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*Note: Although this review doesn't give away too many spoilers, due to being based on a true story, this review does relate to the events of the real trial and therefore does mention numerous parts of the film/story.*
"We've lost everything" cries a Peggy Buckey, not long after exiting the courtroom following her bail. She and her family were thrown in jail, after the most unexpected series of events. Based on a true story, Indictment: The McMartin Trial was released as a TV movie in 1995, five years after the real trial had been complete.
In 1983, accusations were made that the McMartin family, who ran a pre-school in California, had sexually molested 360 children by the spring of 1984, as well as three other teachers from the same school. Arrests and the pre-trial investigation ran from 1984 to 1987, whilst the trial ran from 1987 to 1990. After six years of criminal trials, no convictions were obtained, and all charges were dropped. The trial remains one of the most expensive ($15 million) and long running trails in US legal history, showing the lack of evidence and unprofessional attitudes of the finger pointers which kept one of the accused in jail for over 5 years without bail.
IMDB Rating: 7.6/10
Runtime: 135 min
Available on: DVD, VHS and Laserdisc
James Woods - Danny Davis
Mercedes Ruehl - Lael Rubin
Lolita Davidovich - Kee McFarlane
Sada Thompson - Virginia McMartin
Henry Thomas - Ray Buckey
Shirley Knight - Peggy Buckey
Mark Blum - Wayne Satz
Alison Elliott - Peggy Ann Buckey
Chelsea Field - Christine Johnson
Joe Urla - Glenn Stevens
Valerie Wildman - Diana Sullivan
Richard Bradford - Ira Reiner
Roberta Bassin - Judy Johnson
Directed by Mick Jackson
Written by Abby Mann and Myra Mann
Executive producers - Oliver Stone, Abby Mann, Janet Yang
Producer - Diana Pokorny
Original Music by Peter Rodgers Melnick
Cinematography by Rod García
Film Editing by Richard A. Harris
Casting by Mali Finn
Production Design by Howard Cummings
The McMartin family have their lives turned upside down when accusations of child molestation are put upon them, based within their own pre-school. Kee McFarlane, an unqualified child cruelty "expert" videotapes the children describing outrageous stories of abuse. Looking at how the media can cause an innocent family to become national monsters, Indictment: The McMartin Trial tells the complete story of the trial and the people involved.
Made for TV in 1995, Indictment: The McMartin Trial came to my attention through the American actor James Woods. Although courtroom dramas may not be my top genre, the McMartin story certainly interested me into watching this film. The script, written by Abby Mann and Myra Mann, gets right to the heart of the story throughout and is wonderfully written overall.
The film's plot follows the true story very closely throughout, taking into account all the important details of the McMartin trial and what the family went through. In fact, the film believes the message is so important that the characters in the movie have the same name as the real people involved with the case. What makes Indictment immediately captivating is the plot, which is as expected, the most important part of a film such as this.
The plot tells the story of the McMartin trial whilst showing how the media get the most out of the story, causing the entire nation to focus on the case and child abuse in general. The film's tagline, "The charges were so shocking, the truth didn't matter", immediately sums up the basis of the message, and the viewer can clearly see the emotional distress that both the McMartin family and those on their side legally go through, just to clear their name. The film's shock tactics revolve around the media and the pain they cause on the family, where the law fails to deliver true justice quickly and successfully when it should have straight away - all because of the media's involvement which led to the American public's bias opinion and a nationwide conspiracy of sexual predators.
With the long amount of years that the trial ran for, the film focuses on the key parts, taking the viewer from day one and all the way through to the final trial. Thankfully the film doesn't use Hollywood clichés in order to tell the story. Instead, the story is told the way it should be and also thankfully, the film doesn't drag on with endless and pointless courtroom scenes or distracting details that don't the film anywhere. The film could have easily been this way over the running time of 135 minutes.
What allows the film's plot to work so well is that each and every scene is crucial to the film, as well as following the true story closely. Each scene connects up together, slowing unravelling the story in the most effective way. The nature of the plot allows this movie to stay in the viewers mind for a good while after the film.
Whilst those with an interest of the true story will already know how the ending is, the film's ending verdict was so strongly produced that as the viewer, I felt myself very tense at that moment, waiting for the verdict in the suspenseful scene.
The final speech of the film, spoken by the grandmother Virginia McMartin, shows the extent of the damage that the media caused upon the public:
Peggy McMartin: "How come God didn't stop it?"
Virginia McMartin: "No, don't blame God,
What happened to us was all the work of people,
God wasn't let into it.
Who had the time to stop and listen to God?
They were all too busy watching television..."
