Sidney Lumet’s penultimate film, and his final effort that focuses directly on the justice system that dominated his directorial output throughout his career, Find Me Guilty (2006), opens with archive television footage of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Rudolph Giuliani, describing his office’s latest attempts to bring members of organized crime to justice in New York City. Before his response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks made him “America’s Mayor,” this was the Giuliani most New Yorkers had come to know throughout his time as a public official — media savvy and tough on crime. His prosecutions of mob figures throughout the mid-1980s launched his mayoral campaigns, and he would serve from 1994 to 2001 before attempting to establish a higher national profile, including a failed presidential run in 2008 in the Republican Party, and then reemerging as a vocal advocate for Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign and his subsequent first term. The sober-minded, strategic Giuliani of Lumet’s archival footage reveals a public figure with a clear approach to attacking organized crime using racketeering statutes; Lumet intercuts with other archival footage of mobsters being hustled into New York City courthouses, shoulder-mounted television cameras trying to catch a glimpse of them during their perp walks while they hide their faces beneath leather jackets. This is justice served, Lumet’s blending of historical footage suggests — it is the realization of the elusive ideal that his other films have been searching for. Competent prosecutors; effective police officers; criminals made to account for their misdeeds. Giuliani is the public face of a tough as nails prosecutor like one of the corrupted careerists of 1981’s Prince of the City, Santimassino (Bob Balaban), but with the media sense of the explosive Morgenstern (Ron Leibman) of Night Falls on Manhattan (1996); however, the accumulation of a body of work on the justice system like Lumet’s should suggest that there is more than meets the eye. A far cry from the tone of Prince of the City, with its unrelenting despair and hopelessness, bereft of the righteous anger of earlier works like Serpico (1973), and a marked contrast from the elegiac Night Falls on Manhattan, Find Me Guilty offers a remarkably light coda to a career chronicling the failures of an American institution that fails to live up to its promises again and again. The trial at the film’s center, a racketeering case brought against a massive group of mobsters all at once, is turned into a circus by the decision of one accused gangster, Jackie DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) to represent himself, acting as his own attorney. After a long and tortured relationship with the justice system on screen, Lumet finds himself back in the courtroom, this time rendering it as a farce.
A title card after the footage of Giuliani suggests that Find Me Guilty is based on a true story, and that much of the dialogue is drawn from actual court testimony, offering a documentary-like appeal to authenticity, especially given the absurdity of many of the scenes to follow inside the courtroom itself. In casting Diesel as the showboating Jackie, Lumet demonstrates his continued interest in working with young actors looking to establish themselves; his early collaborations with Al Pacino went a long way in helping the actor build his screen bonafides, and his reliance on Treat Williams, Timothy Hutton and Andy Garcia at pivotal moments in their young careers, though Pacino’s electricity may have eluded them, energized Lumet’s films — those actors were never better than when working under the filmmaker’s direction. Diesel’s screen persona up to 2006 has mostly been characterized by the action star roles often conferred upon someone with his muscle-bound physique, including The Fast and the Furious (2001), XXX (2002) and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004). He developed a reputation for a kind of marble-mouthed delivery — lines mumbled with a voice that seemed impossibly graveled for someone in his mid-30s. In most of his films, dialogue seems like his enemy — it’s much better to let his body do the talking. As Jackie in Find Me Guilty, Diesel’s natural vocal inflections sound like the garbled, muddy voices of unreconstructed gangsters speaking in mutters over wiretaps, as if they might protect themselves from prosecution through sheer incomprehensibility. Diesel is costumed throughout the film in rumpled suits or prison oranges, clothes that hide his chiseled physique in the purported decline of middle age; Diesel has amiably aided the illusion by showcasing a modest beer gut, which he frequently scratches and rubs like a wild animal. Once again, under Lumet’s tutelage, an actor with perceived limitations goes beyond what many thought him capable of, crafting a physicality that allows him to find new levels of comfort inhabiting a very different kind of character.
