Director Sidney Lumet revisits the themes of two of his most memorable films in this movie, but with less success. Like Dog Day Afternoon, it is a true story with colorful characters and both comic and tragic overtones. Like 12 Angry Men it is a story of the way justice is — and is not — served by our judicial system. Like both of those films, Lumet convincingly creates the New York setting. Most of the film is set in the courtroom and the grandeur of its aspirations and the grit of its experiences is evocatively portrayed. But an uncertain point of view leaves the story and characters less clear and the resolution unsatisfying.
It is the story of the longest criminal trial in U.S. history, with charges against 20 alleged members of the Lucchese crime family led by Newark, New Jersey mob boss Anthony Accetturo. It took the government two years to present its endlessly complicated case. In the midst of testimony about a tangled web of alleged criminal actions involving gambling, drugs, theft, and murder, one of the defendants attracted the most attention. He was Giacomo “Fat Jack” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel, unrecognizable but for his gravelly voice under a wig and some extra weight). And while the other defendants each had his own lawyer, DiNorsico represented himself, a source of intense frustration for the prosecutor and the judge but welcome comic relief for the jury. “I’m a gagster, not a gangster,” he told them. And they laughed.
The prosecutor was dumbfounded and furious. He could not understand how a jury could be sympathetic to a group of people who not only stole from just about everyone but now and again, actually killed people who got in their way.
And you know, that’s the problem. He’s right. The trial was a circus. It was a mistake to put all of those defendants, each with is own lawyer, into the same case. In the midst of the numbingly complex details, the jury appears to develop some strange offshoot of the Stockholm Syndrome, identifying not with the prosecutors but with the defendants. For all their alleged crimes, they seemed more authentic and relatable than the prosecuting attorneys.
But we are not the jury, tied up with this crowd of “gagsters” for two years. And DiNorsico is not an endearing shlub like Al Pacino’s Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, holding up a bank to get a sex change operation for his boyfriend. These are guys who stole much more for reasons that were far less romantic.
Lumet does a much better job evoking the time and place than he does making us sympathetic to DiNorsico. All of the performances are excellent, especially Peter Dinklage, superb as counsel for one of the other defendants, and Annabella Sciorra, blazingly hostile in one brief scene as DiNorsico’s ex-wife. Diesel shows us DiNorsico’s Runyonesque charm and his strong, if oftem misplaced, sense of loyalty, but we never feel the sympathy Lumet clearly thinks he deserves. At the end of the movie, we feel, instead, like the jury, that we have spent too much time and understood too little.
Parents should know that this movie concerns the trial of a group of men charged with serious crimes ranging from drug dealing to gambling and murder. Characters use very strong language and there are references to violence and drug use. A character tries to kill another with a gun, shooting him several times. Characters complain about ethnic stereotypes but it can be argued that the film also perpetuates those stereotypes.
Families who see this movie should talk about why the jury found Jackie appealing — and why director Lumet found his story appealing. How did Lumet make clear his own feelings about Jackie?