“No Accident”


Letterboxd (3.5/5), Imdb.com (7/10), TMDB.com (3.5/5)

Seeking justice in high-profile court cases is a common theme in films about the judicial system, one that’s frequently characterized by a hefty dose of inherent nobility and the presentation of high-minded arguments aimed at attaining rulings that many would see as foregone conclusions. But what happens when a case involves opponents who each zealously believe that their view is the “correct” one? Such is the case in director Kristi Jacobson’s new HBO documentary about the legal team that prosecuted a group of ultra-right-wing white supremacist protestors on conspiracy charges to incite violence against counter-protestors in Charlottesville, VA, in August 2017, an incident that resulted in one death, multiple injuries and civil unrest. Convinced that the Trump Administration’s Justice Department would do little to investigate this conflict, the prosecuting attorneys decided to file a civil suit to seek liability damages against the apparently well-organized, intricately connected group of 24 defendants. The film unflinchingly exposes the often-raw racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic ugliness of those behind this event through shockingly offensive audio and video clips (sensitive viewers beware), as well as their deftly polished efforts at spinning their stories as mere exercises of their First Amendment rights to free speech. By contrast, the picture also skillfully shows how the prosecution meticulously built its case against these defendants, all the while seeking to contend with their strident denials of their actions and intents, their attempts at bullying plaintiffs’ witnesses during cross-examination, their less-than-subtle efforts at using the judicial forum as a soap box for their social and political views, and the distracting restrictions of trying to conduct a case during the middle of a pandemic. And, in the midst of all this, the filmmaker capably and sensitively shows the personal impact this case had on its nine defendants, thereby attempting to make this offering about more than just the courtroom proceedings. However, despite the picture’s definite strengths in these areas, the overall project nevertheless feels like it’s missing something, at times coming across as somewhat “clinical,” even rote, in its approach. At the same time, though, it also sends a loud and clear message about the potential dangers of organized events like this, given that right-wing individuals and groups have cited the Charlottesville incident in their communications as a template that might be (and already have been) used elsewhere. Indeed, electronic media like the internet, social media and cell phones have undoubtedly provided us with many benefits, but they have also made it easier for widely separated insurgents to talk to one another and plan comparable initiatives that are anything but random coincidences – events that are far from “accidents.”