Here is a film simultaneously fascinating and tedious, that starts your mind working even as it bores you to tears. Director Sidney Lumet impeccably captures the tenor of the courtroom – brief moments of tension puncture long hours, long days of a seemingly endless parade of evidence, witnesses, expert testimony. It is, perhaps, a rendition too perfect.
Find Me Guilty is an account of a Trial Of The Century, United States v. Accetturo, which lasted a then-record 21 months. Lumet assumes the role of a court artist, capturing the colorful rogues’ gallery of the 21 defendants, the questionable zealousness of the prosecution, and the circus nature of the trial at large.
Like a court artist he focuses on the trial’s personalities and its moments of excitement. His protagonist is Giacomo “Jackie Dee” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), arguably the most vivid character present. (He tells the jury, “I’m a gagster, not a gangster”), who decides to defend himself. We watch Jackie react to the news of his mother’s death, we see him with his wife on a conjugal visit, we watch him confront the prosecution’s star witness, his cousin who tried to kill him.
And yet, at the end of the film we know little about Jackie’s crimes, we have no insight into why he did the things that he did. This is Lumet’s point: in Find Me Guilty he has isolated the theatrical, the sensationalistic nature of our judicial system. By the end of the film there is no doubt that these men are guilty of the crimes with which they are charged, but there is also no wonder why they are exonerated. Whether the prosecution won the battle for the jurors’ minds is immaterial – they lost the battle for their hearts.
The Lucchese family trial ended in 1988: two years before the premiere of Law and Order, three years before the launch of Court TV, six year’s before the trial of O.J. Simpson. It is a distillation of the elements of our justice system that have turned the courtroom into a stage, lawyers and judges into bona fide stars. As such it is a fascinating entry into the courtroom drama genre, a wonderful entrée to a consideration of how all this has come to pass.
But does it have much life outside of this context? The characters aren’t ever developed beyond courtroom sketches, the moments of intensity bridge vast empty spaces. Find Me Guilty is a fitting end (assuming that it is, in fact, the end) to Sidney Lumet’s career; he has been plumbing these depths for years, since 1957 and 12 Angry Men. But it is a quiet end, like a long, idle chat with a brilliant old philosopher on a lazy summer afternoon.