Night Falls on Manhattan (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Into the calm before the box-office storm of The Lost World rises Night Falls on Manhattan, Sidney Lumet's triumphant return to worthwhile movie-making. The director of such memorable films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network has been in a slump since the 1990 release of Q&A. His last two movies, A Stranger Among Us and Guilty As Sin, have been unworthy of Lumet's talent and reputation. Fortunately, with Night Falls on Manhattan, which is based on a fact-inspired novel by New York writer Robert Daley, the film maker is again in top form.

One of the most refreshing things about this movie is the manner in which it combines genres in unexpected ways. The basic framework is familiar: corrupt cops, tainted evidence, and a big trial that will make or break the hotshot lawyer protagonist. But, if you think you've seen this story already, be prepared for more than one surprise. Not only does Lumet throw away almost every stereotype in favor of real, three-dimensional characters, but he has written a script of unexpected intelligence and perceptiveness. What's more, the traditional formula for this sort of picture has been turned on its head. The courtroom drama happens at the beginning, not the end. By Night Falls on Manhattan's midpoint, the verdict has been read and we're left wondering what's next.

Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) is an earnest young lawyer fresh out of school. A former cop, he's one of the few in his profession who still cares about the importance of justice. He goes to work as an assistant district attorney not because he views it as a stepping stone to the next plateau of his career, but because he cares about the cases. The situation becomes personal when his police detective father, Liam (Ian Holm), is shot in a drug bust gone bad. Liam is the lucky one -- three of his fellow officers are dead. The suspect, a drug kingpin (Shiek Mahmud-Bey), turns himself in via a media circus that's carefully orchestrated by his attorney, Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss).

For the DA, Morgenstern (Ron Leibman), it's an election year, and he decides on a risky strategy that, if it works, could give him a publicity edge. He chooses Sean to prosecute the case, with Liam as the star witness. The media goes wild with the story, Sean sees this as his big chance, and Liam is bursting with pride. But there's an obstacle -- Vigoda is a brilliant lawyer, and he has an ax to grind. From the moment the defense attorney presents his opening argument, it's clear that his tactic will involve putting the entire NYPD on trial.

Night Falls on Manhattan is savvy about a number of things. Not only does it have a good feel for both sides of the police corruption issue, but it's aware of the political rivalries and behind-the-scenes dealmaking that keeps a city running. The script is smart, and the characters are better realized than their counterparts in countless similar-yet-inferior motion pictures. Sean may be the knight in shining armor trying to stay afloat in a sea of corruption, but it doesn't take long for him to recognize that survival demands compromise.

Andy Garcia's calm, controlled portrayal is one of Night Falls on Manhattan's small pleasures. The performances of Richard Dreyfuss and Ian Holm, both fine actors with impressive résumés, are two others. Dreyfuss enriches his character, refusing to let Vigoda slip into the "wily, liberal defense attorney" cliché. Holm gives both heart and conscience to a cop with 36 years of experience on the force. Solid support comes from James Gandolfini as Liam's partner, Colm Feore as Morgenstern's in-house political rival, and Lena Olin as Sean's love interest.

According to Morgenstern, the two keys to being a good lawyer are "a boundless love of the truth and an instinct for the jugular." Night Falls on Manhattan shows that there's more to practicing and enforcing law than that. Sean may still observe the world in stark blacks-and- whites, but everyone around him sees it as a series of murky grays. In life, there isn't a clearly- delineated line between the good guys and the bad guys -- a truth that Sean is ultimately forced not only to confront, but to reconcile himself with.

Sidney Lumet has done something that I wasn't sure was possible in this age of instant, formulaic gratification: make a riveting cop movie without a car chase and a courtroom thriller without cheap theatrics. Night Falls on Manhattan isn't about the trappings of these situations; it's about their inner workings, their underlying issues, and the men and women who keep things moving.

Night Falls on Manhattan (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 1997-05-16
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1