It is not common for documentaries to make me feel angry, but the longer I think about Gideon’s Army, the more annoyed with it I get. The reason is that I think it is intending to advocate for a group of people that deserve more support than they get, operating in an environment in need of reformation. It’s a film about Public Defenders – court-appointed lawyers for those accused of crimes. The film loosely tracks a key case for each of three public defenders through the system, humanizing the lawyers and their clients, showing the effects of stress on both. It ends with a miniature courtroom drama for the most complex of the cases it follows. The lawyers they chose were fascinating, intelligent, driven, hard-working people. They seemed to be examples of the best that the public service could hope to offer.
The problem is that its focus is too close, too human, too personal. It does little more than manipulate the emotions – you might as well watch a couple of episodes of The Practice. It does not explore any of the systemic or structural factors leading to crime, driving investigative techniques, the structure of plea-bargains, the funding structures of the service, the political implications of backing judicial reform, the logic of sentencing (esp Mandatory Minimums, which are key to the emotional centre of the film), the psychology of the defence lawyer, the relationship between the defence and offence, the career structure of a defence lawyer, whether there are alternative structures for this service… it is totally content to parade traumatized people before the camera very intermittently interspliced with black placards signposting that there are bigger issues in play, even if the film isn’t going to deal with them.
This was the very definition of infotainment, and I have no interest in anything so nakedly devoid of intellectual content. It’s a huge pity, because this was the filmmaker’s opportunity to fully and properly advocate for a cause, to set before a wide audience facts and advance a course of corrective action for the problems they show. What a huge missed opportunity to do something really worthwhile, especially since the access they clearly had, and the people they chose to follow, could easily – in their sleep – have put strong arguments forward for everything this documentary didn’t do but should have.