Woodward and Bernstein, meet Roberts and Washington (as in Julia and Denzel). The 1970s real-life investigative team that Hoffman and Redford play in Alan J. Pakula's riveting All the President's Men has been made politically correct for Pakula's '90s version, The Pelican Brief, one of the dullest suspense thrillers in ages. With a screenplay by director Pakula (based on John Grisham's bestselling novel of the same name), The Pelican Brief wants to make a controversy a la spotted owls as absorbing as Watergate. But neither its story nor its execution is up to the task.
Darby Shaw (Roberts) is a hotshot Tulane law student who likes to argue about Supreme Court rulings while demurely showing a flash of leg to her boyfriend/professor Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard). When two justices are inexplicably assassinated, she writes a paper, "The Pelican Brief," speculating about who did it and why. She theorizes that an oil magnate who wants to drill in a pelican sanctuary had the justices killed because the tycoon, a big contributor to the presidential campaign, might be able to influence judicial appointments and tip the scale of justice toward business. Apparently nobody in the FBI or CIA could come up with such a theory.
Shaw shows the brief to Callahan, who once was a clerk to one of the justices but is now a professor because he has a drinking problem. He's duly impressed, and shows it to an acquaintance. As people who see the brief start dying mysteriously, Shaw calls investigative reporter Gray Grantham (Washington). But without proof he's skeptical. Meanwhile, the brief makes its way to the Oval Office, and the president (Robert Culp) tells Chief of Staff Fletcher Coal (Tony Goldwyn) to make sure that the CIA and FBI stop pursuing Shaw's theory because he'd be crucified if the press ever got wind of it.
By this time Grantham has nosed around enough to believe Shaw, and so they team up -- but by this time, we're more than halfway into the movie. They work together (sometimes Shaw dons a wig) to confirm Shaw's theory and to stay ahead of the assassins. Somehow they do both.
say "somehow" because part of the problem with The Pelican Brief (besides the cumbersome storyline) is that we aren't let in on the process. In All the President's Men, not only are we given tantalizing clues that build upon each other, but we're also let inside the reporters' minds. Privy to their leads, thoughts and dead ends, we are right there with them, wanting to figure things out precisely because we feel like part of the team. The film wreaks tension, energy, thrills.
But The Pelican Brief errs by not letting us participate. It neglects to dramatize how Shaw comes up with the theory, who exactly is after her, or what she and Grantham discover each step of the way. Pakula -- who made the terrifically literate and suspenseful Klute and Sophie's Choice as well as the keenly observed The Sterile Cuckoo and Starting Over -- mishandles several crucial turns: There's a pivotal telephone scene, for instance, in which we are deprived of hearing what Shaw tells Grantham to convince him she's on to something. And the few times we are told something concrete, we are expected to take in the entire conspiracy in one sitting, en masse. (Pakula even has Grantham make a flow chart right after Shaw tells him everything she knows.) We have nothing to do but watch people with privileged information go about their intrigue until the very end. And, as the conspiracy plays itself out, sometimes it turns out that an apparently bad guy is, inexplicably, actually a good guy.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
These form the movie's sensibilities: A gratuitous shot of Shaw, in her bra, brushing her hair in front of a mirror. Pakula establishes his heroine's determination by consecutive shots of her at a laptop in library stacks that are first brightly lit, then dark. Envelopes are slid under hotel doors, guys follow that cab, chases ensue in hallways, basements, kitchens and garages.
It's good to have Roberts back in films after a two-year hiatus, but she picked the wrong movie. Sympathetically expressive and speaking in a moist yet determined whisper, she's quite good at being shocked numb. She's also terrific at looking lovingly at her boyfriend, and she cries honestly, deeply. Washington, a caring, strong figure, exudes the wary savvy that serves him so well; he just might be the most romantic of Hollywood's contemporary leading men.
John Lithgow is on hand as Grantham's Jason Robards-as-Ben Bradley editor, who refers to Shaw as "bird girl." So is James B. Sikking, the Hill Street Blues cop promoted to FBI director. Stanley Tucci, drawing on the infamous Abu Nidal, is a master-of-disguise assassin. All are good, but the most interesting thing in the supporting cast is, a la The Towering Inferno, how many get killed off before the movie is half over. The rest of the movie should've taken chances like these.
Ending his movie with a airplane-runway farewell, Pakula seems to be invoking Casablanca -- but we don't have Bogart and Bergman here. A movie that doesn't really use its locations to enhance the story (the production designer, Philip Rosenberg, won an Oscar for All That Jazz and designed Moonstruck and Network) ought not, as the saying goes, play it again. The Pelican Brief also makes direct reference to Deep Throat. Pakula should have known that you can't go home again.