Welcome back, Sidney!
"When they f--- with me," Jackie DiNorscio says, "they wake a sleeping giant."
I find Find Me Guilty guilty of being one of the best courtroom melodramas in the last 50 years, with 12 Angry Men and The Verdict among them. Of course, these three films are Sidney Lumet's, a brainy director whose book "Making Movies" is a definitive analysis of the art and production process seen through a director's eyes. It doesn't hurt either that his Dog Day Afternoon is a gritty urban bank heist story headed by a young actor of promise, Al Pacino.
So how can Vin Diesel, playing the real Jackie DiNorscio, compete with Pacino? He's within range underplaying a playful gangster who prefers the jury think of him as a "gagster." Think of a bit slimmer Tony Soprano with less smarts but a better sense of humor, which Jackie uses to disorient the longest mobster trial in American history involving 20 hoods at the same time as he represents himself against racketeering charges. And I hope the Academy doesn't forget Peter Dinklage's unforgettable lead attorney either next year at this time.
Both sides in any trial have known this by clich? probably from the time of Hammurabi: "They say a laughing jury is not a hanging jury."
Because the trial actually happened, and all twenty went free in no small part because of Jackie's connection with the jury, Find Me Guilty transcends even the usual Lumet brilliance with low life and common life and is a caution about the power of personality and the danger of prosecuting on circumstantial evidence. Nietzsche observed, "Objectivity and justice have nothing to do with one another."
Although Jackie has only a sixth-grade education, his understanding of life's ironies is sharp and his affection for friends and relatives boundless. A crushing irony is that his goombahs ordered his murder, which attempt is depicted in the opening scene, and yet he continues to say "I love you" even while a cousin is sending four bullets his way. Nor will he rat on them to ease his jail time much less tell the police that his cousin tried to whack him. The scene between Jackie and his ex-wife Annabella Sciorra shows the dual world of antagonism and love in which the latter wins out just as Jackie always knew.
Lumet's world is old fashioned (I doubt there's an FX in the whole film) but powerful because he discovered a long time ago that strong characters and strong actors make strong drama. Welcome back, Sidney, a truly wise guy.