The Pelican Brief (1993)

Written & Directed by Alan J. Pakula

I will be very interested to track my “rankings” of both the movies and books in this John Grisham series, because already two entries in, the rankings differ. I wasn’t planning on making these reviews like book reviews, but it bears mentioning the source material at least a little bit when talking about the film, especially since reading the book first is part of the idea behind this marathon. With that said, I greatly enjoyed The Firm movie, while being disappointed by the book, particularly the ending. With The Pelican Brief, it’s quite the opposite, as I enjoyed the book a great deal, finding it engaging and exciting, but thought the movie was underwhelming for everything that the adaptation lacked. I will get into details later in this review, but suffice it to say that the energy of this film is almost non-existent. It falls flat and what a disappointment that is.

After the assassination of not one, but two Supreme Court justices on the same night in Washington, the White House, FBI and CIA are scrambling to figure out what might have happened. But when a law student from New Orleans named Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) writes a brief outlining an outside the box theory, it gets passed up to the FBI through her law professor boyfriend (Sam Shepard), who turns up dead. Darby begins hiding in the shadows and talking both to an FBI counsel (John Heard) and a Washington Herald reporter (Denzel Washington), looking for a way to safety and justice, which doesn’t seem an easy feat with assassins on her tail.

What I really enjoyed about the book version of The Pelican Brief was all of the politics behind the mystery. A good mystery is fueled by solid motive, and playing the cat and mouse game in the book was a lot of fun, especially since Grisham effectively kept the contents of the brief secret for as long as he did. It works effectively as the MacGuffin. One of my biggest problems with the film version was how it dealt with the politics behind the assassinations. It seems like director Alan J. Pakula, who so adeptly delivered the story of Deepthroat in All the President’s Men, avoids giving us the reason behind everything, which undermines any mystery and intrigue created by the murders and the subsequent cat and mouse game. It falls flat.

Another major disappointment with the film would be the casting. That sounds strange considering the cast is heavyweight across the board: Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Sam Shepard all bring great presence to any movie they’re in. But in The Pelican Brief, it feels like they’re all handcuffed. But perhaps I misspoke when I blamed the casting. I obviously love these actors, and think they fit in these roles, but rather it’s the direction, again from Pakula, that handcuffs them. There are no signature moments, there is no opportunity for them to provide signature moments. Surely the performances can be blamed somewhat too, this is not their best work, but at the same time it’s hard to shine and bring energy when the script and direction doesn’t ask you to do it very much or very often.

I didn’t need a big performance. I just wanted at least a slow burn, an effective thriller, something that I could sink my teeth into in terms of the mystery. I didn’t feel engaged or invested in the story, unlike when I read the book and was completely wrapped up in it. Perhaps knowing the story was detrimental to my film experience, as the mystery was, well, not a mystery anymore. But take that aside and I think any effective, well made movie should be able to grab me at least somewhat when telling a story that should be exciting and interesting. The Pelican Brief failed to do this. How unfortunate.

★★ – Didn’t Like It

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