Hutton Courts Praise in this Court Room Drama
A glimpse of a train, some African American boys, another glimpse of trouble, a young woman, flash another snatch of something happening, a fight and suddenly it's New York 1933. Confusing way to start a review and an equally confusing way to start a movie but that is how "Heavens Fall" starts. Needless to say this rather abrupt and confusing start makes sense by the time you reach the the end of "Heavens Fall" but it makes things a little hard going, especially if you have no prior knowledge as to what "Heavens Fall" is about or that it is based upon a true story.
You see "Heavens Fall" is a dramatization surrounding the trial of 9 African American boys, accused raping a white women. But it is ot the first trial which quickly and unfairly found them guilty of the crime where they were sentenced to death but the second case two years later which saw New York lawyer Samuel Leibowitz fight for their rights not only to clear their names but to prove that the whole court system in Alabama was unjust. There lies one of the major problems with "Heavens Fall", unless you are aware of the history surrounding the case and the Scottsboro Boys, as the 9 men were to be known by, then the chances are that you will struggle to really understand either what was going on or the importance of this actual story.
Thankfully things do become clearer and characters and story lines slot into place so once the actual trial starts you begin to attain a reasonable idea of the back story. And it has to be said that once "Heavens Fall" settles down and concentrates on the court room drama aspect of things it starts to truly command your attention. As court room dramas go it doesn't have that big show boating presence such as in "A Few Good Men" but a more restrained yet realistic styling as we watch Sam Leibowitz almost systematically destroy the prosecutions evidence proving that not only did certain people lie, but also that the whole jury system in Decatur, Alabama was unjust as it didn't allow for coloured jury members.
It's fascinating to watch the way evidence is proved to be unreliable and Timothy Hutton as Sam Leibowitz delivers in every single scene, convincing as this big successful New York lawyer but also as someone with compassion. As already said this isn't a show boating performance and when he questions a witness there is no grandstanding but an actor getting into his role and showing the cleverness of a lawyer, believing 110% that the men are innocent. The same can be said of all the performances from David Strathairn as the judge through to Bill Sage as prosecution lawyer Thomas Knight, Jr., they are restrained yet real, never screaming for attention rather aiming to deliver realism. Even those with smaller yet pivotal roles such as Anthony Mackie as journalist William Lee, James Tolkan as Thomas Knight, Sr. and Leelee Sobieski as one of the alleged rape victims, Victoria Price, deliver the same sort of restrained performances, getting into their characters quite brilliantly especially Leelee Sobieski who brings out the vilness of her character as she sneers through her testimony.
Now I am not going to spoil things but being based on the true story surrounding the Scottsboro Boys the outcome of "Heavens Fall" is of course known. But for those who are not in the know it wraps things up quite well with a series of what happened next once the credits role, making it even more fascinating for those like me who don't know the true story.
But whilst I liked "Heavens Fall" and was impressed with not only the way it restrained itself in telling the story but also with the performances, that start, the confusing melee of almost flashback like footage makes it hard going and in a way spoils things. It feels like writer and director Terry Green has created a movie for those already aware of what happens and as such gets close to alienating those who come across "Heavens Fall" with out that crucial knowledge. You do work out what's going on but it makes it a lot harder to fully understand to start with.
What this all boils down to is that "Heavens Fall" is on one hand a bit messy with that annoying introduction but once you get pass that it is a good movie. It has some solid performances and as a courtroom drama is also engrossing without resorting too over the top show boating.