Sundance Review: 'Gideon's Army' advocates for public defenders
Earnest documentary will air on HBO
Few documentary subgenres are more enticing than the "Fact is stranger than fiction" model that was embodied at last year's Sundance Film Festival by Bart Layton's terrific "The Imposter." That film had more than a few viewers walking out going, "I wouldn't believe a second of that, except that it was all true."
Another parallel subgenre, though, is the "Yeah, it's true, but if we just sexy-ed things up with a little fiction, this might be terrific" documentary. HBO, for example, bought the 2011 Sundance doc "Knuckle" with the intention of turning the Irish gypsy boxing saga into a scripted series.
The 2013 Sundance competition doc "Gideon's Army" falls into the latter category. Director Dawn Porter has made a worthy and aspirational documentary populated by interesting characters and if somebody could just get this film to Shonda Rhimes, I'm betting that she could have a lot of fun with this backdrop and these people on a weekly TV series.
That shouldn't be taken as a slam against "Gideon's Army," which is nourishing and right-minded, but I think we can all agree that sometimes real life needs just a little more sizzle.
Already headed for HBO, "Gideon's Army" is guaranteed to get exposure, which will be a boon for its important subject matter. And if Shonda Rhimes just happens to watch it? All the better...
More after the break...
As anybody who watched Henry Fonda's "Gideon's Trumpet" in middle school knows, the title of "Gideon's Army" refers to the landmark 1963 case of Gideon v. Wainwright, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the right to counsel for all defendants is guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.
Jump forward to the present -- It surely isn't a coincidence this is coming out on the 50th anniversary -- and the documentary tells us that there are 15,000 public defenders handling a million cases a year. It's a largely thankless job on nearly every imaginable level. Public defenders are overworked, underpaid and fighting against a system weighed to prevent them from succeeding. But they're also an essential part of that system, representing the most vulnerable, easily repressed members of society. They're warriors, which I know because one of the "Gideon's Army" characters says so. [Again, if Shonda Rhimes can make DC fixers into "gladiators," she'd have no trouble making warriors of public defenders.]
Porter has chosen to follow a trio of public defenders working out of the Deep South.
Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander both operate in Georgia.
Travis has been on the job for a few years and he's papering his office walls with his acquittals, but vowing to tattoo the names of his losing clients on his back. Prone to dynamic oratory in the courtroom, but t-shirt casual attire in the office, Travis is so obsessed with his job that he needs to draft a legal contract to spend time with his girlfriend.
Brandy is newer to the job and, unlike Travis, she's often crippled by her doubt on the job, haunted by some of her less savory clients. With her big dangling earrings and flashy attire, Brandy exudes external confidence, but she relies on the mentoring of Jon Rapping, head of Southern Public Defender Training Center, the only support network of its kind for public defenders.
Finally, there's June Hardwick from Mississippi. A single mother, June is carrying hefty law school debt and as much as she believes in what she's doing, she isn't sure if she can afford to live.
June, if we're being honest, is a bit of a dud as a character and Porter mostly works around her. There's no question that June represents certain attributes of the profession that the director wants to emphasize, but she's outshined by her co-stars.
Both Travis and Brandy are exactly the kinds of characters you'd want to build a primetime legal drama around and both of their legal maneuverings, showcased with solid courtroom access, speak to a generation of lawyers brought up on the theatrics of "The Practice" or "The Good Wife." Like the lawyers on those shows, Travis and Brandy both essentially double as investigators, trying desperately to do the legwork that the police and the other representatives of the establishment can't be bothered to do.
It's the environments in which they work, though, that set Travis and Brandy apart from anybody's you've seen on TV. They operate out of over-lit, under-decorated rooms embellished only with the occasional dry-erase board and stacks of folders and other casework.
Because these public defenders can be working hundreds of cases at once -- a nicely edited sequence follows Brandy through a series of pleadings in which you can watch her mix-and-match with her earrings and pantsuits -- it's up to Porter to give each attorney a representative case to drive the action forward, again using these cases to capture facets of the job as much as drama. Travis has a robbery involving a young guy who looks more like a boy-band crooner than a criminal. Brandy has an intelligent teenager charged with robbing a pizza place. And June? I think her case had something to do with a woman charged with illegal possession of a handgun.
Like I said above, June's segments in the movie falter, but the other two cases do just enough to show the kinds of cases a public defender would be involved with and the kinds of people they'd want to represent. Yes, it's a stacked deck, but the doc is -- for good reason -- a stacked deck. So while June and Brandy both mention past cases with chillingly bad people, Travis' client is a system-abused foster kid who faces a hefty mandatory minimum -- When it comes to hissable villains, "Mandatory Minimums" are to Sundance docs as Libyans are to '80s action movies -- just as he has found stability with a likable gay couple, while Brandy's client is just a kid, even if his knowledge of ballistics is as disturbing as it is smart.
Because of these representative court cases, "Gideon's Army" takes on a fairly traditional TV-style narrative with procedural A-stories, personal B-stories (Travis has never met his birth father!) and fact-laden informative segments. That means that when the cases don't quite nail high-tension climaxes, they leave the doc a little slack in the end. But that's the same in any David E. Kelley drama as well.
What "Gideon's Army" does is make a respectful case on the behalf of a profession that too often gets maligned. Our perception of public defenders is that they're distracted, frequently inept and basically legally required placeholders. You talk about a public defender as just subjects for mockery and grounds for future appeals. "Gideon's Army" reminds us, as so many Sundance documentaries have done in the past, that the legal system is biased against the indigent and, because of that class-based bias, often troubling on a racial level as well [It's no coincidence all three subjects are minorities.]. Porter's doc reminds us that even if some public defenders fit the stereotypes, many others are fighting the good fight. "Gideon's Army" is a decent reminder of that fact and a could definitely inspire a very fine drama for FOX or CBS.