Find Me Guilty: Lumet’s Last Film, Starring Vin Diesel

Sidney Lumet’s latest, “Find Me Guilty,” his first feature in years, is disappointing, both as a new morality tale for our times and as an old-fashioned courtroom drama, mostly due to Vin Diesel’s unsympathetic and unconvincing central performance.

It’s an irony that the worst aspect of the film is the peacock-like turn of Vin Diesel (who’s in every scene), though without his star clout and bankability, the film would not have been made in the first place.

Nominally, the film’s topic is perfect for Lumet who, pushing 82, has become the oldest working director in American film. Lumet’s specialty over the past fifty years have been urban morality tales about loyalty, betrayal, and redemption, usually within the police force or judicial system, from his very first film, the brilliant courtroom drama “12 Angry Men” through the great masterpieces of the 1970s, “Serpico, “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “Network,” all the way to the early 1980s “Prince of the City” and “The Verdict,” arguably his last satisfying picture.

The film is based on the true story of Giacomo Jackie Dee DiNorscio (Diesel), a member of New Jerseys notorious Lucchese crime family. In the midst of serving a 30-year sentence, Jackie is offered an opportunity to shorten his time by testifying against many of his friends. Disgusted with the legal system bureaucracy, and refusing to betray his family, Jackie stands trial as defendant and attorney. Im no gangster, Im a gagster, insists Jackie as he overcomes the complicated politics of the courtroom, and comfortably takes over the spotlight. With his outrageous sense of humor, raw determination, and unconditional loyalty, Jackie never fails to surprise the judge, the jury, or his skeptical fellow defendants.

The ambiguously titled “Find Me Guilty” depicts the longest criminal trial in U.S. history. In the picture, the passage of time during the 21-month-trial is indicated with the insertion of title cards, such as Day 181, Day 523. After years of federal investigation, 20 members of the Lucchese crime family are brought to court on 76 different charges. The government is prepared to take down one of the mobs biggest crime families, until one defendant decides to do the unthinkable: defend himself.

Though set in 1987-8, the Lucchese trial has continued to stand out as an epic moment in courtroom history: 20 defendants, 20 defense attorneys (one for each defendant), eight jury alternates (due to the anticipated length of the trial and the fear of bribery), and unusually extensive summations (one defense lawyers closing statement ran for five days).

Despite the fact that most of the courtroom testimony in the movie is drawn from actual trial transcripts, Lumet, further defeated by Diesel, can’t find the right tone for his saga, vacillating between humor and tragedy. And even though Jackies desperate personal journey culminates in one of the most shocking verdicts in American judicial history, it’s hard to root for this (anti) hero, because we never know what’s the filmmakers’ approach toward the character.

The original screenplay by Lumet, T.J. Mancini and Robert McCrea, is mostly routine, examinations and counter-examinations of witnesses in what’s basically a workable fodder for a TV Movie of the Week. What’s missing and prevent the story from being more exciting are Lumet’s signature devices and motifs, the fervent excitement and raw energy of his characters, so well played by Al Pacino (and others) in the 1970s and 1980s.

Watching this picture is witnessing the work of an efficient, seasoned director. Hes one of the most thoroughly organized directors that Ive ever worked with, and Ive worked with quite a few. Shooting a film with him is pure execution. It allows us to just fly through the material, says producer Robert Greenhut in the press notes. Lumets brisk pace is remarkable, he’s known for doing one or two takes. Unfortunately, these assets result in a craftsman-like movie, well below Lumet’s high standards.

In Diesel’s monotonous interpretation, the character’s complexities and contradictions never come across. Jackie DiNorscio is meant to be a wild man, a mobster, cocaine dealer, liar, whoremonger–everything unpleasant–and yet a guy with humanity and feelings: His loyalty to his family is steadfast, and the humor he brings into the courtroom is remarkable.

The scope of the trial, which forms the core of Jackies story, should have given Lumet a massive canvas to show how politics, the judicial system, the media, and celebrity status interface and possibly affect the jury’s deliberation and verdict.

As a potentially compelling story about a complex person, who had his own moral universe, Finding Me Guilty is a missed opportunity. Facing 30 years in prison, they offered to shave time off his sentence if he was a cooperative witness, but Jackie would rather spent is life in jail than lie or rat out friends he had known since childhood.

Jackie is meant to be a natural, charismatic showman. The prison’s newspapers compared him to Jackie Gleason. He was a tough anti-hero with a big heart, an underdog who went up against the FBI and the best prosecutor in the state, but the screenwriters strain to incorporate DiNorscios sense of humor into the script. Moreover, Diesel fails to demonstrate in his conduct Jackie’s motto–that he was a comedian, not a gangster–and thus the whole notion of the trial as a riotous circus is not depicted on screen.

In shooting the picture, Lumet sought the convenience and artistry of high-definition video. Having shot his A&E crime drama series, 100 Centre Street, on high-def, he seems to value the speed that it offers in the physical process of shooting a film, allowing him to work at a brisk tempo. HD also offers real color and a more naturalistic look, as if seen by the naked eye.

Lumet’s 1974 masterpiece, Dog Day Afternoon, took place in one location, a bank, but he was able to portray the building tension between people in a claustrophobic environment over a long period of time. The earlier 12 Angry Men was also shot primarily in one room, with the dramatic truths squeezed out of a great ensemble of character actors.

Cinematographer Ron Fortunato, who has worked with Lumet on 100 Centre Street and HBO’s telefilm Strip Search, doesn’t quite meet the challenge of shooting inside one room. This is the most interior movie Lumet has done; half of the script is shot in the courtroom, and it gets repetitious and tedious.

Instead of a long shape, with a bowling lane going down the middle of the visitor section, Lumet has opted for space that’s twice as wide as it was long to accommodate the seating of 40 defendants. Since the government knew the trial would take a long time, they had eight alternate jurors, a total of 20 people in the jury box, all of whom had to able to see whoevers testifying. To convey it visually, Lumet has moved the witness box in front of the judges bench, rather than to the side.

This trial took place in Newark Federal Courthouse, which is all dark wood, but Lumet and his team have decided to make it a little grander with marble and a warm color to reflect the various emotions that prevailed in the courtroom. To further authenticity, the production designer brought a natural wear-and-tear to the courthouse with fabricated stains, watermarks, chipped plaster, and worn paint. In addition to the main courthouse, the film’s sets include the prison where the mobster is incarcerated. Jackie was at Manhattan Correctional Facility, but Lumet felt that it didnt have enough character, so he has modeled it more after the ones upstate in Sing Sing.

The supporting cast almost compensate for Diesel’s failure to command the screen. The colorful ensemble includes Peter Dinklage as sympathetic attorney Ben Klandis, Linus Roache as Federal Prosecutor Sean Kierney, Alex Rocco as mob boss Nick Calabrese, Ron Silver as Judge Finestein (Silver is the only one in the cast who worked with Lumet before, on Garbo Talks), and best of all, Annabella Sciorra, as Jackie’s ex-wife, who shines in her one scene in prison.

In theory, “Find Me Guilty” tries to differentiate itself from other films in the genre by stressing DiNorscios chief asset, his fearless sense of humor. Jackie used this natural gift to charm the jury and make a mockery of the federal prosecutors. Its a bizarre situation that a trial could last for two years and that someone so uneducated could successfully defend himself and even win the hearts and minds of the jury. In practice, however, we’re stuck with Vin Diesel for two hours in the same room, which is not much fun.