Saturday 10 September 2011

Movie Review: The Pelican Brief (1993)

A political conspiracy thriller that makes little sense as a story, The Pelican Brief survives as entertainment thanks to charismatic stars who glide above the increasingly ridiculous events erupting all around them.

Two United States supreme court justices are shockingly assassinated. In New Orleans, law student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) conducts some solo research and hypothesizes that the murders are linked to a court case related to big oil drilling in pristine wildlife habitats. The bombshell is that the tycoon behind the oil corporation has strong connections with the President (Robert Culp).

Shaw writes up her theory, which becomes known as The Pelican Brief, and provides a copy to her teacher and lover Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard). Callahan is intrigued enough to forward the document to his friend Gavin Verheek (John Heard), a lawyer who works at the FBI. The report makes its way to the director of the FBI and then the White House. What was an interesting theory turns out to be painfully close to the truth, and soon people start dying, including Callahan, who is blown up, and Verheek, killed in a hotel room.

Running for her life, Shaw turns to Washington Herald journalist Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington), who is poking around the justice assassination story. Shaw and Grantham team up and have to duck bullets and avoid explosions as they attempt to uncover the conspiracy behind the murders.

The script by director Alan J. Pakula, adapting the John Grisham book, has a yawning black hole at the middle of it. Darby Shaw is of no consequence to the events that she uncovered: her report consists of conjecture inspired from matters of public record, and she herself witnessed nothing and holds no evidence that is otherwise unavailable. For Shaw to become an assassination target once her report is circulating throughout Washington DC is disingenuous and nothing but a cheap plot device to place a damsel in distress, and even at a superficial level of scrutiny The Pelican Brief suffers for it.

Moving past the unjustified histrionics, the movie is never enthralling but always engaging thanks to a stellar cast, with weighty performers in most of the meaningful roles. Julia Roberts, still refreshingly eager to please and not yet the diva, is appealing as Darby Shaw, despite remaining surprisingly sane as the bodies pile up around her. Denzel Washington is equally in his energetic prime, and provides the most solid core to the movie as investigative reporter Gray Grantham.

In support, the likes of Sam Shepard, John Heard, Robert Culp, John Lithgow and Hume Cronyn ensure that the secondary characters add plenty of colour to the proceedings, providing enough distraction from the progressively more improbable drama to maintain interest.

Pakula, directing what proved to be his penultimate film, is deep in his All The President's Men comfort zone of Washington DC-based thrillers revolving around political conspiracies, with journalists stunningly more competent than law enforcement authorities. Pakula's directing is effortless and polished, and he makes the best use of his stars and locations.

Like the pelican itself, The Pelican Brief is curiously noble and occasionally does fly, but it's far from the most streamlined of birds.

All Ace Black Movie Reviews are here.


  1. Replies
    1. This one has a big flaw at its core; the rest is polished by of no real consequence.


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