Gideon's Army: Sundance Review

Compelling insight into the staggering pressures faced by court-appointed public defenders.

HBO documentary takes viewers inside the world of three court-appointed public defenders.

PARK CITY - Nearly 50 years ago, a landmark Supreme Court ruling Gideon vs. Wainwright established that a defendant in a criminal case has a right to counsel.  That ruling sparked the beginning of court-appointed public defenders. This cogent and powerful documentary for HBO takes us into the lives of three public defenders in the South, in jurisdictions that are the most underfunded and understaffed.

Filmmaker Dawn Porter takes us into the lowest bowels of the court system, following three public defenders (Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, June Hardwick) as they struggle to provide not only their best legal skills but to maintain their humanity as well.

They are overburdened with hundreds of cases, most of which involve the arduous process of plea-bargaining.  In the majority of cases, the defenders face the fact that they can, at best, provide the least-worst outcome for those they defend.

PHOTO/VIDEO: Sundance Film Festival 2013: THR's Video Diaries

In this harrowing glimpse into the justice system, we see that defendants languish for long periods in jail before they are brought before the court: Many lose their homes, their families, and jobs because of their “absence” from their lives.  In this sense, they are sympathetic, but many, as the defenders readily admit, are guilty and some are heinously “evil,” as evidenced by the death threats made against public defender Brandy Alexander by a particularly loathsome criminal.

In this comprehensive revelation of the craziness and dysfunction of the world of public defenders, filmmaker Porter sagely shows us the personal toll it takes on the lawyers. All three can barely make it from paycheck-to-paycheck, and they have serious trouble detaching from their work, which leads to disrupted personal lives.

Overall, Gideon’s Army is an eye-opening insight into a judicial hellhole world that ordinary citizens can never imagine.  Throughout the unsung heroism of these three warriors in the legal trenches is fittingly stirred.

Production companies: HBO Documentary Films, Motti Pictures

Director: Dawn Porter

Producers:  Julie Goldman, Dawn Porter

Director of photography: Chris Hilleke

Editor: Matthew Hamachek

No rating, 93 minutes.