Wednesday, July 3, 2013

I Can Defend these People

Jean Luc Godard, the French filmmaker, famously said (famously if you move in those circles, anyway) that 
Film is truth at 24 frames a second.
Which means, roughly, that while the camera records what's before it, there are the things in the interstices, in the moments between the frames, that it doesn't show.  (The camera doesn't actually film motion after all, it takes a series of still pictures [typically 24 a second] which a defect in our vision leads us to see as motion when they are shown rapidly enough.)  Its truth is always and necessarily incomplete.  And that means that the filmmaker must choose.

So here's a question:  Which truth is it that Dawn Porter, herself an attorney, is trying to tell in Gideon's Army a documentary film that won the Editing Award at Sundance this year and premiered on HBO Monday night?*
  • That public defenders work hard for their clients?
  • That public defenders are underresourced?
  • That public defenders care?
  • That public defender burnout is real but a good pep talk will get them over it and all will be right and good again?
  • That Jon Rapping is something of a hero?
  • That the PDs on the line are black while the supervisors and trainers and the folks who fund them are while?
  • That we really do need a public defender system, and by god, we've got one we can be proud of?
  • That the system works because if you're truly innocent, you won't be convicted?
Really, it's all of them.  Each at 24 frames a second or whatever the current technological equivalent.  And that's a problem.

Gideon's Army tries to tell the story of public defenders and public defense and how it works and why it's desperately needed and why it's inspiring and why it's desperate and why the PDs are impassioned and committed and why they burn out and how Jon Rapping and his organization, Gideon's Promise, trains them and keeps them going and howsometimes you eat the bear but sometimes the bear eats you and when it's the former it's a high but when it's the latter all you can do is slam the lid on your briefcase and order a double (which, now that I think about it, we never see anyone do).

To do all that, the film focuses on two Georgia public defenders, Travis Williams and Brandy Alexander (and still she doesn't drink!), and briefly and for no apparent reason, Mississippi PD June Hardwick. (Was there a whole focus on her that got left on the cutting room floor?)  

Brandy gets conflicted.  What do you do if you're she and the  man who raped his stepdaughter doesn't try to explain how he didn't really but tells her he's proud of having done it?  And what about the client whos let out word he has plans to kill her?  Rapping's therapy sessions and pep talks (we never see his actual trainings) keep her going.  But she envies Travis who never waivers.

Travis is the heroic type.  Single minded.  Hard working.  Passionate about the work.  His response to the proud rapist story?  When you're not charged up about the client, you get charged up about defending.  
I can defend these people.
Of course, that's easier said than done when his maybe sort of innocent client's pretty good case for trial collapses after his best friend since they were toddlers rolls on him.

These folks struggle with low pay and high debt and case loads that have them working late.  They're not mostly saving the world, though they make a difference in the lives of their clients.  But in the end, mostly, as one of them says, 
It's all about lessening the penalty; that's what we do.
So here we are.  Gideon's Army is fragmented, a little too scattered.  It's just a bit too television (everything in the offices and the courtooms is remarkably neat and clean - but maybe that's just a southern thing).

There's none of the desperation.  There's a reference to a PD who allegedly sold a client out.  There's reference to how pleas are coerced simply as a way for people who can't make bond to get out of jail.  There's underpay, but little in the way of real overwork.  And there isn't the drinking (as I've said) and the fist-bumps in the hallway.  

Brandy pleads three of her clients in rote identical moments.  Then asks for permission to leave the courtroom.  Travis walks away in silence while a client is led off in cuffs.  How much is that the day-to-day?  We don't know.

The thing is, it's easy to carp from where I sit.  It's not that I'm now a PD.  It's that I know from daily work over the years how the system works and how while by and large PDs are (I've said this before) among the most talented, committed, hardest working lawyers out there (that "by and large" is important, of course, since some PDs are total incompetents, lazy, long since burned out).  But they're regularly underpaid, underresourced, undermined by a corrupt, dysfunctional system.

But I'm the screener (and thanks to the good folks who sent me a screening copy of the film, by the way) and the critic and the criminal defense lawyer.  Gideon's Army isn't for me.  It's for the HBO audience that doesn't know, that doesn't have a feel for this, that isn't in the trenches with these folks and the men who proudly admit they did it and then ask how much it'll cost to bribe the judge.  And who don't know that the lawyer (yes, the lawyer, criminal defense lawyer, public defender, whoever, the lawyer) answers, 
Go fuck yourself.  That's not what I do.
Gideon's Army is for them.  And for them it's terrific.  A look into the system that they don't see in TV shows about lawyers or about criminals and with real lawyers with real clients and real issues (of substance and process and prejudice and evidentiary rulings and whack ass judges and recalcitrant prosecutors and the like).  And although Porter doesn't show it as much as I might like (or as much as Greenfield or Gideon would) there's enough there for Rapping's words Brandy to ring true.
If you're trying to rescue people from Hell, you've got to go to Hell to do it.

*Future showings July 7, 9, 13, and 19 (check your listings for times).

1 comment:

  1. I think the June Hadwick focus was to show someone who believes in the work/cause, but who quits b/c it's too hard to make a life doing it. Specifically, she is an example of what appears to be a good PD who needs more money to give herself and her child the lives they want, so she quits. It's kind of a big and inexplicable failing of the film that it doesn't make this more clear. It would have been easy to give a bit of data on what PDs make, on average, compared to prosecutors or private attorneys. Additional good context would have been average law school debt loads and monthly loan payments. These things would put the low pay in perspective, but they're completely absent.

    I think Travis was there to show the overwork, but it wasn't clear b/c he comes off as such an obsessive true believer that viewers probably just think he works until 11 p.m. b/c he's obsessive, not b/c he must in order to get all the work done.

    Your review is spot on that it's too scattered, though. I don't know if it was trying to do too much and so spread itself too thin, or if it really didn't have a very good focus in the first place and just ended up being a shotgun look at indigent defense. Whatever the case, it isn't for us (PDs and other criminal defense attorneys), it's for everyone else. But if everyone else comes away thinking "our justice system works great as long as a few people are committed to indigent defense and work really hard for their clients," then the film probably does more harm than good, and that's a shame.