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As ever, Lumet is highly sensitive to the ways in which mise-en-scène can create an entire ideological argument about the institution that is his film’s subject matter. The hallways of Lumet’s courthouse in Find Me Guilty are crowded with extras, packed with reporters, defendants, lawyers and other court officials. The courtroom itself is among the largest to appear in a Lumet film, with enormous vaulted ceilings that eclipse those of Prince of the City and The Verdict (1982). The walls are white marble, giving this courtroom a sense of self-importance, investing the justice system itself with a kind of inflated self-regard that Lumet has spent an entire career attacking. In Lumet’s other films, those enormous columns have often sought to intimidate the small people who serve the justice system, an ever-present architectural reminder of the unassailability of its power. In Find Me Guilty, the ridiculousness of the trial — more than 20 defendants, all being tried simultaneously and defended each by their own lawyers — makes the marble and the columns seem like a desperate attempt on behalf of the institution to insist upon its own legitimacy. Jackie’s insistence on going “pro se,” defending himself during the trial, threatens to make a mockery of the entirety of the criminal trial. The incredulous judge, Sidney Finestein (Ron Silver), asks Jackie if he knows what the phrase even means, and offers the time-tested warning that “a man who represents himself has a fool for a client.” When Jackie insists, Finestein asks if he has legal experience — Jackie offers his history on the wrong side of the law, in and out of jail, as his experience. Though the line offers some levity and points the way to Jackie’s subsequent legal strategy, to turn the courtroom into a kind of nightclub comic act, it also reveals Lumet’s own perspective about the justice system throughout his work. To Lumet, the system has forfeited its legitimacy because the moral and ethical compromises required to sustain it collapse the differences between its purported servants and its ostensible targets. Jackie’s experience in jail has conferred upon him a kind of expertise that makes him an equal partner in the justice system’s practice; the institution as constructed through rule and custom requires interdependency between the prosecutors and the prosecuted. Lumet has consistently depicted characters in his justice system films who defy arbitrary boundaries; his criminals become sympathetic, as Pacino’s bank robber in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) does, and his cops become contemptible, as Sean Connery’s sadistic detective in The Offence (1973) does. When assigned roles are ill-defined and rules are disrespected, the system itself becomes an absurdity, little equipped to fulfill its essential mandates. Of all Lumet’s films, Find Me Guilty has the most in common with Kafka’s novel The Trial, with its depiction of a justice system where the outcomes are already decided upon; Lumet stresses its absurdity through a number of humorous exchanges between lawyers and witnesses, most led by Jackie. During one witness’s appearance on the stand, Jackie says, “I would never lie about using cocaine. I loved it. In fact, did you bring any?” Jackie has no respect for the system’s self-importance, leading him to ask a witness in an official capacity if he might share some illegal drugs with him during the trial itself. The court’s stenographer further undermines the self-seriousness of the system when he asks for the exchange to be repeated, because he missed it during the spectators’ laughter. The stenographer must perform his assigned role — the fully articulated transcript of everything said during the trial — even when the words spoken aloud are absurd. The inflexibility of the system, revealed through its inability to accommodate its own ridiculousness, exposes its illegitimacy.
Though its farcical tone may seem to put Find Me Guilty at odds with several of Lumet’s other efforts on the justice system, the broad framework of his other films is also present, including his consistent depiction of the system as totally unaccommodating to the individual. Jackie’s increasingly confrontational theatrics in the courtroom, including direct challenges to witnesses and off-color jokes, alienate him from both his fellow wiseguys and the other lawyers. Because Jackie is a defendant acting as his own attorney, he finds himself in the precarious middle, where many of Lumet’s characters often run into trouble. Astride both positions, Jackie belongs fully to neither — he is not a defendant in the traditional sense, sticking his head high in defiant rejection of the charges brought against him, but neither is he one of the lawyers, with their refined sense of decorum and respect for the system’s norms. During one scene in the waiting room, where the defendants and the lawyers eat lunch during breaks in the trial, Jackie finds himself without a table; a recapitulation of a high school cafeteria, he is a man on an island, left to eat his lunch while standing over a filing cabinet, struggling to keep his food on his plate. Jackie’s enemies resemble other Lumet justice system archetypes, including the ambitious lead prosecutor, Sean Kierney (Linus Roache), a bloodless, carefully manicured blue blood with eyes trained firmly on the judge’s seat, where he’d eventually like to be. Kierney’s anxiety about Jackie’s behavior in the courtroom leads him to wonder whether his manipulations will sway the jury: “a laughing jury is not a hanging jury,” he frets to his assistant district attorneys. Lumet reveals the depths of the interdependency among members of the justice system, even despite their supposed opposition, when one of the defendants’ attorneys, Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage), offers the same advice to his fellow lawyers when they suggest getting Jackie in line. Klandis says “a laughing jury is not a hanging jury” with hope in his voice, cautiously optimistic that Jackie’s comedy stylings may work in their favor. However, both Kierney and Klandis turn on Jackie later in the film, working up a joint motion to have him tried separately so that he does not influence the jury’s opinion of the other mobsters. As always in Lumet’s justice system films, those who go against the rules and customs of the institution are ripe for expulsion. Finestein eventually rules that he will remain with the trial, afraid that cutting Jackie loose will invalidate the entirety of the proceedings, a concern especially acute more than a year into the case. Finestein’s sobriety and concern for the system, however, is undercut by his simultaneous ruling that one of the other defendants, who collapses in the courtroom after suffering a stroke, will continue to be tried, his hospital bed carried in by a group of officers like a sultan on a dais. The other gangsters cheer as he is vaulted into the air, a ridiculous spectacle undertaken over the objections of the defendant’s lawyer, who insists that his medication cocktail is so strong that he “falls asleep when I talk to him.” The judge’s retort: “Make yourself more interesting.” When the gangster interrupts the trial later on, falling out of his bed with a thud, his oxygen tank clattering to the ground, Finestein has no choice but to ask the bailiff to “put up the side rails on Mr. Napoli’s bed, please,” seemingly aware of the absurdity of his request, but unable to admit a mistake in his ruling. Finestein is just as capable of violating the principles of the justice system as any of its other participants; Klandis, who takes something of an interest in Jackie, warns the defendant/attorney that judges will accept a lot, “but not criticism of the way they run their courtrooms. Finestein is a human being, subject to hubris and personal slights like any other public servant; his role as an impartial jurist is undermined by his capricious decision-making, seemingly affected by changes in mood and fleeting commitment to larger principles. Lumet overtly compares Finestein’s peripatetic approach to jurisprudence with Jackie’s unruly attitude within the courtroom. No one — not the judge, not the prosecutors, not the defendants, not the attorneys, not the witnesses — can live up to the principles articulated by the system. As Klandis points out, a Latin phrase adorns the bench beneath Finestein, which translates to: “Let justice be done, though the heavens fall.” The room’s architecture reminds the participants of the trial to strive for the ideal; not only do they fail, but many actively start to subvert the very idea of justice as a possibility at all. In Find Me Guilty, which focuses almost exclusively on the action of the trial itself, justice becomes a vanishingly small prospect, lost in the duration of the case, the number of defendants and the outrageous behavior of the participants.
