The Pelican Brief (1993)


Julia Roberts stars as Darby Shaw, a law school student who is having a secret affair with her professor. When two Supreme Court justices are assassinated, Darby begins a small investigation to pinpoint who would want to do such a thing. She writes up a brief, which starts making its rounds in D.C. When her lover is murdered, Darby knows for sure that her theory is true. She teams up with an ambitious investigative reporter (Denzel Washington) and together they set out to reveal the truth. Hopefully they can do it before the powers that be silence them once and for all.

I think that Roberts and Washington are two of the greatest actors in Hollywood. They both give solid performances here and I enjoyed seeing their characters work together and chase the truth. Darby is spunky, clever and quick on her feet. Washington’s Gray Grantham is equally intelligent, but also very smooth and subtle- two qualities that suit him well as a reporter.

A still of Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington in Warner Bros. The Pelican Brief (1993)

The Pelican Brief is based on a John Grisham novel and as to be expected there are certain changes that show up in the film adaptation. Even without having read the novel, it is easy to sense a few holes in the screenplay. One of the biggest being why Darby begins looking into the death of these justices in the first place.

On the other hand, it’s obvious why Gray is so invested. He had previous encounters with one of the justices and as a reporter he feels compelled to seek out the truth and report it.

The idea of political corruption and how rampant it is in D.C. in particular, definitely hits home in light of today’s climate. What Darby uncovers is corruption at the very highest level-the President of the United States has been a part of secret backdoor dealings with a crooked oil tycoon for years.

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A still from Warner Bros. The Pelican Brief (1993)

While The Pelican Brief is very suspenseful, I did find the ending to be somewhat anti-climactic. However, in the movie’s defense it is more of a drama than an action film. The addition of huge explosions and gun slinging would have surely been entertaining, but not very realistic for two people like Darby and Gray. In that way, the more subtle ending does work better.

I liked the camera work featured in the movie, mostly because I can’t say I’ve seen many films shot this way. The focus of the camera plays a significant role in dragging out the suspense and creating apprehension. For example, there is  a moment where Darby and Gray have made a huge discovery that brings them a step closer to solving the case.

As they sit in Gray’s car and discuss heir findings, they are completely unaware that a bomb was planted moments before they got in. Gray goes to start the ignition and Darby puts out a hand to stop him. As the camera focuses on their hands and the suspenseful score swells, I found myself on the edge of my seat!

A still from Warner Bros. The Pelican Brief (1993)

If you are a fan of Roberts and Washington and have a penchant for films from the 90’s- I think that The Pelican Brief is probably one you’ll enjoy. It’s a solid movie and one worth re-watching in fact!

It is written and directed by Alan J. Pakul, based on the novel by John Grisham. It also stars: Sam Shepard, John Heard, Tony Goldwyn, James Sikking, Robert Culp, Stanley Tucci, and John Lithgow with a special appearance by Hume Cronyn.

3 thoughts on “The Pelican Brief (1993)

  1. I re-read this novel so many times, and though I knew Roberts was in it, I completely forgot that Washington was cast in there as well. I need to re-watch it, since I think I watched it last time many many years ago.


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