On its opening night on Thursday, Sundance threw a grenade into festival-goers’ carefully planned schedules. The following night, they announced, the festival would host the world premiere of JusticeDoug Liman’s documentary about Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Like last year Navalnywhich was dropped in the documentary competition with 24 hours notice, the sudden appearance of Justice gave the film a sense of urgency and mystery. What kind of explosive revelations could this film contain that would require keeping it under wraps until the very last minute?
After standing in a crowded tent for an hour and making my way through the crowded projection, I can answer that question with: not much. The general consensus is that Justice, at least in this 85-minute “festival cut,” is devoid of bombs. A call to the FBI tip line from Kavanaugh’s former Yale classmate Max Stier gets the coat and dagger treatment, with a hidden camera and a digitally disguised voice leading us to a portable recorder that reads Stier’s statement that he heard others at school talking about Kavanaugh’s sexual assault on classmate Deborah Ramirez, which alleges that Kavanaugh stuck his penis in his face while intoxicated in front of several witnesses. (Kavanaugh denied all allegations, and he and Stier declined to speak to the filmmakers.) But Stier’s tip and Ramirez’s allegations were widely reported in 2019, and just hearing his actual call for the premiere times amounts to nothing close to a smoking gun.
Then again, is that the standard by which a documentary like this should be judged — a standard by which the vast majority of problem-oriented non-fiction films fall short? Even the makers of the film disagreed. After the screening, Liman, the Bourne’s Identity director who made his documentary debut with Justice, which he also financed himself, admitted that “We live in a climate where it doesn’t matter what we put in this movie.” (Liman’s father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel for the Iran-Contra investigation when the would-be filmmaker was in his twenties, so he’s no stranger to congressional investigations.) Those Who Believed Kavanaugh’s denials – or at least viewed the assault allegations advanced by Ramirez, Christine Blasey Ford and many others as less important than securing his Supreme Court nomination – would not be swayed by Justice even in the unlikely event that they find themselves watching him, and those who believed his accusers need no further confirmation. “I kind of came to the answer on my own that maybe the truth matters,” Liman continued. “A hundred years from now this movie will exist, and maybe that’s it.”
But Amy Herdy, the investigative reporter who led the film’s research team and worked as a researcher on numerous sexual assault films, including The hunting ground, On the fileand Allen v. Farrow, immediately challenged Liman’s philosophical bent. “Yeah, I’m not happy about that, with all due respect, Doug,” she said. “I hope this sparks outrage. I hope this sparks action. I hope this sparks further investigation with real subpoena powers. One of the reasons for the film’s short length was the decision to leave out any accusers of Kavanaugh whose allegations could not be corroborated, and because Ford, who appears at the edge of the frame in the foreground as Liman tries to convince her to be part of the film, obviously decided not to not participate.(His indelible Senate testimony is, of course, included.) But Herdy said that less than half an hour after the film’s existence was announced to the world, new advice was coming in. Justice‘s, and they just might end up being part of the final release.
Justice gives Ramirez, who said in 2018 that she was willing to testify before Congress but was never called, a chance to speak at length, and psychological trauma experts to explain why her memory of the assault may be precisely detailed in some cases and vague in others. One of the film’s most damning points is that Republican attorney Rachel Mitchell, who jumped on minor gaps and inconsistencies in Blasey Ford’s testimony in an effort to undermine his credibility as a witness, had worked hard enough. sexual assault case as a prosecutor to figure out exactly how traumatic memory works and knowingly used that experience to attack Blasey Ford instead. (At one point, she grilled Blasey Ford on whether she had actually had an over-the-head conversation from the room where Kavanaugh allegedly groped her, or whether she just knew people were talking.) And while Blasey Ford herself does not appear, several of her childhood friends, who also grew up with Kavanaugh, go on camera and make it clear that Kavanaugh at least lied under oath to Congress about the extent and excess of his high school and college drunkenness – an act that in itself should be disqualified for a claim in the highest court in the land.
Whether that matters largely depends on where you set the bar. Based on this version of Justice, the film is unlikely to convince the FBI to reopen its investigation, let alone that this investigation reveals anything that could affect Kavanaugh’s place on the ground. But it’s an almost impossible goal to expect a movie to succeed where the entire Democratic Party apparatus has failed. What he could do, especially in an expanded and strengthened version, is to help ensure that Kavanaugh never escapes what Ramirez and Blasey Ford say he did, that his every decision and public statement is seen through the lens of who they say he is. It might not matter in a hundred years, but it might matter now.