John Grisham was ubiquitous in the early 1990s. After the success of The Firm, there were five additional Grisham adaptations in just a few years. One of the memorable ones is The Pelican Brief, starring Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington. There are few actors more likable in the movies, and in this period they were at the height of their popularity. On top of that, the film was written by Alan J. Pakula, who directed All the President’s Men.
The premise of the film is absurd: after the death of two Supreme Court justices, a Tulane law student (Roberts) and a D.C. reporter (Washington) uncover the conspiracy behind them (it involves an oil tycoon killing the Justices because they were about to rule in favor of environmental protection). Since Washington’s characters works for the fictional newspaper The Washington Herald, many scenes are set in D.C.. When the film works, it because of star power and Pakula’s ability to make a complex, dizzying plot seem credible.
This is an interesting D.C. film because, even more than All the President’s Men, it captures the strange relationship between the White House and the establishment media. Grisham’s conspiracy is fictional, so it does not have the slow burn of Watergate. The weary cynicism of those scenes must have been plausible in the 1990s, but they seem quaint by today’s standards.
Still, there are some moments that are unintentionally hilarious to anyone familiar with D.C. geography. At one point, Washington’s character takes a cab from Georgetown to Georgetown Law School, gets out of the cab by the White House, and runs two blocks to his destination. Those issues notwithstanding, I wouldn’t call The Pelican Brief the best Grisham adaptation. The Firm is a better thriller, while A Time to Kill is a better courtroom drama. But The Pelican Brief deserves a revisit, if only because thrillers like it are all too rare nowadays.