We recently recorded a Shouts from the Back Row podcast about our favourite courtroom movies and one of the most unique entries in the genre has to be Sidney Lumet’s 2006 effort, Find Me Guilty. This was a very unusual courtroom movie in that’s blatantly obvious from the outset that the people on trial are guilty, yet you somehow still feel compelled to root for them. The film was also unusual in how it demonstrated that Vin Diesel could actually be a pretty good actor. Of course, a courtroom story this unconventional could only make it to the screen if it had some basis in reality. In late 1986, the longest criminal trial in United States history was launched after 20 members of the New Jersey faction of the Lucchese crime family were simultaneously indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization (RICO) Act. This marked the end of a massive four-year investigation into organized crime and all 20 of the defendants would stand trial at the same time to face 76 separate charges. After the testimony of hundreds of witnesses and the presentation of nearly a thousand exhibits of evidence, the whole thing would not conclude until August 26, 1988. Though he was far from the most prominent member of the Lucchese crime family, the most prominent defendant in the trial was Giacomo DiNorscio, a.k.a. “Jackie Dee”, who made the shocking decision to act as his own counsel, but wound up having a major impact on the outcome. Find Me Guilty is not a courtroom drama that focuses on the theme of justice, but rather on the absurdity of the whole justice system and what can happen when it devolves into a complete farce.
As the story opens, Giacomo “Jackie Dee” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) has just been shot by his junkie cousin, but has such a strong personal code against ratting people out that he refuses to press charges. Not long afterward, he is arrested on a drug charge and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Around the same time, a massive indictment is handed down against the Lucchese crime family, who are headed by mob boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco). Twenty defendants from the family, including Jackie, will simultaneously go on trial to face 76 separate charges. The district attorney, Sean Kierney (Linus Roache), offers Jackie the chance to testify against them in exchange for a reduced sentence, but he refuses to rat them out. For the trial, a huge team of defense attorneys led by Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage) are on hand to represent the mobsters, but Jackie makes the surprising decision to fire his own lawyer and represent himself. Even though Jackie only has a sixth-grade education and no legal background whatsoever, he does possess something very important: charisma. He has a unique charm and sense of humour which endears him to the jury, who seem to find his sense of loyalty strangely moving. Jackie works extra-hard to help get his fellow mobsters acquitted even though the outcome of the trial will do nothing to end his own 30-year prison sentence. Jackie also has a surprising gift for undermining the credibility of the prosecution’s case, but he is also capable of displaying some very erratic and unprofessional behaviour which threatens to undermine the entire defense.
A title card at the beginning states that most of the film’s courtroom dialogue is based on actual trial transcripts, which is an important piece of information for the viewer to know. Otherwise, one could easily find the courtroom scenes too absurd to believe. However, this furthers the point that Find Me Guilty is not a film that cares about justice, but about exposing the fallacies of the justice system. The film never pretends that any of the defendants, including Jackie, are innocent. However, since we never actually see them do any of the bad things they’re being charged with, it’s easy to hope they wind up getting acquitted. The main reason it’s so easy to root for Jackie is because Kierney, the district attorney, is portrayed as such an unlikable prick, and it’s infuriating to think how much time, resources and taxpayer money are being wasted because of his arrogant belief that he can indict 20 mobsters at the same time. While the trial judge (Ron Silver) has no love for the mafia, even he sometimes expresses visibly disgust that this convoluted 21-month trial has to take place. Oddly enough, the most level-headed character in the film is probably Klandis, the lead defense attorney. The role is a great showcase for Peter Dinklage, who delivers a dynamite performance. In a refreshing change of pace, this is the rare case of a role being inhabited by dwarf actor and the movie not even referencing or making a big deal about it. I have no idea if the real attorney Klandis is based on was actually a dwarf, but the character has such a commanding presence in the courtroom that height isn’t even an issue.
Of course, the film really belongs to Vin Diesel. Lumet’s originally wanted Joe Pesci to play the role (an appropriate choice, considering that Jackie’s courtroom antics often look like they belong in My Cousin Vinny), but he turned it down, and I’m sure quite a few eyebrows were raised when Diesel took his place. Needless to say, it’s hard to imagine Vin Diesel, of all people, playing a character so charismatic that he can single-handedly sway a jury. However, Diesel knocks it out of the park in this role and manages to find the right balance between being a genuinely likable character and a con artist. After this trial was completed, the real-life Jackie DiNorscio went back to prison and was not released until 2002. He served as a consultant on this film, but passed away near the end of shooting. Having directed 12 Angry Men and The Verdict, Sidney Lumet is obviously a master of the courtroom drama, so he’s totally in his element with Find Me Guilty. Like most of his work, the director doesn’t do anything showy and just simply points the camera and lets the quality of the material and the acting speak for itself. It may not be the most glamorous approach, but this is what allowed Lumet to build up one hell of a strong filmography for his fifty-year directorial career. In spite of the fact that this was Lumet’s first theatrical film in seven years, Find Me Guilty only got a limited release and was a box office flop, which would probably explain why Vin Diesel went back to making Fast and the Furious films and has not stretched his acting muscles like this again. It’s not hard to imagine why Find Me Guilty didn’t catch on with mainstream audiences since there are technically no “heroes” in this story, but the film definitely is a piece of compelling cinema and demands rediscovery.