A film review by Craig J. Koban



2006, R, 125 mins.

Jackie DiNorscio: Vin Diesel / Gino Mascarpone: Paul Borghese / Gino's girlfriend: Michalina Almindo / Ben Klandis: Peter Dinklage / Nick Calabrese: Alex Rocco / Bella DiNorscio: Annabella Sciorra / Sean Kierney: Linus Roache / Jerry McQueen: Domenick Lombardozzi / Judge Finestein: Ron Silver

Directed by Sidney Lumet / Written by Lumet, T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea

At 80-years-old and after a stellar career that spans 43 films, it’s amazing to see that Sidney Lumet has no apparent motive in mind to slow down.  Obviously, it could be argued that his “glory days” are more than well behind him. 

His body of work in the past amounts to such enduring classics as 1957’s 12 ANGRY MEN, 1973’s SERPICO,  1975’s DOG DAY AFTERNOON, 1976’s NETWORK, and 1982’S THE VERDICT.  His last film was nearly seven years ago – the Sharon Stone starring vehicle GLORIA – and it was lacklustre.  So, it’s somewhat refreshing to see the aging director – at the winter of his career – return to his roots in a way with FIND ME GUILTY, a film that recalls elements of some of his greatest past works, most specially crime and court room drama.

FIND ME GUILTY is stridently a courtroom procedural, which plays off of Lumet’s clear-cut abilities.  It chronicles the longest trial in American history where 20 members of the Lucchese crime family went to court for violation of the RICO (Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organization) Act.  The film takes place overwhelmingly in the courtroom, which I guess is designed to mirror the stunning length of the trial itself.  Lasting over 21-months and with almost all of the 20 defendants having defense attorneys of their own, the trial often approached levels of extravaganza crossed with a cruel endurance test. 

Even more sensationalistic is the fact that one of the defendants - Giacomo 'Jackie D' DiNorscio – decided to forgo any legal assistance and – astoundingly – opted to defend himself.  When he approaches the Judge (played well by Ron Silver) he warns Jackie that this course of action may not be of any help to him.  Yet, Jackie wisely reminds the judge of his Sixth Amendment right.  Seeing as he has no room for argument, the judge allowed the proceedings to continue.  He really has no choice.  If he refuses Jackie's request, the mobster could get off on a mistrial.

Perhaps the most shocking of FIND ME GUILTY is not in its story of a unrelentingly long trial with a mob goon defending himself, but the fact that Lumet has cast Vin “xXx-action star” Diesel in the main role.  At face value, the concept of the chiseled actor playing a paunch, dim-witted, middle-aged gangster seems to be a bit of casting error.  When we first see Diesel – in his clownish, fake wig that screams out “observably fake” and equally poor quality prosthetics - sitting through his performance at first is somewhat distracting.  He looks like he’s ready for a comedic skit for SNL, not for an appearance in a major motion picture helmed by Sidney Lumet.

However, as the film progresses, and Diesel starts to really inhabit the role and make it his own, our suspension of disbelief takes over and we see less of the actor under that cruddy makeup and toupee and more of the character.  That, in itself, is a testament to Diesel’s skills as an actor to make us forget about his usual, testosterone driven, biceps bulging action star roles.  His performance as Jackie DiNorscio reminds the audience that - lurking behind his rugged façade-  is a good actor.  His work in FIND ME GUILTY hearkens back to his early find roles in films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and the criminally underrated BOILER ROOM.  Much like Robin Williams (who is always more effective when playing roles straight), Diesel commands more interest in dramatic roles than ones involving him mow down faceless villains in a halo of machine gun fire.   It’s one of 2006’s most surprisingly assured and commanding performances.  The success of FIND ME GUILTY is owed in large part to the Diesel-factor.

The trial itself takes place over a nearly two-year period between early 1987 and late 1988.  As stated, every wiseguy decided to get their own attorney, except for Jackie.  The lead defense council, Ben Klandis (in another memorable performance by THE STATION AGENT’s Peter Dinklage) tries to assure Jackie that all his efforts could ultimately hurt everyone’s chances.  After all, Jackie is horribly under-educated (he never got past a Grade 6 level of schooling) and his abilities as an orator leave a whole lot to be desired. 

Even worse is the fact that some in Jackie’s own criminal circle simply don’t like the lug.  In an act of goodfella-patriotism, Jackie refused to cooperate with the feds and D.A. Sean Kierney (played with unapologetic contempt by Linus Roache) to “rat” his buddies out.  Yet, these are the same buddies that ordered a hit on the man and wanted him pushing up daisies.  As a matter of fact, Jackie is so utterly squeaky clean in his loyalty that he even tells his own cousin – who attempts to whack him in the film’s first scene - that he “loves him” no matter what.  Hell, even when the cops ask him who shot him, Diesel deadpans, "I dunno…my eyes were closed.”  Jackie’s life is complicated, to say the least.  He is already serving a 30-year sentence for drug possession so the allure of a get-out-of-jail-early card from the DA certainly must have been hard to refuse.  Yet, refuse he does (“I ain’t no rat!”) and he decides to take the bull by the horns and defend himself.

