Night Falls on Manhattan Movie Review
Lumet has taken a very bare-bones approach with the plot of Night Falls on Manhattan. One minute Andy Garcia's Sean Casey is an assistant DA trainee, the next minute he is the District Attorney of New York. Likewise, the first twenty minutes of the film set up a courtroom drama which Lumet flies through in a series of quick scenes. Unconventional editing techniques, including periodic jump cuts and abrupt truncations of scenes that barely seem to have begun, help push the narrative forward, all of which serves to confuse the audience as to the film's true focus.
Ultimately, it becomes clear that the goal of this hectic structure is to unfold a series of issues for the audience. Lumet confronts us with tough questions at every turn: Who do we blame for police corruption? To whom is a lawyer most responsible, the law or his family? How much can we share with the people we love? Lumet packs it in, and he does so by creating several only-in-Hollywood coincidences. For example, Garcia happens to be in the right place to try the case of the drug dealer that shot his father. The perfect woman for Garcia also just happens to work for a lawyer on the other side.
The issues and questions that Lumet poses are powerful, but his plot manipulation and acceleration for the sake of these issues hurts his bid to satisfy a sophisticated audience. In his need to get in and out of every scene in half the time that it should take to develop, Lumet seems to have resorted to a short-hand form of directing his actors. At every emotional point in the story, one character invariably begins yelling. Lumet is obviously trying to make a point that such issues lead to uniform short-temperedness, but the consistency of these outbursts prevents us from distinguishing the different character's personalities.
With this subject matter, Lumet is obviously trying to make a gritty, un-Hollywood picture. The sets (such as a courtroom modeled after Lance Ito's instead of Perry Mason's) and the overwhelmingly drab color of the film beg us to look at it as a slice of realism. However, the plot twists and flat characters confound this attempt to make an intelligent film. Lena Olin, miscast and unbelievable as Andy Garcia's love interest, portrays the most awkward character. Not until the end of the film does it become clear that her character is actually in love with Garcia's, when the plot resolution tells us so.
An audience looking for a traditional Hollywood courtroom drama will be taken aback by Night Falls on Manhattan. Nevertheless, it brings with it some powerful questions which a thoughtful audience will want addressed. In the end, the film's uncomfortable blend of Hollywood conventions and complex subject matter will have a hard time finding its audience among the main-stream majority of moviegoers that are only looking for answers.