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Review: Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995)

Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995)

Directed by: Mick Jackson

Premise: A dramatization of the 1990s court case in which a family owned daycare center was plagued by accusations of satanic ritual child abuse. An ambulance chasing attorney (James Woods) takes on the family’s defense and engages in one of the longest and most expensive trials in American history.

What Works: Indictment is not really a film about child abuse. Rather, it is a story about the abuse of power by prosecutors and by sensational media figures, the impact of nonnegotiable labels thrust on a group of people, and a test of the rule of law in the face of the most disgusting accusations imaginable. These three elements are interrelated and Indictment is a frightening examination of how a society will condemn one of its own out of fear. Indictment smartly and smoothly demonstrates how the prosecutor’s rush to judgment was empowered by media coverage and how the prosecutors and the media figures fed off of each other in a spiral of hysteria. And as the charges against the McMartin family circulate, the film dramatizes how this atmosphere of panic and premature judgment led to a poisoning of the justice system, in which the real victims were the accused. And this is what Indictment does so well; it is a film that takes the theme of ethical comprise and then extrapolates it out through all areas of the picture. One of the compelling things the story does in service of this theme is to demonstrate how nearly everyone in it suffers from a personal failing that is exacerbated by the conditions of the case. Lolita Davidovich plays a therapist who arouses accusations of abuse and Mercedes Ruehl plays the district attorney who prosecutes the case and both actors approach their roles with the fanaticism of a moral crusader. In a funny way the two are empathetic, at least to start, as their actions come out of the concern for the well being of children but as the case goes on their zeal outweighs their reason and in their quest for justice both women lose their ability to discern fact and fantasy. Even the defending attorney, James Woods, is negatively affected by the atmosphere of paranoia as he is tempted to compromise his clients as the case wears on. This ethical swamp in which the McMartin case thrusts its characters is very interesting and the film tells its story with effective pacing and a keen sense for how to integrate expository information into the drama.

What Doesn’t: Indictment was made for HBO in the mid-1990s. Although the story and filmmaking hold up, the presentation of the film on DVD is less than optimal. Hopefully this film will eventually be given a presentation worthy of its excellence.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: Indictment is a very good courtroom drama. Like the best legal films, it makes us reexamine our ideals about justice and its exploration of ethical compromise in the pursuit of righteousness is as relevant now as when the film was made.

Episode: #325 (February 6, 2011)