound mix from Columbia Tri Star.

Features ****

With the first release of this disc containing zilch features, I had long been hoping that Columbia Tri Star would re-release this disc in a Special Edition format, and as they say, good things come to those who wait. There are two commentary tracks; a writer’s commentary with screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewiski, and a cast commentary with Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love and Edward Norton. Also featured are two very well done documentaries, “Free Speech or Porn?” and “Larry Flynt Exposed”. Rounding out the disc three deleted scenes with optional commentary, and trailers for this, as well as Auto Focus and the upcoming theatrical release, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.


The People vs. Larry Flynt is perhaps the most important of any message movie of the past decade. It’s a triumph for all involved, and is a profound movie experience.