When two Supreme Court justices die in mysterious circumstances, a law student, Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts), stumbles onto a court case linking the two deaths - the 'Pelican Brief'. When her hypothesis finds its way to Washington DC, Shaw finds herself hunted by a mysterious cabal intent on silencing her before her theory gets to the public.
With the direction of American jurisprudence hanging in the balance, Shaw and investigative journalist Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) are in a race against time to figure out the motive behind the deaths of the two justices...
In the early 90s, this movie's premise probably felt like a the definition of a high concept thriller. In 2018, it feels like a terrifying portent. Featuring a craven president, Tony Goldwyn (who in the future plays Scandal's loved-up Pres) as his Lee Atwater-ish attack dog and a billionaire with an army of nefarious agents manipulating events from the shadows, there is something deeply unsettling about this movie that is totally a product of the present.
With an administration (and a loyal legislative branch) pushing ahead with a radical nominee who could swing the court hard to the right, undoing decades of precedent around civil rights, a woman's right to choose, environmental safeguards and a variety other issues, The Pelican Brief feels like a portent, and also horrifically out of date. Not to mention the advanced age of 50% of the liberal bloc of judges on the current bench, which may give Trump more opportunities to fill the bench.
This hindsight aside, The Pelican Brief is the perfect example of a style and genre that has become practically extinct on the big screen: the prestige legal thriller. Beginning in the 80s, with films like The Verdict and Jagged Edge, legal thrillers took off in the 90s on the back of John Grisham's success with The Firm (and the movie starring Tom Cruise).
Written and directed by Alan J Pakula (All The President's Men), the movie has some solid suspense sequences and interesting supporting performances, but for some reason, the whole enterprise comes off as rote and by-the-numbers.
The story is intriguing, but never really builds to real dramatic catharsis. The lead performers are both fine, but there is nothing that compelling or specific about either of them: Washington is strangely muted, and Roberts is similarly low-key. Not that there is anything wrong with their choices, it is just there is a real lack of dimension to them. They are just good guys trying to solve a situation, with nothing to really hang your hat on emotionally.
The movie this most reminded me of were Ron Howard's Dan Brown adaptations in that it features plenty of twists and a decent sense of pace to capture the page-turning quality of the source material, but there is something missing, a depth to the characters, or a thematic heft to the film's portrayal of the politics and the justice system, that prevents it from really sticking in the mind.
The most interesting element for me was Stanley Tucci as the professional assassin assigned to clean up all the loose ends. However, like the movie's premise, my enjoyment probably derived more from Tucci's casting than anything about the performance or the character.
Despite its pedigree, there is not much to distinguish it from similar movies of the same era. The Pelican Brief is a decent watch, but nothing more.