For a director whose career was jumpstarted by Twelve Angry Men‘s behind-closed-doors dissection of legal system justice, it’s hard to fathom what drew Sidney Lumet to Find Me Guilty aside from the opportunity to once again immerse himself in courtroom wrangling. Based on the testimony of the 1987-1988 prosecution of 20 Lucchese crime family members (each with their own personal lawyer) that, at 21 months, became the longest criminal trial in American history, Lumet’s film centers on wiseguy Jack “Jackie Dee” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel), a lunkhead who—having spent more than half his life behind bars, destined to spend 30 more in prison for a prior drug conviction, and disgusted with his shyster lawyer—defended himself in court. Described by the director as “a mob guy, cocaine dealer, liar, cheat, whoremonger—everything unpleasant,” Jackie Dee’s only (supposedly) redeeming feature was his loyalty to his friends and family, a Sopranos-style crew whom he refused to rat out in exchange for a reduced sentence despite the wining and dining of weasely federal prosecutor Sean Kierney (Linus Roache).
Perplexingly, the fact that Jackie’s guiding “honor among thieves” code of conduct was primarily a gangster movie-style fantasy divorced from the less-sunny reality of his situation—a state of affairs proven by Lucchese bigwig Nick Calabrese’s (Godfather alum Alex Rocco) self-centered desire to separate Jackie Dee from the rest of the defense team—turns out to be an issue not worth Lumet’s serious exploration. Instead, the director, so entranced by Jackie Dee’s charismatic jokiness (“I’m not a gangster, I’m just a gagster”) and against-the-odds plight, simply recasts his real-life story as a David-versus-Goliath fable in which unrepentant thugs triumph over underhanded and maniacal government officials. Yet since it’s never in doubt that Jackie Dee and his colleagues are guilty of everything under the sun, the film’s wholehearted alignment with its real-life defendants and ultimate celebration of their victory—an outcome that, given the case’s apparent facts, is never adequately explained by Lumet, T.J. Mancini, and Robert J. McCrea’s lumbering script—feels strangely at odds with the equitable worldview advocated by Lumet’s previous criminal morality plays.
Still, if Find Me Guilty has a screwy ethical compass and ultimately mires itself in so many on-the-stand tête-à-têtes that it appears to be actively trying to replicate what it must have felt like to endure 600-plus days of jury duty, at least Lumet’s direction remains a model of tight, unfussy TV-honed economy. And Diesel, sporting a less-laughable-than-expected head of thinning hair, brings a dejected self-awareness to the foolishly confident Jackie Dee, who, despite his numerous protestations of “love” for his childhood buddies and cohorts, seems to secretly understand that such warm-and-fuzzies won’t be reciprocated should he prove a liability to their own shots at freedom. As for the overacting Peter Dinklage as Calabrese attorney Ben Klandis, though, it’s hard to know which is more excruciating: his performance’s absurdly exaggerated earnestness, or Lumet’s decision, on two separate, drawn-out occasions, to make the diminutive actor patiently wait to address the court until a stepping stool-style pulpit has been wheeled out for his use.