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Sundance 2023: Justice

Friday evening at the Sundance Film Festival saw the world premiere of “Justice,” a furious and enraging documentary that will change how we talk about the sexual allegations made public against Brett Kavanaugh back in 2018. Director Doug Liman’s debut as a documentarian owes a great deal to the style and approach of filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, whose accountability-seeking projects like “The Hunting Ground,” “On the Record,” and miniseries “Allen v. Farrow” have illuminated stories of abuse and gone after protected abusers and their corrupt institutions. These three productions in particular share a superpower—the persistence of investigator and interviewer Amy Herdy and her team, who is the writer and producer of “Justice.” This is the film, the support, and the work that the courage of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Debby Ramirez, and others has long needed. 

Like those previous projects, this engrossing documentary is all about listening to survivors of abuse share their experiences in detail (which were corroborated by Herdy and her team) and letting their courage speak for itself. We saw this happen in real-time with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford back in 2018, when she spoke in front of millions of Americans and a special committee about being sexually assaulted by Kavanaugh at a party when they were in high school. Dr. Ford gave so much of herself at that time, and she appears only very briefly at the beginning of the cut that was screened last night. Her face is turned away from the camera. She asks Liman why he’s doing this project, and he responds with something anyone who felt for her during those testimonies might say: We all watched her bravery in speaking so publicly about her trauma. Then we saw her story be silenced. “Justice” picks up where her courage left off, and it works across many goals of filling in more of the past and revealing that there is much more to the bigger picture.

One of the worst things that happened during this whole ordeal is that we more or less forgot about it—crushed by the cynicism of no justice, certainly—but Liman’s film takes us back to that time. In its opening act, we get a behind-the-scenes look at Dr. Ford deciding to speak up. When you see these events in such acute, chronological fashion, the bleak ridiculousness becomes even more apparent: Dr. Ford spoke with immense clarity while sacrificing her public life to share what she can't forget.  

"Justice" also shines a giant spotlight on the less-published story of Debby Ramirez, who shares in gutting testimonials her abuse allegations against Kavanaugh and his friends at a party at Yale. And in doing so, we get a deeper look at the close-knit friend group from the ‘80s who were texting each other during the 2018 news cycle. Some tried to protect their friend Brett, or themselves, while everyone retraced what happened either in their high school days or at Yale while hanging out with Kavanaugh. Mutual friends of both Kavanaugh and Dr. Ford talk on camera and illustrate how a whole web of people who remember the scrutinized era well, including the behavior Kavanaugh has denied.  

The hindsight of “Justice” is damning, and Liman and Herdy weaponize it with this clear-minded work that was reportedly much longer before Liz Garbus and Dan Cogan came on as executive producers. (The cut screened in Park City runs a tight 85 minutes.) As a documentary debut, the film is only sometimes marred by Liman overplaying a few dramatic beats (like when it shows the title at the end with the sound of a banged gavel). There are also moments in which the documentary zips by the written documents it’s using as proof. I wanted a pause button several times, though that’s testimony to how this documentary is swimming in new allegations that we previously have not known about and can make a difference in the public narrative. The narrative pieced together by "Justice" is an empowering force to be reckoned with. 

Liman and Herdy and their team have done more investigation into this entire saga than the FBI, who we learn from "Justice" did not look into the 4,500 tips that were sent to them, per Trump's orders. The degree of cover-up and number of neglected leads that the filmmakers reveal here is staggering—there are accounts from other witnesses and friends that add more suspicion of Kavanaugh committing perjury during his testimony, and more allegations of assault. 

It is uncertain when the rest of the world will see “Justice,” which was only announced Thursday night and screened its “Sundance Cut” only twice on Friday, once for the public and then later for press and industry. But speaking at the film’s sold-out world premiere, Liman and Herdy revealed how the announcement of the film’s existence on Thursday has already led to more tips. Liman, who self-funded the project, joked that he “thought he was off the hook.” Herdy followed up with exhilarating certainty: “I see it expanding even more than tonight.” 

Nick Allen

Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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