Mobster Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) is serving a thirty year prison sentence for a drug bust when he is offered a reduced sentence from district attorney Sean Kierney (Linus Roache) in exchange for DiNorscio’s testimony against dozens of organized crime figures. Jackie turns down the offer though, stating that he is not a rat, and is in turn put on trial with the other mobsters.
Upset with his current lawyer, who couldn’t keep him from doing his thirty year sentence, Jackie turns down an offer to be represented by lead defense attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage) and instead goes against the advice of presiding Judge Sidney Finestein (Ron Silver) by defending himself. This, despite having absolutely no legal background or knowledge of how to proceed in court.
It’s almost unimaginable that throughout his acclaimed career, Sidney Lumet, one of the greatest filmmakers ever, had never won an Oscar, though he was nominated four times for Best Director. For five decades, Lumet helmed classic after classic beginning in 1957 with 12 Angry Men and continuing on with The Pawnbroker, Serpico, Murder on the Orient Express, Dog Day Afternoon, Network (which, as much as I’ll strongly sing the praises of Rocky ’til the day I die, deserved to win both Best Picture and Director), The Verdict, Power and Running on Empty. Come the ’90s, Lumet hit a dry spell with a string of forgettable duds (the one exception being 1990’s Q & A, starring Timothy Hutton and Nick Nolte), and it wasn’t until 2006 that he bounced back with the courtroom drama Find Me Guilty.
It’s no surprise and rather fitting, after giving us a number of great films revolving around the courtroom, that his return to form is another courtroom drama. Based on the true story of the longest federal trial in American history (21 months), The United States vs. Anthony Accetturo et al., Find Me Guilty is by no means a thrilling movie. Don’t expect an intense courtroom climax like in A Few Good Men, or amped up melodrama like in A Time to Kill. For one, like most films based on true events (unlike all the trite horror films that have cheapened the phrase, it’s legit here), you only need a decent knowledge of what happened to see what’s coming. Secondly, we’re dealing with a main character who’s already serving a thirty years, so no matter the outcome, he has nothing to lose, or gain for that matter.
Yet, though this won’t leave you clinging to the edge of your seat as you await the verdict, this is still an engaging film, and Lumet’s knowledge and experience of this type of story and setting makes him the perfect fit. Lumet eschews needless attempts to dramatize the events, and lets them unfold in a straightforward manner, as if to recreate the court case as it may have happened. As much of a circus as this case became known for (20 mob defendants, 76 RICO charges and a clown-around defendant acting as his own attorney) nothing special really needs to be added to the mix anyway. The trial that took place writes itself, and Lumet and his two co-writers T.J. Mancini and Robert J. McCrea acknowledge that fact by using a good portion of the actual testimonies for the film’s dialogue.
Where the film finds its life is through the performances, which have always been a trademark of Lumet’s career, having directed 17 actors to an Oscar nomination and 4 to an Oscar win. He’s worked with Henry Fonda, Rod Steiger, Ingrid Bergman, Al Pacino, Peter Finch, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Paul Newman and River Phoenix, bringing out of them some of the best performances of their careers. He does the same for Vin Diesel in a rare departure from the big-budget action films that made him a household name.
Clearly, Diesel has to have some talent. Steven Spielberg, of all people, doesn’t go out of his way to give you a role in Saving Private Ryan, regardless of how big or small it is, unless you have at least some talent. But for most of his career, Diesel’s made his bread and butter playing the same one-note, low-voiced, mumbling action star, and a role like what he has here in Find Me Guilty shows he’s capable of much better (with Lumet taking him under his wing, that would now be two of the greatest filmmakers ever who saw something in him). Dropping the muscular tough guy act for a paunchy middle-aged “gagster”, Diesel handles the challenging role effortlessly and is the most charismatic he’s ever been onscreen. While DiNorscio’s no saint at all, he definitely has a way of charming the jury, and despite having absolutely no law experience, has enough street smarts to expose flaws in a few of the witnesses’ testimonies. Diesel wisely doesn’t try to turn him into a good guy or convince us to root for him, but he still brings a sincerity to the role that manages to make him a believable underdog within a system many around him believe he has no chance against.
A few stumbles are made amidst the supporting cast, but when you’re dealing with 20 different defendants who each have their own lawyer, it’s expected that some of the characters are gonna wind up underdeveloped. Alex Rocco’s mob boss Nick Calabrese is one such example. Rocco (who my fellow Godfather fans will forever know as Moe Greene) doesn’t give a bad performance, and does get a few choice lines once in a while, but for playing such an important character, he doesn’t get much to do other than look pissed off most of the time.
Peter Dinklage, on the other hand, gives a terrific supporting turn as the brains of the defense team, and despite his diminutive stature, towers over everyone else when either questioning a witness or making his case to the jury. Linus Roache and the late, invaluable character actor Ron Silver elevate their slightly underwritten roles through their fine performances, and Annabella Sciorra may only get one scene that she shares with Diesel, but it’s a memorable one.
After a string of sub-par films throughout the ’90s, Find Me Guilty would be a return to form for the late, legendary Sindey Lumet, his best film since Q & A. Though the court case doesn’t pack the type of intense, dramatic punch one might want, Lumet knows courtroom drama better than anyone and maneuvers through one of America’s most bizarre trials with his skilled, veteran touch. It’s what Lumet brings out of Vin Diesel, though, a revelatory performance that will come as a pleasant surprise to those who only know him as the one-note action star, that livens up the proceedings. It’s not Lumet’s best by any means, but it’s definitely one of his most underappreciated.