Finding this film through James Woods, there wasn't a doubt in my mind that he wouldn't play his character in the most effective and realistic way. Woods acting is always perfectly fitting with the character in question, and so I knew the story would be effective. The entire film uses the right actors for the story, and not once does any actor seem out of place anywhere in the film.
Expectedly, Woods steals the spotlight, playing Danny Davis, the defence attorney for the McMartin family and Ray Buckey in particular, the family member with the most against him. At first, we come to realise that the original defence attorney dropped the case after finding the media unbearable as well as public reaction. We are introduced to Woods very quickly, and like the rest of the characters, we don't really see a huge amount of character development, but only because each character has a job to do, either to defend or prosecute the McMartin family, and that's all the viewer needs.
Davis comes into the film when we see him watching a news report based on the case, and despite his wife/lover's objections, he wishes to take the case. It is clear that the amount of media attracts him, knowing what a powerful case this is. His love quarrels how disgusting the McMartin family are for what they have done, whilst Davis simply replies, "Hey, a client's a client..."
We see Davis truly caring for the McMartin family as the film proceeds. First meeting Ray Buckley and his sister Peggy Ann Buckey, Davis asks "Did Ted Bundy look like a serial killer?", making it clear that whether or not they are innocent, his concern lies with the job at hand. As the evidence unravels, it becomes more and more clear that the family are not guilty after all, and Davis passionately attempts to clear their name.
Not once does Davis consider dropping the case, he calls it a nightmare case but he still continues on. One particularly strong scene is where Peggy Ann Buckey is guiding her grandmother Virginia McMartin, who is in a wheelchair, down toward the courtroom when Davis is violently pushed over, with the aggressor yelling "No one told you to defend the devil!". Another woman decides to spit on him whilst he's down, just showing how hated he has also become compared to the McMartin family, all thanks to the media.
Woods plays Davis as effectively as possible, gathering the right emotion and power to truly leave a mark on the viewer. There's no real surprise of his effective acting, as Woods has been in a number of courtroom-related dramas and has always fitted the roles perfectly. One that sticks out is his fantastic portrayal of American politician's Joseph McCarthy's controversial right-hand man Roy Cohn in the 1992 film Citizen Cohn. Woods proves more than capable in these types of roles, and Indictment is no exception.
Academy Award-winning American actress Mercedes Ruehl plays the main protagonist of the movie, attorney Lael Rubin, the woman in charge of the case against the McMartin family. Throughout, Ruehl plays her character effectively. Rubin is determined, despite the lack of evidence, that the McMartin family are guilty, and much to the audience's annoyance, her character is at times unprofessional and rather dangerous in the sense that she won't stop at any cost.
At one point, Rubin fails to handover the original handwritten statement made by the original accuser, the mother Judy Johnson, to the defence, which would have provided valuable evidence. The scene where David confronts Rubin about this is very powerful, with Woods giving an incredible performance.
Ruehl plays Rubin perfectly, with the right mix to show Rubin's unprofessional attacks to prosecute the McMartin family as well as allowing the audience to strongly dislike her character.
Canadian actress Lolita Davidovich plays Kee McFarlane, the unqualified child cruelty "expert" who videotapes each of the children who describe outrageous stories of abuse. Davidovich does a convincing and fitting job throughout, playing the character with the right amount of oddness and unprofessional nature.
McFarlane is undoubtedly odd and rather bias in her part of the case. Shown through the videoclips, her extremely suggestive techniques are highly unprofessional but most importantly, purposely confusing to the children being interviewed. Using male/female dolls that expose genitals etc, McFarlane's technique confused the children and tricked them into believing they were sexually abused. Using puppets, she would often mildly insult the child's puppet, making the child believe they were either being bad, stupid or too forgetful if they wouldn't give the right answer.
The majority of children answered no to sexual abuse but McFarlane's technique was able to pressure the children to get the answer she wanted. The courtroom scene in which Davis questions McFarlane is very powerful where she becomes more and more uncomfortable, with Davis undoubtedly showing her unprofessionalism.
McFarlane: "I knew people like you would pick apart every word, every inflection
But somebody had to do it so the children could tell the truth."
Davis: "The truth? Was what you got the truth?"
By the end of her attempts to find the children's answers, some of the children were making bizarre stories of satanic ritual abuse as well as stating they saw witches fly, they travelled in a hot-air balloon as well as an aeroplane, and were taken through underground tunnels beneath the school. When shown a series of photographs by Davis, one child identified actor Chuck Norris as one of the abusers, showing just how deadly and mind-twisting McFarlane's technique was.
