Doug Liman’s Kavanaugh Doc Wants Our Outrage
Feb 1, 2023
On the opening day of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, Doug Liman’s “Justice” was announced as a last-minute, top-secret addition to the lineup. The news raised eyebrows, not only because it would mark the documentary debut of the 57-year-old filmmaker — known for action thrillers such as “The Bourne Identity” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” — but also because “Justice” aimed to re-examine a shameful episode in recent history: the contentious appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court in 2018 despite incriminating allegations of sexual assault against him.
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Assisted by journalist Amy Herdy, who wrote and produced the film, Liman constructs “Justice’” as an engaging journalism documentary. Over its economical 86-minute runtime, the film features an extensive list of talking heads: lawyers, journalists, psychologists, and accusers who all paint an intricate portrait of injustice. If there is still a question of whether due diligence was followed when the FBI investigated the mounting evidence, “Justice” equips itself to erase those doubts. Even though a large part of the film underlines information already known and documented, Liman works overtime in piecing them together into a competent argument that illustrates for viewers — in vivid detail — just how conveniently all of it was overlooked.
In that sense, “Justice” remains concerned primarily with rekindling our outrage instead of offering explosive, new revelations that could have done it anyway. Key to this approach is the film foregrounding the account of Deborah Ramirez, Kavanaugh’s Yale classmate who came forward with her story during the nomination process. In 2018, Ramirez told Ronan Farrow that Kavanaugh had pushed his penis in her face during a drunken campus party in the 1980s.
Ramirez appears on camera for the first time in “Justice,” recollecting in excruciating, extensive detail the humiliation she endured at Kavanaugh’s hands. Even as she wrestles with her memory of the incident, she admits to distinctly remembering the image of Kavanaugh and her friends cruelly laughing when he exposed himself to her. The shame she felt back then was replicated in the mockery of justice that ensued in 2018: Kavanaugh denied the incident ever occurred, and Ramirez was never called to testify by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
There are two things that Liman achieves by bringing Ramirez on camera. First, he proves the crucial difference between reading Ramirez’s testimony on paper and hearing it in her own words. Despite our awareness of the turn of events, watching Ramirez find the words to confront the traumatic memory that has consumed much of her adult life is goosebump-inducing. That we can see the disturbing politics at play — a biracial woman assaulted by a white, privileged man in a white-male-dominated Yale — makes her indictment even more powerful. Second and more importantly, Liman employs Ramirez’s account to have viewers contend with the thorny nature of memory itself.
To that end, “Justice” reveals a significant thematic flourish by involving clinical psychologists and forensic experts as talking heads to offer context about suppressed memories in the wake of a traumatic incident. Sure, it could seem ridiculous that a film about assault has to spend considerable time outlining the believability of survivor accounts, even if there are gaps in their retelling of the events. But the deconstruction feels necessary considering how often judicial processes use the fragmented nature of a survivor’s memories against them. It’s preposterous, the film claims, to dismiss a survivor’s testimony just because some details surrounding the incident are forgotten.
The absence of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Kavanaugh’s most famous accuser in “Justice,” is another curious choice. Save for an opening shot where we hear her voice, Dr. Ford appears onscreen only through extensive TV footage of the hearing. Even if the idea behind her omission was to imply that there exists no doubt about her testimony, Liman’s investigation into the rampant display of power in covering up the allegations could have certainly gained from her voice.
Perhaps that’s why “Justice” doesn’t come across as an effective threat to Kavanaugh’s place on the Supreme Court. For instance, the two new pieces of evidence the film collects are persuasive but fail to go the whole way. One is a recorded conversation with bipartisan lobbyist Max Stier who was also at Yale with Kavanaugh. In it, Stier claims to have witnessed Kavanaugh assaulting another woman during a dorm party. Unfortunately, Stier refused to appear on camera himself, an odd choice that limits the film’s ambitions of being an expose.
At another point, Liman uses text message exchanges from Kavanaugh’s fellow Yale classmates to suggest that Kavanaugh was worried that sexual assault allegations against him, including Ramirez’s account, might resurface months before Farrow’s article came out and the confirmation hearing. That in itself offers proof that Kavanaugh perjured himself when he claimed to have found out about Ramirez’s accusation only after reading about it in The New Yorker. But it doesn’t do anything more, which might have been a possibility had “Justice” been the kind of explosive documentary it wanted to be, capable of triggering outrage and relaunching an investigation. All it does in its current form is remind us that everything we knew about The White House-enabled cover-up of Kavanaugh’s crimes is true. [B-]
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