Producers: Alexandra Guarnieri, Brian Drillinger, Valerie Debner, Michelle Danner and George Kolber Director: Michelle Danner Screenplay: J. Craig Styles Cast: Abigail Breslin, Ryan Phillippe, Luke Wilson, Emily VanCamp, Mireille Enos, Enrique Murciano, Josh Bowman, Brent Sexton, Sebastian Quinn, Taryn Manning, Nolan Gould, Dan Lauria, Michael Mulheren, Kyle MacLachlan, Andy Garcia and Donald Sutherland Distributor: Vertical
The case of Miranda v. Arizona, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 on a 5-4 vote, is remembered as a crucially important contribution to the rights of those suspected of crimes, mandating that they must be notified by police of the right to remain silent and request legal counsel before being questioned. The decision is rightly recognized as a watershed in the delineation of citizens’ rights, but was controversial when it was announced and has been ever since. “Miranda’s Victim” is not only about how the decision was reached, but also about its societal ramifications.
Michelle Danner’s film follows the case from the 1963 crime of which Ernesto Miranda was accused—the abduction and rape of an eighteen-year old Maricopa woman—through his death in a barroom brawl in 1976, and hews to the legal facts fairly closely, even if some conversations have been invented and some details altered or omitted by screenwriter J. Craig Styles. But while it dramatizes the investigation that led Detectives Carroll Cooley (Enrique Murciano) and Wilfred Young (here renamed Sergeant Nealis, and played by Brent Sexton) to identify Miranda (Sebastian Quinn) as their chief suspect and the means by which they elicited his confession, as well as the trial in which he was convicted despite the efforts of lawyer Alvin Moore (Andy Garcia), the real focus, as the title indicates, is on the victim, Trish Weir (Abigail Breslin). In doing so the movie implicitly raises the question—the basis of much of the criticism about the decision—of whether the Supreme Court created an imbalance that privileged the rights of the accused over justice for victims.
Breslin is excellent as Trish Weir. Her abduction as she walked from the bus that had brought her home from her job at a local movie theatre, and the rape that followed, are depicted discreetly but tellingly, and the reaction of her mother Zeola (Mireille Enos), who urges her not to report the incident for fear of injuring her reputation, is shockingly commonplace of its time; fortunately her sister Ann (Emily VanCamp) feels differently and encourages her to go to the hospital (the brusque doctor who examines here there is played by Dan Lauria) and then to the police.
The result is the identification of Miranda as the chief suspect, his interrogation and confession, and his initial conviction in the trial that pitted Moore against prosecutor Lawrence Turoff (Luke Wilson). But the outcome in turn elicits an appeal led by the American Civil Liberties Union, which leads to the Supreme Court decision announced by Chief Justice Earl Warren (Kyle MacLachlan). It requires the retrial of Miranda with his confession suppressed and the accused now defended by hotshot attorney John Flynn (Ryan Phillippe), and Weir forced to relive her trauma. In a trial presided over stoically by Judge Laurance Wren (Donald Sutherland), evidence provided by Miranda’s common-law wife Twila Hoffman (Taryn Manning) probes decisive, leading to a second conviction and incarceration. Miranda is in time paroled and killed, his murderer ironically never caught.
“Miranda’s Victim” is, from a cinematic perspective, not terribly impressive: Danner’s direction is prosaic, Teferi Seifu’s editing solemn and Pierluigi Malavasi’s cinematography pallid. And the approach is at times awfully heavy handed: having Weir, at the beginning of the film, peek into the theatre’s auditorium just in time to see Gregory Peck, as Atticus Finch, speaking about the integrity of the judicial system in securing justice, is more than a trifle obvious. One might also quarrel with the portrayal of the original police treatment of Miranda: as shown here, the caution with which Cooley and Nealis work to stay within existing rules comes across as almost lovingly old-fashioned, like Jack Webb might have dramatized it in “Dragnet.”
Nonetheless the period detail of Lily Gueria and Rick Butler’s production design and Jennifer Leigh-Scott’s costumes is convincing, and the performances are generally strong, with Breslin getting solid support from Wilson, Phillippe, Garcia, Sutherland, Manning and most of the supporting cast, including Quinn, despite a tendency to depict Miranda in a more favorable light than perhaps he deserved. In what amounts to a cameo MacLachlan makes Warren rather too smugly self-righteous, and Enos overdoes the pushiness of Weir’s mother (as does Josh Bowman the rage of her embarrassed husband). But overall the acting is more subdued.
So while as a piece of filmmaking this is just workmanlike, it represents an earnest treatment of an important legal precedent and an affecting portrait of a heroic young woman.