His approach is unorthodox and, at times, Jackie approaches being more of a lewd and crude stand-up comedian than a defense attorney.  At one point he gets a man on the witness stand that hates Jackie because he apparently would not perform a homosexual act on him.  Jackie unloads on him. “Did you or did you not want to perform oral sex on me.”  When the witness gets stubborn, Jackie whips out a lollipop and asks, “Would the witness rather suck on this.”  This does not sit well with the main defense attorney, nor the judge, who – a one points – fines him $10,000 for contempt of court.  Jackie even gets more contempt from mob boss Nick Calabrese (Mob film vet Alex Rocco) who during one exchange whispers to Jackie that he will “slit his throat till he’s dead” if he ever utters his name during the trial again.  Perhaps Nick has a reason to be sore:  He and his family are up on 76 individual charges and he surely does not want anyone screwing with their chances for release.

However, something really unexpected happens – Jackie begins to truly warm over the jury with his easygoing, everyman demeanor and his genuine lack of legalese.  Instead of using book smarts (which, let’s face it, he has none of), Jackie uses his street smarts and inherent charm to win over the jury (“I’m not a gangster, I am just a gagster, ladies and gentlemen”).  Sometimes, his antics get incredibly blue for the courtroom, which does not win him over in the hearts of everyone – the judge, the defense attorneys, the defendants, and especially the prosecution – but he most importantly gets the jury to like him.  The fact that he and his “family” are – let’s be honest – evil men is redundant.  As defense attorney Klandis once notes, “A laughing jury ain’t a hanging jury.”

He has a point.  The smartest thing that Jackie does is that he never admits that he’s not a crook.  “Of course I’ve done cocaine,” he pleads to the jury.  His honesty with his crimes flatters the jury members.  The key to his defense is to rip holes in the judicial system as a whole.  Soon, it grows apparent that Jackie becomes a rather fierce opponent.  His keen ability to cut through all of the legal B.S. and reveal certain hypocrisies is fascinating.  One brilliant scene has him cross examining an FBI agent who stated that he knew that all of the people that were talking to Father Nick were Italian mobsters.  Jackie approaches him and correctly asks him, “How did ya know they were all Italian?”  The FBI agent feebly starts to second-guess his responses and fumbles on every one of them.  He says they were Italians because of the way they talked and made hand gestures.  Jackie tears him to shreds by asking him, “If you went into a pub how could you tell that every one there was Irish?  Because they were all drunk out of their minds?!”

Ultimately, what wins over Jackie and his case is his inanely simplistic manner of exposing prosecution incompetence, which further spearheads debate about the failing of the American judicial system on a whole.  There is a ticker on the lower end of the screen that shows up from time to time showing the days that have elapsed.  I was growing stunned when it said “DAY 262”, but when the film was proceeding and the ticker changed to “DAY 462”, it’s hard not to be a bit critical about the proceedings.  To say that the trial takes on the level of a farce is correct.  During the course of it one of the mobsters has a heart attack and is later brought into the courtroom in his hospital bed and hooked up to IVs.  Defendants’ relatives die and the jury grows more tired by the day.  The DA is abundantly aware of the latter.  He’s level of frustration is understandable.  After all, he's losing the case to a buffoon.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is how Lumet is able to affectionately garner our interest despite the film’s sparse and limited setting.  He also wisely focuses on Jackie, the DA, and Defense attorney Klandis as main characters (a film like this does not need to hone in on the other 20 defense lawyers).  The performances help keep up the film’s pacing and curiosity.  I especially liked Peter Dinklage as the dwarf-lawyer who develops such a mature, articulate, and commandingly strong presence in court that you very quickly forget his diminutive size.  Diesel, as stated, finds a wonderfully nuanced balance between hearty and bawdy laughs with a heartfelt sincerity and tenderness (a scene where he cross examines his own cousin that shot him may be his best acting ever). 

Perhaps the two thankless and unsung performances are by Linus Roache and Ron Silver as the DA and Judge respectively.  Roache plays up the theatrical frustration and inwardly drawn madness of the DA effectively.  The very notion of killers and thieves being let go by the antics of a clown without professional experience offends him.  It's easy to relate to his character, despite the fact that the film sort of paints him as an odd villain.  Silver’s judge is a really interesting character.  He despises Jackie’s antics at times, but he is not unfeeling and unsympathetic to his plight.  He has one tender moment where he invites Jackie into his chambers to deliver some tragic news.  The quiet and sensitive manner that he relays the news to Jackie is kind of warm and considerate, which adds another layer to his judge character beyond the stock, gavel pounding personas that dominate most genre films like this.

Sidney Lumet’s FIND ME GUILTY finds a nice equilibrium between scatological humor, heartfelt courtroom drama, and pointed political commentary.  Using a considerable amount of actual testimonial in the film helps to set it a bit more soundly in reality, at least more than its otherwise outlandish premise would allow for.  Perhaps the big flaw in the film is that it is curiously amoral (Example: Is it okay for the audience to root for the acquittal of gangsters that have committed atrocities worthy of jail time and – more importantly – is it okay to root for an underdog crook who defends himself even when he admits to his guilt?).  Nevertheless, FIND ME GUILTY is yet another intrinsically watchable and slickly paced courtroom procedural that works so well on a performance and theme level.  Vin Diesel’s turn as a flamboyantly good-natured and likeable mafioso that defends himself in court owns the film.  He efficiently points out how the legal system would be better if more croonies like him could point out their inadequacies in a court of law.  For that, FIND ME GUILTY is character rich filmmaking that only a vet like Lumet is capable of diving into.

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