Before dipping her toes into the film world as an executive producer on films like Serious Moonlight and Showtime’s The Green, debuting director Dawn Porter worked as an attorney for ABC Television. So, it’s no wonder that with her first docu feature she approaches the legal system with a critical eye while paying tribute to the men and women that work in the paperwork-filled trenches of lawyership as valiant, but under-appreciated public defenders. Following a trio of Georgia and Mississippi based attorneys as they inventively fight for the freedom of their clients in the face of moral axioms, mounting caseloads and suffocating six-figure student debts, Gideon’s Army veritably asks, with such professional pressure and often thankless clientèle, is justice for all even possible?
With the support of their vehement mentor Jonathan Rapping, young lawyers Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick head to work everyday knowing that they will be defending a mixed bag of accused – the blatantly dishonest and immoral, as well as unfortunate innocents, with acquittals just within reach, each case a foggy mess of conflicting so-called facts. This job is not for the jaded, but a younger, more affectionate breed of attorneys willing to pour their heart and souls into their occupations for little retribution, financial or otherwise. Only in the moment of vindication is there visible proof of worth to all their hard work and empathized anxiety.
Pairing continuous interviews with day in the life footage, we witness these lawyers lay it all out, turning every rock for a scrap of evidence that might convince a jury of their client’s innocence while sacrificing their personal lives – even occasionally sleeping in their offices. Porter and her camera feel like a pair of omnipresent therapists on hand for stress relief sessions or an ear to bounce case ideas off of. They confess their frustrations with the current legal system, the personal investment each case evokes, and the flimsy angles each are forced to attempt in last ditch efforts on the courtroom floor. Attending professional support groups at the Southern Public Defender Training Center, they converge in emotional outpourings that sees some of them questioning their commitment to public defense. While they work grueling case loads for salaries that barely pay their student loans, lawyers in private and corporate positions are buying condos and sports cars with their spare cash.
Bringing us in, the narrative hook is whittled down to just a single case per attorney. We meet the young defendants, two of which have been accused of armed robbery and face at least ten years of prison time. Porter allows the lawyers to objectively introduce their clients, acknowledging that while they may well be guilty, they could have a bright future ahead of them, if only they could manage to bail them out of hot water this first time around. Though this makes for suitable emotional investment that pays off in the atoning final moments, there is little to take away from the film other than a greater appreciation for the men and women that serve as public defense. With that in mind, Gideon’s Army remains an affecting procedural profiling three courageous lawyers that any accused should be grateful to be appointed.
Reviewed on January 29th at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival – US DOCUMENTARY COMPETITION Programme. 96 Min