There’s something reassuring old fashioned about Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty. Despite its modern setting, the film is anchored firmly in a time when jokes were gags, Louis Armstrong sang about the whole world smiling, and directors had the confidence to make leisurely movies. Even in Find Me Guilty’s moments of weakness - and, believe me, they’re not hard to find - Lumet’s breezy confidence carries his film through, saving it from the trash heap of utter mediocrity.
Vin Diesel - with hair - stars as Jackie DiNorscio, a soldier in New Jersey’s Lucchese crime family, one of the “five families” than once ran mob activity in the area of New York City. In the late 1980s, 20 members of the family were brought to trial on 87 different charges; the trial ran for nearly two years, becoming the longest criminal trial in US history. Though 19 of the defendants hired lawyers, DiNorscio, a man who left school after eighth grade and whose legal experience stemmed entirely from his extensive jail time, elected to represent himself. For the next 21 months, his antics made him a thorn in the side of the defense, a source of constant irritation to the judge, and a complete wildcard in the eyes of the jury.
Constantly calling himself a “gagster, not a gangster,” DiNorscio used his bullish charm and natural instincts to find his way, sometimes, to success in the courtroom. Just as often, however, he was on the verge of being removed from the case, and he made an enemy of codefendant Nick Calabrese, who feared DiNorscio’s misbehavior would jeopardize all 20 of the defendants. As DiNorscio, Diesel is a strangely endearing combination of macho and insecure; he's blustery and fearless, but with a childlike eagerness to please that lurks just below the surface. What is so interesting about the performance is that one is never quite sure if the traits on display belong to his character or to Diesel himself. Since they work equally well for both, however, it doesn't matter which man we're really seeing: the performance succeeds and, as a result, convincingly raises Diesel above the level of what Lumet calls “a race car action hero” for the first time.
Instead of shooting Diesel and the trial in the endless, aggressive close-ups that Law & Order and its myriad spawn have taught us to expect from fictional courtrooms, Lumet instead tends to keep his camera at a distance - yet another source of the film’s old-fashioned feel. As a result of Lumet’s restraint, his actors are forced to do more: they must be conscious of their bodies at all times, even when someone in another corner of the room is speaking. Diesel always takes up a lot of space, sprawling his limbs out when he sits down, and always keeping his legs as far apart as possible. And he fidgets like a child, absently rubbing the arm of a chair when he’s nervous, or nudging his table-mates to get attention.
As Sean Kierney, the Bobby Kennedy-esque Federal Prosecutor, British actor Linus Roache shines particularly brightly under Lumet’s guidance, quietly solidifying his character in the extra screen time the director’s patient, mature approach allows. When others are speaking, Roache sits completely still with his legs inevitably crossed at the knee, an oddly prim choice for such a macho courtroom. At the same time, though, there’s a tremendous sense of physicality to his Kierney, as if there’s a skinny street tough buried somewhere deep beneath his education and ambition. All of this is conveyed while Roache occupies the fringes of Lumet’s frame: watching the jury, listening to a defense attorney speak, or simply waiting.
In addition to being about the longest criminal trial in American history, Find Me Guilty is also a film about ethnicity, class, and education. Though only the first is directly addressed in the movie’s dialogue, all three are constantly before the viewers in the voices and accents of the film’s central characters. Diesel’s DiNorscio speaks like a stereotypical gangster, with a strong regional accent and a voice so gravely it sounds like it hurts to talk. There’s a broadness to both his language and his words that almost begs for a reaction - it’s as if he leaves spaces after his words for others to fill. Roache, meanwhile, has a pinched tone that befits both his look and his attitude. His voice is higher, and there’s a constant sense of incredulity when he speaks; he simply can’t believe that the people around him are so naïve. The most wonderful voice in the film, however, belongs to the man who also has its most thankless task: Peter Dinklage, who plays defense attorney Ben Klandis.
Klandis is the courtroom’s ever-present voice of reason, and the one to whom DiNorscio turns in his moments of confusion and need. As a result of his role as a touchstone, Klandis he spouts the movie’s most hackneyed, awkward dialogue, constantly saying things like “Let’s not lose our heads here,” and “Don’t let him get to you, Jackie!” It’s excruciating when you pay attention to the words - but when you simply listen to the voice that’s speaking them, they wash over you and become just another part of the courtroom’s glorious, distinctive cacophony. Dinklage has an absolutely incredible voice: it’s resonant, composed, and utterly devoid of any regional idiosyncracies. In the courtroom, Klandis is hypnotic, leisurely pronouncing every letter with the confidence of someone wielding a finely turned instrument. The final summing up, then, in addition to being the final battle between the prosecution and the defense, is also a lovely moment of comparison between the vocal styles of these three men, and one of the sharpest sequences of the entire film.
At just over two hours, Find Me Guilty is too long. It is also burdened by far too many cliched conversations, confrontations, and characters, and features far too little of the explosive Annabella Sciorra as DiNorscio’s wife - but it’s made with such care and attention to detail that it remains, for the most part, a pleasure to watch. In these days of remakes and throwaway sequels, there are worse ways to spend two hours than to watch even an average film from Sidney Lumet.