I set out to review Gideon’s Army last night with a quick comment on the best documentary Oscar race. My quick comment became a long comment as I got a little carried away thinking about what makes a documentary great. Should we hold them to the same standards as we would fiction in terms of style or is it enough to just tell the truth about an important subject?
Gideon’s Army is a fantastic documentary no matter how you look at it. Screened mostly at film festivals in 2013 but now available on Netflix, it follows three young and hopelessly overextended public defenders working in poor areas in the southern US. Anyone who’s ever watched Law & Order knows the Miranda rights, probably by heart. “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed.” Everyone has a right to legal representation, even if your lawyer is taking on up to 180 clients at a time as Brandy Alexander (not even thirty years old yet) has to. A statistic at the beginning of the film states that there are 15, 000 public defenders working in the US right now and together they represent millions of defendants each year.
Gideon’s Army gets the statistics out of the way quick and then puts all its focus on people. The three lawyers that we get to know in the film have to defend both people that they firmly believe to be innocent and people that they know to be guilty and proud to be guilty of unspeakable crimes. They lose sleep over the cases that they are terrified to lose and the lives they are afraid of ruining. In Brandy’s case, she had to represent at least on person who threatened to kill her. The work is so stressful that they have a support group.
One lawyer described being regularly asked “How can you defend those people?”. This is not a popular subject for a doc. Lawyers don’t get much sympathy, especially criminal lawyers, and neither do defendants. The film makes a strong case that the system that claims “Innocent until proven guilty” is really stacked heavily against the accused, especially if the they don’t have money. The system puts tremendous pressure to take a plea bargain, not being able to afford to stay in prison while their house and job slip away as they await trial.
Gideon’s Army potrays those that do their best to keep burnout and pennilessness at bay to defend those that can’t afford to pay them as heroes. Director Dawn Porter’s admiration is understandable. As a social worker, I can cheer for anyone who will take the time to listen to and stand up for those that the rest of the world has seemed to have given up on. I highly recommend you check out this movie.