Opening night on Thursday, Sundance threw a grenade into festival-goers’ carefully planned schedules. The following evening, they announced, the festival would host the world premiere of JusticeDoug Liman’s documentary on Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.
Just like last year’s Navalnywho was dropped into the documentary contest 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 it to be kept secret until the very last minute?
After standing in a crowded tent for an hour and entering the jam-packed screening, I can answer that question with: not much. That’s the consensus across the board Justice, at least in this 85-minute festival cut, is devoid of bombshells. A call to the FBI tipline from Kavanaugh’s former Yale classmate Max Stier gets the cloak-and-dagger treatment, with a hidden camera and a digitally disguised voice leading us to a handheld recorder playing Stier’s statement he’s been telling others about. school overheard Kavanaugh’s sexual assault of classmate Deborah Ramirez, who claims Kavanaugh drunkenly stabbed his penis in her face in front of several witnesses. (Kavanaugh has denied all allegations, and he and Stier refused to talk to the filmmakers.) But Stier’s tip and Ramirez’s allegations were widely reported in 2019, and simply hearing his actual call for the first time doesn’t amount to anything coming near a smoking gun.
Then again, is that the yardstick by which to judge a documentary like this – a yardstick that the vast majority of problem-driven non-fiction films fall short of? Even the directors of the film disagreed. After the screening, Liman, the Bourne identity director who made his documentary debut with Justice, which he also self-financed, admitted, “We live in a climate where it didn’t matter what we put into this movie.” (Liman’s father, Arthur Liman, was lead attorney for the Iran-Contra investigation when the soon-to-be filmmaker was in his early 20s, so he’s no stranger to Congressional investigations.) Those who believed Kavanaugh’s denials—or at least Ramirez’s assault claims , Christine Blasey Ford and countless others less important than securing his Supreme Court nomination – would not be swayed by Justice even in the unlikely event that they looked into it, and those who believed his accusers need no further confirmation. “I kind of came to the answer for myself that maybe the truth matters,” Liman continued. “In a hundred years this movie will be around, and maybe that will be it.”
But Amy Herdy, the investigative journalist who led the film’s investigative team, and has worked as an investigator on numerous sexual assault films, including The hunting grounds, On the recordingand All to Farrow, immediately took issue with Liman’s philosophical streak. “Yeah, I’m not happy about that, with all due respect, Doug,” she said. “I really hope this sparks outrage. I hope this leads to action. I really hope this prompts additional investigation with real subpoena powers.” One of the reasons for the film’s short length was the decision to omit any Kavanaugh accusers whose accusations could not be corroborated, and because Ford, who appears at the edge of the frame in the opening shot as Liman tries to convince her to be part of the film, apparently decided not to participate. (Her indelible Senate testimony is included, of course.) But Herdy said that within half an hour of the film’s existence being announced to the world, new tips started pouring in. Justice‘s website, and they may well become part of the final version.
Justice gives Ramirez, who in 2018 said she was willing to testify before Congress but was never called upon, a chance to speak at length, and for experts in psychological trauma to explain why her memory of the attack was in some cases and vague in Others. One of the film’s most damning points is that Republican counsel Rachel Mitchell, who attacked minor blemishes and inconsistencies in Blasey Ford’s testimony in an attempt to undermine her credibility as a witness, had done enough assault prosecution as a prosecutor to understand exactly how traumatic memory works, and knowingly used that experience to attack Blasey Ford. (At one point, she grilled Blasey Ford about whether she’d actually had a conversation on the floor below the room where Kavanaugh allegedly groped her, or if she just knew people were talking.) And though Blasey Ford does not appear herself, several of her childhood friends, who also grew up with Kavanaugh, appear on camera and make it clear that Kavanaugh lied at least under congressional oath about the extent and excess of his high school and college drunkenness – an act in itself should not qualify for an application to the highest court in the land.
The question of whether this matters depends in large part on where you set the bar. Based on this version of Justice, the film has little chance of convincing the FBI to reopen its investigation, much less that investigation uncovering anything that could affect Kavanaugh’s place in court. But it’s an almost impossible goal to expect one movie to succeed where the entire Democratic party apparatus failed. What it could do, especially in an expanded and amplified version, is ensure that Kavanaugh never escapes what Ramirez and Blasey Ford say he did, that all of his statements and public statements are seen through the lens of the person they say he is. That may not matter a hundred years from now, but it may matter now.