Sidney Lumet’s latest, “Night Falls on Manhattan,” is a strong addition to an oeuvre that includes “Serpico,” “Prince of the City” and “Q & A.” In this story of scandal within the NYPD, the writer-director continues to explore those earlier film’s themes of corruption and compromise. Commercially, pic’s a tough-sell item, geared to an adult crowd and swimming against the current of early-summer blockbusters. Theatrical prospects are modest, with the movie’s pedigree a weapon of limited persuasion.
The story dynamics are familiar, but coincidence plays a more significant role here than in past dramas. Sean Casey (Andy Garcia) has a dilemma. New York’s newest member of the district attorney’s office is getting perilously close to uncovering a police scandal that just might involve his father (Ian Holm), a careerist in the NYPD. The junior Casey has, until recently, been juggling law school with a day job on the force. Fate lends a hand in his advance up the ladder when his father, Liam, is critically wounded during a stakeout. D.A. Morgenstern (Ron Leibman), seizing an election-year opportunity, chooses the untried jurist to prosecute the ensuing case.
Crucial to the film’s credibility is Sean’s naivete. It takes a leap of faith to accept that someone from multi-generations of Irish cops (his late mother was Hispanic) would be blind to the bending of rules. But both Garcia and Holm’s performances go a long way to establish an ethos in which an iron will is paramount and anyone not walking a straight line is the bad guy.
The police department is presented as pristine compared with the vipers who inhabit the district attorney’s office and the legal system. Morgenstern has earned his ulcers as both the target of opposing lawyers and a favorite whipping boy of the media. He also must deal with a number of in-house cobras just waiting for his fall so they can move upward. But he’s an astute survivor and does his best to protect and inform his latest protege.
In the courtroom, Sean squares off against seasoned liberal crusader Sam Vigoda (Richard Dreyfuss). It’s one of those mismatches where passion and hard evidence go a long way to overcome awkwardness. Sean passes his ordeal by fire modestly singed … but you should see the other guy.
Naturally, Sean’s confidence grows. He becomes involved with Peggy Lindstrom (Lena Olin), an associate of Vigoda, and starts to tangle with Harrison (Colm Feore), once the heir apparent in the D.A.’s office. When Morgenstern is felled by a heart attack, one understands how this naif without armor steps into the quagmire with a sense of being impervious.
That’s when the plot thickens. Sean’s need-to-know status suddenly gives him access to details that jeopardize the fairness of his career-making case. It’s obvious the stakeout broke with procedure and that evidence may have been planted to secure a conviction. The why is one matter, but the who threatens to shake his family foundation and undo everything he’s been taught to believe.
Lumet never tires of exploring moral quandaries. But what separates his films from the pack is his appreciation for all perspectives. The pictures are not judgmental, and often the most appealing characters are the ones with skewed, yet oddly consistent, behavior. While Sean is at times tiresome as he tosses in the wind, one’s sympathies gravitate to his father or Morgenstern, both of whom are anchored less by theory and more by experience and exigency.
The level of both technical craft and performance is up to the usual high levels associated with the filmmaker. Particularly memorable are Holm, as a crusty Brooklyn Irishman, and Leibman, as the canny D.A. Dreyfuss also has a nice turn, looking very much like a cross between real-life lawyers Alan Dershowitz and Tom Pollock.
Cameraman David Watkin provides a slightly warmer look to Lumet’s world in his first collaboration with the director, who has long been associated with lenser Andrzej Bartkowiak. Despite that visual warmth, this remains an unsettling story; one hopes it will connect with the rarefied audience that will appreciate its complexity and artistry.