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Find Me Guilty

PostPosted: Mon Feb 12, 2007 4:57 pm
by howardschumann(d)
Directed by Sidney Lumet (2006), 125 minutes

If you think that a mobster with a sixth-grade education entertaining a court with quips and off-color jokes while conducting his own defense is only possible on television or novels, think again. Sidney Lumets Find Me Guilty is based on the true story of Giacomo Jackie DiNorscio, a member of New Jerseys Lucchese crime family who, while serving a thirty-year sentence, acted as his own attorney in a criminal trial that lasted 22 months. The trial, which took place from 1987-1988 in Newark, New Jersey, included twenty lawyers defending twenty clients against seventy six charges and became one of the longest running criminal trials in American history.

The film died a quick death at the box office, possibly because shortly after its release, author Robert Rudolph filed suit in New Jersey federal district court against the makers of the film, alleging that it was a 'blatant and wholesale theft of his 1992 book about the Lucchesi trials. It did, however, get mostly good critical reviews and was chosen by Chicago film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as one of the ten best films of 2006. Culled from the 40,000 pages of actual court transcripts, the film focuses on DiNorscio, played by action hero Vin Diesel, who turns the trial into a stand-up comedy routine.

Diesel wore a hairpiece, gained thirty pounds, and spent time with the real DiNorscio during filming, carefully studying the mannerisms and facial expressions of the crime figure to deliver a completely believable and sympathetic performance. The outstanding cast also includes Peter Dinklage (The Station Agent) as attorney Ben Klandis, sympathetic to DiNorscio, Linus Roache as beleaguered Federal Prosecutor Sean Kierney, Alex Rocco as bitter Mafia boss Nick Calabrese, Ron Silver as Judge Finestein, and Annabella Sciorra in a terrific performance as Jackies wife who visits him in prison.

The film opens when Tony, DiNorscios drug-addled cousin, shoots him four times. DiNorscio refuses to name his assailant and is sentenced to 22 to 30 years on narcotics charges, forced to stand trial along with nineteen members of the Lucchese gang on crimes ranging from gambling, loan sharking, and drug dealing to sabotaging legitimate businesses. In the trial, prosecution witnesses are mostly junkies, dealers, and convicted criminals on the Witness Protection Program who openly admit their crimes and are easy bait for DiNorscios savage humor which is carefully woven into the script. When asked by the judge if he had any legal experience, DiNorscio tells him "I've been in prison half my life". He tells the jury "I'm a gagster, not a gangster."

DiNorscio successfully undermines undercover police officers by showing how they stereotype Italians and cuts the rug out from those who turned States witness to feed their drug habit. Though he freely admits to being a liar, cocaine dealer, and womanizer, DiNorscio gains our sympathy because he refuses to cut any deals with the prosecution and remains loyal to his friends. Find Me Guilty is an attack on a flawed American justice system and the opportunism of government, police, and their lawyers who rely on damaged witnesses and proceed from false or unquestioned assumptions. Unfortunately, while the film has some very strong reasons to recommend it, it hardly presents a balanced picture.

Providing only a quick scan of the many months of trial, Lumet is so intent in portraying DiNorscio as a loyal family man who speaks from the heart that it borders on romanticizing organized crime. None of the evidence against the defendants is clearly spelled out and we do not get a clear sense of whether justice was done. There is also no mention in the film of the fact that four days after the verdict, according to court records, two of the defendants, Ricciardi and Accetturo began cooperating with state and federal authorities, telling state investigators about a jury fix in the trial. It does, however, deliver the laughs.