(director/writer: Alan J. Pakula; screenwriter: from the novel by John Grisham; cinematographer: Stephen Goldblatt; editors: Tom Rolf/Trudy Ship; music: James Horner; cast: Julia Roberts (Darby Shaw), Denzel Washington (Gray Grantham), Sam Shepard (Thomas Callahan), John Heard (Gavin Vereek), James B. Sikking (FBI Director, Denton Voyles), Stanley Tucci (Khamel), John Lithgow (Smith Keene), Hume Cronyn (Judge Rosenberg), Ralph Cosham (Judge Jensen), Tony Godwyn (Fletcher Coal), Jake Weber (Curtis Morgan/Garcia), Anthony Heald (Marty Velmano ), Robert Culp (President), William Atherton (CIA Director, Bob Gminski), Christopher Murray (Rupert); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Alan J. Pakula/Pieter Jan Brugge; Warner Bros.; 1993)

A juicy conspiracy theory thriller.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A juicy conspiracy theory thriller by writer-director Alan J. Pakula (“Klute”/”All the President’s Men”), who does a fine job adapting it from the best-seller novel by John Grisham. The 24-year-old Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) is a bright law student at Tulane, who is having an affair with her charismatic law professor, the middle-aged, Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepherd). The newspaper headlines cry out in bewilderment that two sitting Supreme Justices, one an elderly curmudgeon liberal (Hume Cronyn) and the other a closeted homosexual conservative (Ralph Cosham), are assassinated. Darby figures out that their puzzling murders can be attributed to a shadowy wealthy Louisiana oil man who lost a civil law suit because of the two murdered justices agreeing on environmental issues. The oil man is intent on trampling over the fragile bayou and its endangered brown pelican population to pull off a billion-dollar oil reserve deal. Darby, after researching the pelican civil law suit, writes a speculative legal brief pointing the finger at the oil man who wants new judges to hear his appeal. Her mentor reads the brief and is so impressed that he hands it over to his friend, an FBI lawyer, Gavin Vereek (John Heard). He’s so impressed he has the FBI director Denton Voyles (James B. Sikking), who has no suspects, read it, and he’s so impressed he assigns a number of agents to investigate before the WH chief of staff gets him to stop the investigation of the President’s biggest contributor. When Thomas is killed by a car bomb in New Orleans, Darby realizes she’s in danger and contacts Gavin for help. But he’s killed by the hitman Khamel (Stanley Tucci), who in turn is killed by a CIA agent (Christopher Murray) secretly protecting her. In disguise and frightened while stalked by various hitmen around New Orleans, Darby contacts by phone Washington Herald hotshot investigative journalist Gray Granthan (Denzel Washington). He’s been receiving anonymous calls by a frightened local man (Jake Weber) claiming to have info on who killed the justices. The crusading reporter agrees to team with the law student to continue to investigate despite the dangers. It builds suspense through paranoia, chases, explosions, and gun executions by various hitmen. The President (Robert Culp) is viewed as a shifty fool, his chief of staff (Tony Goldwyn) as a power-hungry manipulator, the CIA head (William Atherton) and the FBI head are seen as unscrupulous but clever political players, while a criminal law firm representing the oil man is seen as willing to do anything for its only client. Pakula weaves this hard to believe complex story into something believable and keeps it suspenseful, only he fails to give it a strong ending (following suit with the book).