The Pelican Brief
Cast: Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Sam Shepard, John Heard, Robert Culp,
Tony Goldwyn, James B. Sikking, Stanley Tucci, William Atherton
Special Appearances: Hume Cronyn, John Lithgow
Director and Screenwriter: Alan J. Pakula
Theatrical release: 1993; available on DVD
Who doesn't love a good thriller??? That's exactly what we get in The Pelican Brief, the fast-paced Alan J. Pakula film based on the equally speedy 1993 John Grisham novel. Whether you like Grisham or not — or whether you prefer his more lawyerly works (The Client; The Firm; The Chamber; The Runaway Jury), The Pelican Brief offers its own form of intrigue. Life imitating art and all that....
Rumor has it that Grisham wrote this book with a movie in mind, even casting Julia Roberts in the lead role. Some would say the book suffers as a result. But in Pakula's capable directorial hands — he also wrote the screenplay — the film is engrossing and thought-provoking on several levels.
Beyond the A-list cast, peppered with big-shot cameos, this film shows off Pakula's story-telling and directorial skills. His untimely death in 1998 from a car accident (road debris from a passing car flipped into his windshield) also ended an incredible career as producer, director, and writer of memorable films, including Presumed Innocent; Sophie's Choice; Up the Down Staircase; The Stalking Moon; Starting Over; Comes a Horseman; All the President's Men; The Parallax View; Klute; The Sterile Cuckoo; Consenting Adults; Inside Daisy Clover; Baby the Rain Must Fall; Love With the Proper Stranger; and To Kill A Mockingbird, among others.
To read the titles of those movies is to remember that Pakula also worked with an amazing group of actors — including Academy Award® nominees and winners such as Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Jason Robards, Liza Minnelli, Jane Alexander, Richard Farnsworth, Jill Clayburgh, and Candice Bergen.
Even the actors who didn't win awards in Pakula films are a well-known gallery of 20th and 21st century thespians: Gregory Peck, Eva Marie Saint, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, E.G. Marshall, Sandy Dennis, Jean Stapleton, Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Hume Cronyn, William Daniels, Stacy Keach, Robert Forster, Maggie Smith, Timothy Bottoms, Harrison Ford, Brian Dennehy, Bonnie Bedelia, Paul Winfield, Raul Julia, Greta Scacchi, Kevin Kline, Bradley Whitford, John Spencer, Brad Pitt, Treat Williams, Kevin Spacey, Rubén Blades, Julia Stiles, Mary Elizabeth Mastroantonio, and Forest Whitaker. From his first film (1962's To Kill a Mockingbird) to his last (1997's The Devil's Own), Pakula created and took us on some of the most meaningful and thrilling rides in film history.
The Pelican Brief is a compelling story in its own right: the near-simultaneous murder of two Supreme Court justices by nefarious business operators who want to cover up their involvement in an environmental disaster and 'encourage' the US president to appoint new justices who are more aligned with corporate interests. When the plan to kill the justices is discovered by a Louisiana law student writing a speculative brief for a class assignment, she soon becomes a target. After reluctantly agreeing to cooperate with an investigative journalist, the pair set out to get the bad guys, stop the damage to the environment, and save their own lives.
The Pelican Brief is also an example of superb film craftsmanship: one of the best in the entertainment profession wrote his own screenplay and directed a rip-snorting good story.