Denzel Washington risks life and limb for the environment in The Pelican Brief, a high-stakes legal thriller about monopolizing petroleum the only way oil tycoons know how: hacking, murder, and bribery. Released in 1993 and directed by the late Alan J. Pakula, the movie is a big-screen adaptation of John Grisham’s novel of the same name and features the music of Academy Award-winning composer James Horner, four years before making Titanic. The Pelican Brief, named after the endangered brown pelicans mentioned in the story, was recently added to Netflix.
A young Julia Roberts — still fresh off the heels of Pretty Woman — steps into the bright yellow curls of Darby Shaw, a quick-thinking University of Tulane law student who manages to stay ahead of a hugger-mugger lobbying nightmare by solving the riddle behind the grisly murders of two Supreme Court justices. She publishes the aforementioned Pelican Brief, a document proving oil tycoon Victor Mattiece was behind the assassinations, only to endanger her life and those she loves in the process. The only person that can help her is Washington Herald investigative journalist Gray Grantham, played by Denzel Washington.
Grantham and Shaw doggedly pursue her lead, eluding muggings, shootings, and one too many car bombs along the way. After following up on attorney Curtis Morgan’s untimely passing and opening his safe deposit box, the duo come to the realization Mattiece has been manipulating the President of the United States all along, handing him over 4.2 million dollars’ worth of bribes in exchange for an oil-rich Louisiana marshland currently populated by a rare sub-species of brown pelicans. Enlivened by this discovery, Grantham publishes an exposé outing the President for his extralegal dealings. Disgraced, the POTUS resigns. Victor Mattiece himself is charged with murder. Darby Shaw becomes something of a living legend and Denzel Washington helped save the day without really having to beat anyone up.
Eco-activism was a popular film MacGuffin in the 90s thanks to counterculture tub-thumper Jimmy Carter, who supported the movement decades prior as president of the United States. Carter is often credited by rock and rollers as having singlehandedly made environmentalism cool. John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief is a fictional retelling of the same tireless crusade, but replaces Carter with a swindling proxy and environmental activists with untrained whistleblowers. Grisham shows full contempt for the legal profession in The Pelican Brief, depicting lawyers as clueless sex maniacs and Julia Roberts’s Darby Shaw as a little more than a regular civilian. Denzel Washington, in this respect is something of an outsider.
The movie ends with four environmental attorneys facing indictment in federal court and Shaw the law student finding legal eagles beneath her. More emphasis is placed on Denzel Washington as Grantham’s unauthorized incursions in pursuit of justice, and the film does conclude with full affirmation of the character’s methods, however crooked they may be. The would-be villain of the movie, oil tycoon Victor Mattiece, obviously believed the end justifies the means, and as it so happens, so does Grantham. The Pelican Brief is less a pronouncement of the state of environmental politics and more a statement of Grisham’s own ministerial beliefs. Though the film doesn’t mention former U.S. President Carter, it does feature its commander-in-chief in a striking cardigan sweater. Robert Kulp’s POTUS is wearing the outfit while discussing addressing the American nation with his chief of staff Fletcher Coal, played by Tony Goldwyn. This is a direct reference to Carter’s televised speech to the nation about the fuel shortages in the 70s, where he dons the same cardigan sweater.
Author John Grisham wrote Darby Shaw with Julia Roberts in mind; it was the first and only time he has ever campaigned for a specific actor to be cast in any of his books’ film adaptations. Casting Denzel Washington as Gray Grantham is all Alan J. Pakula, however. Grantham was originally a white man in the novel, but it was Pakula who decided to cast a black man for the part. The two characters, Grantham and Shaw, actually become lovers in the novel, but Washington didn’t think audiences were ready for an interracial romance and the idea was scrapped instantly.
Denzel Washington prepared for the role by hanging around Washington Post staffers and editors. From her end, Roberts attended Tulane Law School classes to expand her understanding of her character. Oil tycoon Victor Mattiece doesn’t even appear in the film at all, and is only mentioned by the characters. Pakula used the set of Dave, starring Kevin Kline as the U.S. President’s unofficial impersonator, to shoot The Pelican Brief. Written and directed by the late Pakula, the movie adaptation of The Pelican Brief was released direct-to-VHS in 1994 and grossed more than twice its budget with over $195.3 million worldwide. It earned $100.8 million in North America alone and currently has an approval rating of 53% on Rotten Tomatoes. Most reviews are beyond passable though, with audiences praising Pakula’s direction and Washington and Roberts’s inspired performances. This was Alan J. Pakula’s last movie before he perished in a car accident 5 years later in 1998.
Denzel Washington made his mark on film history making complex dramas in the 90s, including playing personal injury lawyer Joe Miller opposite Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance in AIDS movie Philadelphia and embodying human rights activist Malcolm X in the 1992 biopic of the same name. The latter was inducted into the United States National Film Registry in 2010 for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically relevant.”
Denzel Washington continues to be active in recent years, snagging multiple awards and nominations this past decade with Flight, playing alcoholic airline captain Whip Whitaker, and Fences and Roman J. Israel, Esq. for the roles of Troy Maxson, a down-on-his-luck family man, and the titular Israel, another lawyer, respectively. Washington also directed Fences. The 66-year-old Mount Vernon native spent the pandemic releasing Chadwick Boseman-starrer Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2020 (which he produced) and John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things early this year. Washington teams up with Oscar winner Rami Malek in The Little Things as police detectives in 90s Los Angeles, playing County Deputy Sheriff Joe Deacon.
Denzel Washington is also playing the titular tragic hero in Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth and is currently directing and producing A Journal for Jordan, featuring Black Panther’s Michael B. Jordan and Roxanne Roxanne’s Chanté Adams in main roles. Washington was recently cast in the role of a hitman-for-hire in Shovel Ready, an apocalyptic flick from Warner Bros. based on a novel by New York Times Magazine editor Adam Sternbergh. For the time being, check him out in The Pelican Brief on Netflix.