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Late in Find Me Guilty, Jackie’s mother dies — news broken to him during a private conference in chambers by Judge Finestein, who offers sincere condolences but insists that he cannot honor a request to leave jail to attend the funeral. The moment is fleeting, but it reflects the ways in which Lumet has chronicled the justice system as frequently, almost totally, inhospitable to humanity. Finestein says, “I don’t have the power,” because Jackie is a prisoner of a jurisdiction outside of his own. The bureaucracy is too powerful to allow a man to say a proper goodbye to his deceased mother; even Finestein seems defeated by his inability to extend a human gesture to the man who has been a thorn in his side throughout the trial. Above all, this is Lumet’s thesis across the justice system films — the institution and its individuals are fundamentally incompatible. The priorities of the system, which demand individual sacrifice in order to maintain its legitimacy, force the dissolution of the self, the consequences be damned. In his debut, 12 Angry Men (1957), Lumet suggests that the power of doubt in a defendant’s guilt should take precedence over the evidence — the possibility of innocence requires setting him free. Each of his individual jurors must surrender their own personal motivations for insisting upon the defendant’s guilt. Number Three (Lee J. Cobb) must abandon his resentment for his son, which motivates his desire to convict the defendant, whose father is the murder victim; Number 10 (Ed Begley) must be shamed into renouncing his racist worldview, looking past “one of them” to vote not guilty; Number Seven (Jack Warden) must confront his own apathy and desire to get to his Yankee game; Number Four (E.G. Marshall) must admit that he overlooked a piece of crucial evidence, despite his circumspect demeanor; the rest of the jurors must do likewise, placing their faith in the collective judgment of the system that they, together, represent. The self must dissolve so that individuals may become something more. At its best, this is the justice system as it was intended to work. However, in Lumet’s films on the subject, it is rarely, if ever, at its best — instead, it is often at its absolute worst.
Find Me Guilty forms a fitting bookend with 12 Angry Men in that it also ends with a not guilty verdict. Like Juror Number Eight (Henry Fonda) before him, Jackie stands as one man, alone against the system, and manages to secure an acquittal for those on trial — this time, setting free an entire group of gangsters, almost all of whom were no doubt guilty of the crimes of which they were accused. Though the little-seen defendant of 12 Angry Men is probably innocent, and is certainly a victim of circumstance — poverty, racism and other social problems have contributed to the state of his upbringing, whether he is guilty of killing his father or not — the criminals on trial in Find Me Guilty are definitely far from innocent. And yet, their release at the end of the film somehow feels like justice; often throughout his justice system movies, Lumet has advocated for outright abolition of the institution which, in his estimation, feels like it has strayed mightily from its ideals. When Lumet is more charitable, he believes in the system’s power to reform itself from within, but such bromides are few and far between. More often, his work isolates the would-be reformers and depicts the system’s unique ability to punish them for their apostasy rather than take their attempts at institutional change to heart. The accumulated effect of Find Me Guilty, with its litany of absurdities, is that it is better to deliver the accused from continued subjugation than to maintain faith in a system that has lost all claim to its moral authority. In his closing statement, the increasingly desperate Kierney appeals to the jury with an impassioned argument against the gangsters’ collective character: “The men you see before you have engaged in all sorts of criminal activities for decades. Decades! With utter disregard for the law. And they deserve to be punished by society for these crimes.” It isn’t enough. The process matters. The system matters. It must strive for purity, even if it is unattainable. And if it cannot achieve its goals, then it must be dismantled. If it does not serve all equally, then it serves only the powerful, who would manipulate its flaws in an effort to obtain more power for themselves. Across his justice system films, Sidney Lumet reveals that the institution is not a shield against the lawless behavior of some members of our society; it is a sword wielded by the strong against the weak, up to and including its own servants. Better that a guilty man go free than an innocent man land in jail. Better that the justice system fail than continue to deliver injustice, its antithesis, the supposedly unimaginable wrong that the institution is intended to prevent. Better that the law remain an ideal we strive for rather than something rendered absurd through years of misuse, disregard and contempt. Better that we start over than continue on as we are. Better. Better. Better.
Check out the entirety of “12 Angry Films: Sidney Lumet on Justice” HERE.
Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.