'People are terrified': Inside the premiere of Sundance's surprise Brett Kavanaugh doc
“Justice,” director Doug Liman's surprise documentary about the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, premiered Friday at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
A late addition to the indie festival’s Special Screenings lineup, the film played its sole public screening during the event — announced at Sundance’s opening news conference on Thursday — to a packed house at Park City's Park Avenue Theatre, with Liman in attendance greeting friends and giving hugs at the front of the room.
Kavanaugh was narrowly confirmed to the Supreme Court in 2018 after a contentious confirmation process that included allegations of sexual assault. In 2019, it was reported that by order of the White House and Senate Republicans, the FBI limited its investigation into the accusations of Kavanaugh’s past sexual misconduct.
Liman, a filmmaker best known for his work on movies such as “Swingers,” “The Bourne Identity,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Edge of Tomorrow,” explained in a statement that "'Justice' picks up where the FBI investigation into Brett Kavanaugh fell woefully short.
“The film examines our judicial process and the institutions behind it, highlighting bureaucratic missteps and political powergrabs that continue to have an outsized impact on our nation today,” he added. “Justice” is his first documentary.
Oh, and the last songs to play over the PA system before screening began? Marvin Gaye's "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
Here are the key takeaways from "Justice" and the Q&A that followed:
1. This may be obvious, but the title “Justice” has two meanings here. It's meant as a reference to Kavanaugh’s title and a claim that the FBI and the political establishment perpetrated a miscarriage of justice to those who came forward with allegations by failing to pursue them adequately.
2. Christine Blasey Ford, who alleged during Kavanaugh's confirmation hearing that he sexually assaulted her when they were teenagers in the 1980s, is not a key source in the film. Though the doc opens with Ford asking Liman why he’s interested in this, and what his goals are in making the movie, she otherwise appears only in archival footage. Instead, her story is primarily told through her congressional testimony and interviews with her friends. "I felt that Dr. Ford had given so much to the country... she more than did her part for the country," Liman said. "She did enough for 10 lifetimes."
3. “The prominent memory is the laughter.” Deborah Ramirez, who alleged that Kavanaugh exposed himself to her at a party when they were Yale students together in the 1980s, does appear in the film to recount her story — and, like Ford in her public statements, Ramirez singles out Kavanaugh's laughter among her memories.
4. The film features a potent recording from Max Stier. Stier allegedly witnessed sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh during a "drunken dorm party" while at Yale — and notified senators and the FBI after Kavanaugh's nomination, though the FBI reportedly failed to investigate the claim further. Though he does not appear in the film, the recording is powerful: The alleged incident, he says, involves a woman whose identity remains anonymous because she has chosen not to come forward — for lack of memory during a night of drinking, yes, but also because she saw what happened to Ford after speaking publicly.
5. Context, context, context. The film includes interviews with experts who speak about how traumatic memory works in order to substantiate the credibility of Ford and Ramirez’s allegations. There are also discussions of the media discourse around Ford's allegations in 2018, which in some cases attempted to paint the scenario as “boys will be boys,” or to counter the accusation by asking, “Why ruin a man’s life for something he did as a kid?” The film positions itself, in part, as an indictment of a broader culture that encourages us to forgive and forget misbehavior by privileged groups.
6. According to the documentary, the FBI to this day hasn’t reached out to those who sent in tips about the allegations against Kavanaugh for formal investigation. "I do hope this triggers outrage," said producer Amy Herdy — ultimately leading to "a real investigation with subpoena powers."
7. According to Liman, the chilling effect against accusers remains: "This was the kind of movie where people are terrified," he said. "The machinery that's put in place against anyone who dared speak up, we knew that machinery would be turned on this film... We live in a climate where no matter what we got in this movie, the people who support the status quo would keep supporting it."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.