Outside of the courtroom, there are truly no viable comparisons to the Public Defender. Given to alleged criminals when they cannot afford an attorney themselves, these men and women often times carry triple digit cases actively, with low pay and long hours coming in toe. Over worked and under paid, they serve the best interest of fellow men and women who themselves don’t have enough money or resources to get defense for themselves, or even find enough money to make bail.
However, while the courtroom has been fodder for some truly interesting bits of drama, very few times has the filmic spotlight been placed upon the world of the public defender. That is, until now.
HBO is set to air, this Monday, a new documentary entitled Gideon’s Army, and while it may seem like nothing more than a standard issue documentary looking at the criminal justice system, there are very few recent documentaries quite as dramatic and engaging.
Directed by Dawn Porter, Gideon’s Army follows the story of three different Public Defenders who are doing their best against the steepest of odds. Case loads hitting the triple digits, little to no pay and even less respect, these three men and women are working for those who truly need their help.
The film introduces us to the trio of Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander and June Hardwick, all under the watchful eye of a man named Jonathan Rapping, three men and women who are working in the south trying to help change their respective worlds. Coming almost five decades following the Supreme Court case Gideon vs. Wainwright that firmly guaranteed a man or woman’s right to counsel, be it personally found or found by the state, this film paints a deeply affecting portrait of three men and women giving their lives to their job.
Stealing the show is Brandy Alexander, a woman who we follow, arguably, the most. Dealing with a case involving a young man who is being charged with armed robbery, her story is both troubling and yet absolutely eye opening. It’s troubling in that, despite putting in hundreds of hours (so many that a co-worker says that she herself has to be kicked out of her office in order to stop working), the support both emotionally and fiscally comes in small packages. She is part of a collective of Public Defenders who meet to help support one another, but the pressure is still on. It’s also eye opening in that she is absolutely up front about her doubts about the job, and also herself.
That’s where the greatness within this film comes. Yes, the film is relatively interesting with regards to the overall criminal justice system (not quite like a scathing bit of non-fiction filmmaking like The House I Live In, but nonetheless entrancing), but the real reason to see this picture is the breathtaking human drama. Concluding in one of the most exciting final acts I’ve seen in documentary cinema this year, the film thrives when it steers away from meditating on the criminal justice system, and just allows the viewer to live in the lives of these perfectly fleshed out, human, characters.
Shot intimately, the film’s aesthetic is also quite intriguing. Never allowing itself to get bogged down in silly flights of cinematic fancy, Porter’s film is quaint, quiet and most importantly truthful in its portrait of these human beings. Occasionally hitting the proverbial nail on the head thematically, the film is a top notch human drama that thrives when the cameras are allowed to linger, allowed to encapsulate the plight that these Public Defenders, and also the men and women who are seeing their lives depending on them, all while building tense drama and narrative power.
Opening with as upsetting a coda as one could imagine (a person being sent to prison for 10 years, despite having the chance to have his charges dropped if he could only find someone to post bail), the film never lets up on the drama, and for that, it’s something to really keep an eye on. Debuting on HBO this very week, the film is one of the more intriguing watches available from the comfort of your own home. It’s yet another great documentary in a long line of non-fiction films to hit the channel.