Gideon’s Army (Dawn Porter, 2013). This documentary examines the grueling, perpetually disheartening work undertaken by public defenders, vital contributors to the principle of equal justice that are severely undervalued. The prevailing storytelling scheme of the day calls for picking a couple cases and follow them through. Director Dawn Porter doesn’t entirely set aside this approach, but the through line cases are visited and revisited in a more sidelong way. She’s concerned with the lawyers actually under the strain of serving the system, assessing their different relationships with the nobility of their work and the echoing inside their respective bank accounts. The film lacks polish, which somehow seems appropriate to the creative mission. Documentary filmmaking is its own form of serving the greater good with only the weakest hope of making a decent living. Gideon’s Army isn’t meant to stir or inspire. Instead, it offers a clear-eyed view of the willful neglect of a primary protections for U.S. citizens.
They Drive By Night (Raoul Walsh, 1940). Based on a 1938 novel by A.I. Bezzerides, this pulpy drama use the plight of truckers as a jumping off point, but eventually incorporates all manner of sordidness, including the requisite femme fatale (Ida Lupino, in a ferocious performance). Director Raoul Walsh knows his way around this sort of material more than most, and he crafts the film with the appropriate interplay of gallows humor and headlong conflict, coming up with the occasionally sly visual, probably smothered in shadows. The film is peppered with colorful performances, including Humphrey Bogart as a hangdog trucker, Alan Hale, Sr. as a guffawing company boss, and Ann Sheridan as a sardonic waitress who gets all the best lines until the dictates of the era relegate her to simpering love interest, a development that happens as quickly and easily as snapping on headlights.
Five Feet Apart (Justin Baldoni, 2019). Built like an young adult novel adaptation, Five Feet Apart is actually an original work, albeit one based on a real couple that inspired the press to routinely evoke John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars in covering their sad, lovely story. Stella (Haley Lu Richardson) and Will (Cole Sprouse) are both teenaged cystic fibrosis patients accustomed to regular hospitalizations. She’s bravely optimistic and regimented. He’s pessimistic and sloppy about his own care. Naturally, they fall for each other, and the film is largely a chronicle of their bittersweet romance with conditions that mandate they stay six feet apart from one another at all times (the five feet of the title is an act of defiance). In his feature debut, director Justin Baldoni handles the material with care and just enough inventiveness to make the mundane, predictable story work, at least until the last act which amps up the drama to level of overt manipulation and, in turn, painful implausibility. Sprouse is solid in his role, but it’s Richardson who continues to prove herself one of the strongest young actors working regularly and prominently in film today. She brings an easy authenticity to every moment, including small, strategic flickers that convey major emotions. Given the chance, she could be her generation’s equivalent of Michelle Williams. She has that kind of talent and onscreen immediacy.