Dawn Porter’s documentary “Gideon’s Army,” which premiered earlier this year at Sundance, had its HBO debut July 1. The film, which follows overworked yet idealistic public defenders in the deep South, has gained high praise from critics: the Village Voice hails it as “the most illuminating crime drama since ‘The Wire,'” while the New York Times claims it will “grab you by the throat.” Look out for this one come Oscar season. Review roundup below.
Missed “Gideon’s Army” the first time around? It airs on HBO for encore screenings on July 3 and July 7, and is available at any time via HBO GO.
“Gideon’s Army” is a bare film with no narrator and a
minimal soundtrack. That’s all it needs to grab you by the throat.
Among the revelations you’re likely to experience during the
course of Gideon’s Army, Dawn Porter’s vital, moving new HBO documentary
(premiering July 1) about the struggle of conscience waged by public defenders
in the deep South: “Everyone is so young.” Not just the suspects —
mostly black and mostly broke — whom we see ground through the criminal
justice system in places like Clayton County, Georgia, where posting bond on a
shoplifting charge can run an unconscionable $40,000.
It’s the defenders themselves whose youth is so touching. In
their mid-to-late 20s, facing impossible caseloads, inhumane hours, and an
intractable system, as well as their own mounting student loans and the
certainty that their law school peers are by comparison drawing serious bank,
these tough-willed attorneys seem fueled entirely by a youthful zest for
In this comprehensive revelation of the craziness and
dysfunction of the world of public defenders, filmmaker Porter sagely shows us
the personal toll it takes on the lawyers. All three can barely make it from
paycheck-to-paycheck, and they have serious trouble detaching from their work,
which leads to disrupted personal lives.
Overall, Gideon’s Army is an eye-opening insight into a
judicial hellhole world that ordinary citizens can never imagine. Throughout the unsung heroism of these three
warriors in the legal trenches is fittingly stirred.
The soldiers of “Gideon’s Army,” Dawn Porter’s stirring
debut docu, are public defenders — lawyers who dedicate themselves to
representing the indigent, and regularly answering the question, “How can you
defend those people?” Like the film itself, Porter’s handful of devoted,
charismatic attorneys do a righteous job of reminding people that the accused
are innocent until proven guilty, and that the criminal justice system seems
otherwise disposed. Specialty release is a distinct possibility; festival word
of mouth will be strong. But HBO will provide the kind of exposure the issue
“GIDEON’S Army” does what the best documentaries have always
done: It makes us think about something we’d rather not.
Porter’s film is not just a stirring testament to those
taking on a Herculean task of bringing some sense of fairness and balance to an
out of whack structure, but a reminder that there is still a far distance to go
before everyone is equally represented in front of lady justice.