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‘Justice’ Review: Brett Kavanaugh Doc Should Compel FBI to Reopen Investigation

Sundance: Doug Liman's surprise documentary builds a compelling case.

A review of Brett Kavanaugh documentary "Justice" by Doug Liman.

“Justice”

That sinking feeling you get watching a great conspiracy thriller usually boils down to this: all your worst fears are true.

Doug Liman’s “Justice,” a breathtaking documentary about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s silenced sexual assault accusers, goes a long way to proving the reality of the fears at the heart of this particular case. Mainly, that there was such a desire at several levels of government to see Kavanaugh on the bench that due diligence wasn’t followed, and barely even attempted. A compelling piece of journalism, “Justice” is powered by the same cinematic verve Liman showed in the conspiracy-minded “The Bourne Identity” and “Fair Game.”

Tightly edited to a coiled 84 minutes, the film doesn’t offer quite as many revelations as some might have hoped. But it pieces together what already was known into a compelling argument that calls into question the entire process of Kavanaugh’s confirmation. Key to this is the account of Debbie Ramirez, the Yale undergrad classmate of Kavanaugh who told The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow in 2018 that he shoved his penis in her face at a school party. Reading Farrow’s account was one thing. Hearing Ramirez tell her story in her own words is another, something riveting and heartbreaking as she searches for the words, her eyes darting back and forth as she tries to recollect as much detail as possible, to describe an encounter that’s taken her decades to confront head-on.

Liman was assisted by journalist Amy Herdy, as well as documentarian Liz Garbus and producer Dan Cogan. One of their smartest choices is to involve, as talking heads in this very talking heads-powered doc, psychiatrists and other cognitive experts to talk about the nature of memory. And how just because some traumatic memories are suppressed, or details surrounding the trauma are forgotten, doesn’t mean that the core memory of the trauma is inaccurate. Christine Blasey Ford doesn’t remember how she got home after the high school party where Kavanaugh forced himself on her. That doesn’t mean her core memory of his assault is inaccurate.

Combined with Ramirez’s account, the medical professionals’ perspective is one of the sharpest deconstructions of the eternal “why didn’t she come forward sooner?” argument that bullies victims into silence. And the way in which Blasey Ford and Ramirez remember their assaults is entirely consistent with the way in which victims usually do remember their traumas.

However, Liman has more up his sleeve than just explaining why Kavanaugh’s accusers recall their assaults in the way that they did. He produces another witness, who says on tape (as provided by a source whose identity is deliberately obscured by the filmmakers) that he saw Kavanaugh assaulting another, as-yet-unnamed freshman soccer player at Yale in much the same manner as he exposed himself to Ramirez. That witness is Max Stier, the CEO of Partnership for Public Service, and a longtime politico, who ultimately declined to comment to Liman and Herdy for the film.

All of this is about connecting the dots in the case and raising awareness of something that was forgotten all too quickly in the Republicans’ haste to get him confirmed. Sweeping the accusations against Kavanaugh under the rug was very much the order of the day, Liman makes clear, and he shows media footage from 2018 showing some ordinary Republican voters saying that they thought what he was accused of doing was nothing other than what “every testosterone-fueled 17-year-old boy does.” In the rush to have Kavanaugh become a Supreme Court Justice, there were then two arguments: that the accusations against him were untrue, and that even if they were true they didn’t matter, they were a long time ago, and you shouldn’t care.

That second argument feels especially crucial. The most heartbreaking part of Ramirez’s account is her talking about how she remembers her friends laughing at her as Kavanaugh put his penis in her face — their cold, mocking, shaming, hateful laughter. They were trying to rob her of her dignity then, and denying dignity to some people is a way in which some others gain power. Certainly that’s how high school and college bullies find power. That’s how sexual assaulters, and their enablers, can find power too. The enablers, sometimes society writ large, contribute to the stripping of dignity via mocking and shaming of the victims, then by calculated indifference and forgetting about them altogether. Denying dignity also feels especially like the m.o. of this current Supreme Court.

All of this in “Justice” is effective at getting us mad again, but it doesn’t feel enough to threaten Kavanaugh’s place on the court. The Senate is too close and the House is now in the hands of the Republicans, and there’s zero chance he could ever be impeached and removed. The one thing where “Justice” makes you think a new investigation could happen is in the astounding way it reveals text message exchanges from fellow Yale classmates that feel directed, months before any of the accusatory accounts against Kavanaugh were produced in his confirmation hearings or by Farrow’s New Yorker article, at getting ahead of any potential accusers. They suggest that Kavanaugh was worried Ramirez and more might try to resurface what he knew he had done to them, was anticipating them airing their accounts and was trying to get ahead of them to control the narrative himself.

If that’s the case, aside from a near-admission of culpability in these cases, it raises the potential specter of conspiracy, obstruction, and even witness tampering. That especially would merit another look from the FBI, though “Justice” claims the Bureau gave only the most perfunctory investigation the first time around (perhaps because, as Herdy suggested in the post-screening Q&A at the film’s Sundance world premiere, Yale classmates Kavanaugh and FBI director Christopher Wray were friends dating back to that time).

The filmmakers clearly left a good bit on the cutting room floor: in the post-screening Q&A, Herdy said she knows who paid all of Kavanaugh’s debts (a source of some mystery and speculation) but would not reveal it here, in part because it was irrelevant to the main focus of the film. The result is a very swiftly paced film, and one of the more effective talking head-driven docs in recent memory. It would have done well to leave Lincoln Project co-founder and MSNBC mainstay Rick Wilson out of the film, however — perhaps MSNBC will be the natural home for “Justice” when all is said and done, but that raises fears that “Justice” will only preach to the choir.

Does it matter that Kavanaugh was just a teenager when these things happened? The American right insists that it does, with its “boys will be boys”-adjacent refrain. One might also argue, especially in light of Stier’s account, that the teenage Brett Kavanaugh accused of forcing himself on a high school classmate and accused of exposing himself to several at Yale was the real Brett Kavanaugh, not yet mediated and mitigated by his desire to conform to social conventions and social climbing. Isn’t every high school bully on some level still a high school bully even when they’ve grown up?

“Justice” probably won’t cause the FBI to relaunch an investigation, though it should. It likely won’t move the needle of public opinion. Those who support him and his appointment cannot be swayed, the partisan lines are too dug in. The best thing that it could hope to do is inspire others with knowledge of Kavanaugh’s alleged misdeeds (or ones that we don’t even know about yet) to come forward. In that case, all our worst fears being true wouldn’t be the most shocking thing about the Supreme Court Justice. It’d be that there are things we haven’t even thought to fear about him yet.

Grade: B+

“Justice” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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