Arne Glimcher's "Just Cause" had to be in the pipeline years before the prospects of political victory turned Newt Gingrich's beady li'l eyes round and glassy as saucers, but you wouldn't know it to see the film. It feels as if the first day of principal photography was Nov. 8.
The movie, which masquerades (more or less effectively) as a thriller, is really a polemic about the deconstruction of a liberal in specific and liberalism in general. It's a textbook illustration of the fact that the feature narrative can be an effective device for the communication of political ideas.
Derived from a novel by former Miami Herald reporter John Katzenbach, it might be described as an inversion of the treasured '50s genre known as the Crusading Liberal Movie, as pioneered by, say, Stanley Kramer. But "Just Cause" doesn't just invert it, it turns it inside out, on its head, upside down and backward, then kicks it in the tail.
The classic Crusading Liberal Movie always featured a Crusading Liberal venturing to some benighted Dixie backwater where brutal, racist cops had railroaded some sainted African-American on a crime he couldn't possibly have committed. It fell to the CL -- superior in morality, intellect and character, as well as wearing nicer clothes -- to explain to the Dixie toad-boys what they'd done, usually prevent a lynching, and cure yellow fever in the bargain. Everyone went home uplifted and purified.
"Just Cause" begins with that same situation. In the crummy Florida backwater of Ocochobee, a handsome young African-American named Bobby Earl (Blair Underwood) is goofing around with his younger brothers when a cop car rolls up and a thuggish redneck in the uniform of a deputy sheriff gets out and manhandles him into the vehicle. Swiftly enough, the young man is being beaten mercilessly toward a confession for the rape and murder of an 11-year-old white girl.
Eight years later, Harvard law professor Paul Armstrong (Sean Connery) eloquently argues against capital punishment, preaching to the converted in a Cambridge auditorium. But after the speech, Bobby Earl's mother approaches him -- she's taken the bus up from the South -- with a letter from the young man imploring him to take an interest in the case, as his execution is drawing near.
For Armstrong, it's a provocative call. The movie explicitly makes the point that his commitment to the cause is quite theoretical: He's never been in a courtroom or a prison, unlike his wife Laurie (Kate Capshaw), now a public defender but a former prosecutor. Laurie even boasts a shiner where a kid slugged her, the purple bruise signifying her immersion in reality as opposed to his aversion to it. He agrees to take the case and heads to Ocochobee.
His first surprise is to discover that the cop who really brutalized the young man hasn't a redneck, but a black one -- Detective Tanny Brown, played by the brilliantly complex Laurence Fishburne. It was Brown who basically masterminded the investigation, the arrest and the conviction on the basis of gut instinct and sheer force. But -- in obedience to the form -- the more Armstrong investigates, the more suspicious it seems. The case revolved around shaky circumstantial evidence and that questionable confession.
Moreover, Bobby Earl turns out to be extremely intelligent, sympathetic and insightful about the forces conspiring to destroy him. Stirred, Armstrong penetrates more deeply, eventually uncovering the real killer, a flamboyant Bible-spouting psychopath (well played by Ed Harris in just a few scenes) and sets in motion the machinery of exculpation.
Ooops. Bad career move, Armstrong.
Armstrong's gullibility is the keynote, and the true journey of the film is his to a more basic truth about human nature. It soon becomes clear he's been manipulated by men whose very existence subverts his creed: That is, evil men, men who will not be delivered when the government has finally figured out how to fine-tune society's mechanism to exclude prejudice and classism. They are bad because they are bad.
Indeed, the movie wanders so far from its seemingly ardent anti-capital punishment position that it invites us to an execution and seduces us into enjoying as a truly evil fellow is fried like a fajita -- after the clever Armstrong has devised a way to enhance his psychological torture just a bit more.
The movie is undone in its final minutes by the sheer logic of its position. Believing not the liberal line that men are good and society is perfectable -- believing instead the conservative that men are evil and society is a jungle -- it crudely manages to get its antagonists into the literal jungle, where they thrash like apes in the muck, conceptual good and evil irrelevant to the reality of strength.