High Crimes (2002)


Just when you think it’s safe to trust the U.S. military again (at least according to CNN, et. al.), here comes another movie about corruption, subterfuge, and egomania run amok in the Marines. Carl Franklin’s High Crimes concerns Clair Kubik (Ashley Judd), a self-assured, local-superstar San Francisco lawyer who discovers, under the direst of personal circumstances, that the Corps is a bastion of lunatics who are committed first and foremost to covering their own asses, with lethal force. Moreover, said lunatics believe with all their hearts that we “can’t handle” knowing about their undercover, underhanded means of the defending the American Way. This newsflash horrifies Claire, who apparently missed A Few Good Men.

None of the smug, rancorous Marines in High Crimes makes such a memorable assertion of their principles, or quite so forcefully explain the myopic general public’s need for their services. But the film is evidently banking on its audience getting the basic idea, in ways that poor Claire just never can. Maybe she’s just too close to it all.

So as to underscore her learning curve, she starts off rather far away from it — military culture, ethos, and rationales — rather like most civilians. Or not. Claire is an exceptional civilian, in every way. Not only is she a brilliant defense attorney who gets her accused-rapist client a new trial by outwitting the prosecutor, and appear so photogenically on tv to boot, she also has a gorgeous home in Marin County, an expensive SUV, and a pretty husband named Tom (Jim Caviezel), introduced doing something in his workshop, meaning, I guess, that he’s creative or good with his hands or something. Claire and Tom have the perfect relationship: they hold hands when they go Christmas shopping, and take time out of their schedules to “make a baby” when her self-test tells her she’s ovulating, after which speed-sex session, she jumps in the SUV, sets up her day on her cell phone, then kicks butt at work; later that evening, she plays pool with hubby and watches herself on tv at the local bar, where everyone probably knows her name.

Claire’s perfect existence is, of course, about to be shattered by those folks who commit high crimes for a living. Tom is suddenly arrested and charged with mass murder. Seems that his real name is Ron Something-or-other, and he was once a classified military operative whose squad was assigned to find a guerilla leader in Las Colinas, a teeny village in El Salvador, in 1988. Nine civilians were slaughtered, My Lai-style (the movie is based on a novel, by Joseph Finder, characterized on the film’s website as “an expert on the CIA and international politics”), and the brass is still looking for a Calley-style scapegoat, 15 years later. Why, we’ll never know. High Crimes is most definitely not interested in logic, and it’s not exactly clear what it is interested in, except maybe broad ideological concepts, or moral indictments. It also wants to set up thrills, chills, and emotional climaxes, these hammered repeatedly by Graeme Revell’s intrusive score.

Any surprises, though, only come when the film totally loses its mind (and sadly, that only happens a couple of times, briefly). For the most part, the plot turns are wholly predictable. After all, this is a movie starring Ashley Judd, whom someone has determined is the ideal Flinty Woman in Danger; see, for the most famous instance, Double Jeopardy. Moreover, it’s an Ashley Judd movie co-starring Morgan Freeman, again as the stereotypically earnest and sexless mentor. To be fair, his Charlie Grimes is slightly different than the world-weary detective he played in Kiss the Girls: for one thing, Charlie’s a down-on-his-luck, recovering-alcoholic, dog-loving, sneaky-smart attorney who’s been drummed out of the Corps for assaulting an officer (of course, he had his own admirable reasons). And for another, he’s got hair that stands up.

Claire meets Charlie because, quite preposterously, she decides to defend Tom/Ron at the court martial (Tom/Ron keeps telling her that she can’t beat the system, which only fuels her desire to do so; gee, do you think this will figure in one of the plot turns?). She makes this decision when she sees that his designated attorney is First Lt. Embry (Adam Scott), who has never won a case and looks like he’s 12. Claire decides that to get the job done, she needs someone who has tangled legally with the military before, and better, someone who’s won against the military. Charlie is that guy, but he comes with the usual baggage, including anger at his old employers, a few leftover enmities, no decent suit, and oh yes, that drinking thing (which figures prominently in a couple of the predictable plot turns). Still, it must be said that watching Freeman and Judd together is a generally good thing: they are elegant and efficient performers, not a glance or finger to the temple wasted, unless, of course, you consider that they occur in the context of this movie.

Once Claire and Charlie dig into their defense, they discover (oh shocking!) some problems with Tom/Ron’s story, which is illustrated in grainy flashback “footage” inserts, showing varying versions of what happened: either Tom/Ron kills everyone, or the man he’s accusing does it, this man being a Latino officer with a portentous scar over his eye and permanent sneer on his face, one Major Hernandez (Juan Carlos Hernandez). Tom/Ron insists that his superiors are framing him, one being Hernandez’s immediate boss, Brig. General Marks (Bruce Davison, who actually looks more sad than menacing).

Whenever Claire looks for “evidence,” she finds herself facing any number of scary guys and in any number of dreadful situations (home invasion, car wreck, circling-camera revelation scene, etc.). And still, she falls again and again for Tom/Ron’s recurring duplicity (I mean, even for a supposed Cipher Guy, his layers of lies are head-spinning, and obvious). I suppose she has her own admirable reasons, but they don’t have much to do with the reality the film offers. For example: Tom/Ron wants so badly to preserve Claire’s “trust” (after lying to her for years) that he takes and passes a polygraph test, even though it’s inadmissible in the court martial. Minutes later, the more dismal “truth” descends on Claire, when she learns from a helpful, if baleful, nobody who sidles up to her in the supermarket, that special ops guys are trained to “beat the box.” Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

In order to lighten the mood a little, and provide yet another damsel to be distressed, the film provides meticulous Claire with a tarted-up sister, Jackie (Amanda Peet, who is spectacularly, even unaccountably, bright in a very, very dull part). She’s been evicted from her apartment, and so arrives on Claire’s own re-located doorstep, near the Georgia Marine base where Tom/Ron’s incarcerated. Jackie wears dramatic eye makeup, cute little knit tops and caps; and is not nearly so wealthy or self-righteous as her sister (which the film translates as “loose” and, eventually, nonjudgmental). She’s a cute foil who also provided girly support for Claire in the midst of all those mens!

For Claire, the most significant of the mens is, of course, Charlie (Tom/Ron is, from jump, merely the occasion for Claire’s journey of self-discovery, equally bland whether you understand him as victim, villain, or straight-up psycho). Claire does wonder, at one point, why Charlie has never left the base area, a location where he has plainly been ill-served (when Claire meets him, he’s making a meager living defending local hookers when they’re picked up servicing the men on the base), but really, it’s clear that Charlie is in town to wait for her arrival, this case, and his redemption.

It’s in this relationship that the film’s clearly well intentioned race politics falls apart. On one level, Charlie is one of those “colorblind” characters you’ve heard tell about (he might have been played by any actor around Freeman’s age, as he makes no clear reference to the racism that might have affected his career). But on another, this very construction (of “colorblind” casting or writing) is troubling. It’s one thing for the movie to overlook the racism of its several scenarios, for instance, the “historical” events in El Salvador, in which the massacre is represented as the act of a deviant individual, covered up by the institution, but not as a systemic and ongoing problem.

And it’s a similar thing for the movie to overlook its own dicey representations of Latinos, either the snidely Hernandez and the intimidating El Salvadoran fellow who appears out of nowhere, to threaten and then offer crucial clues to the slow-on-the-uptake Claire. But it’s another thing to cut Charlie out of these troubling moments and their resolutions. Really, you’d like to imagine that, having survived the Marines and the legal system, he’s wilier than that.