American actor Joe Urla, who won a Theatre World Award in 1986 for his performance in the play Principia Scriptoriae, plays one of the original prosecutors Glenn Stevens. Urla plays the character effectively and although he is at first against the McMartin family, the audience don't dislike him at all, as even to Stevens, it soon becomes clear that the McMartin family are innocent.
Stevens' attempts to interview some of the children himself only shows further weakness in regards to evidence against the McMartin family. Many children answer questions differently to what they said themselves before and eventually, Stevens does the right thing, allowing the audience to respect his character.
American actress Sada Thompson plays the grandmother Virginia McMartin, who plays her character wonderfully well. The events leave her bitter, but despite this, one powerful scene shows the grandmother, after being released from prison, watching from here balcony, a small group of children playing. She smiles at this, which hits the audience, showing just how much damage the media has done to this innocent family.
One of the most powerful moments for the grandmother is during a pre-trial where her daughter Peggy McMartin is taken back to the jail, where she is hurried along too fast by the guard, that she trips just outside the door to the courtroom. This emotional scene shows the grandmother cry out to her daughter and furiously speak directly to Stevens, "I don't trust you, I don't trust any of you, all I've heard are lies, lies from the first day in this courtroom." Her starring eyes are very powerful in this scene where Stevens then realizes how innocent the family is.
American actress Shirley Knight plays Peggy Buckey in the most convincing way. It becomes clear through her emotion, how innocent she is. From the upset she has within the prison and her accusations, the viewer cannot help but sympathise. Her treatment in prison is not nice in any way, and she happily expresses her unbearable agony various times.
Once let out on bail, her walk along a beach with her daughter Peggy Ann Buckey is most effective:
"I know there's nothing to be afraid of, but I am afraid, I'm so afraid,
It feels like God is punishing me for something.
All I've ever known is teaching children, and I can never do that again,
Everything is... lost.
And you, your youth,
You never smile anymore, like you used to,
And ray. Ray is still in there. How can he endure it?"
American actress Alison Elliott plays the daughter Peggy Ann Buckey, who is young, pretty and perfectly respectable as a teacher who spent a lot of time gaining her teaching credentials. Elliott plays her character wonderfully well, mostly with a gentle nature although one particular scene really shows her distress caused by the media.
The respect she has as a teacher is clear, Peggy Ann Buckey is a sensible and strong woman who is clearly innocent. In real life, she was able to have her teaching credentials re-instated.
The one scene she shows her distress is towards the TV reporter and lawyer Wayne Satz:
Buckey: "Are you sure you can ride in the same elevator as us?
We might drink blood from a rabbit, might take off our clothes and dance around naked"
Satz: "I don't make the news, I just report it.
How can anyone know your side if you won't tell them what you're feeling and that you're innocent?"
Buckey: "You know you wouldn't be interested!
All you want is, "Ray Buckey chopped up animals."
"Virginia McMartin flashed kids from her wheelchair."
"Penny Ann Buckey made a 3-year-old child copulate her."
You couldn't care less about the truth!"
American actor Henry Thomas, who played Elliot in the 1982 hit movie E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial, plays Ray Buckey, the main member of the family with the most accusations. Thomas plays the character very well indeed and very effectively.
At first, his character seems somewhat odd and unusual, perhaps in his appearance, or by the fact that he doesn't seem to talk all that much. As the audience, we are introduced to Ray Buckey in such a way that we do believe he may be somewhat odd. Eventually, as he begins to fight for his innocence and come to terms with what he is dealing with, we see that he is actually perfectly innocent and a little misunderstood, but made out to be a monster by the media, even more so than the other family members. He was kept in jail for five years without bail.
His emotional distress revealed in a conversation with Davis:
"Every night, I lie in that tiny little cell and my minds whirls around and around
Why shouldn't I put a plastic bag over my head or slit my wrists?
Or have someone jam a shank through my ear?
What am I hanging around for?
Listen to these kids rip the skin off me?
See my family get humiliated?
Watch them lose everything they had?
They hate me!
I'm like Freddy Krueger or Charles Manson to them!"
American actor Mark Blum plays the reporter Wayne Satz in the most unlikeable way, and therefore very effectively.
Although the film has a fair amount of different reporters who happily put pressure on the McMartin family, Satz's character is based on the entire media. His character is certainly unlikeable, where he plays nothing more than an uncaring and foolish man, with a smug attitude. Satz's hatred is not only from the audience but also various characters in the film, and eventually the media themselves once his love affair with McFarlane is found out. The man's every action throughout the story is entirely detestable.
Roberta Bassin plays the original accuser Judy Johnson, the mother of Malcolm, who originally makes the statement against Ray Buckley. Bassin plays the character effectively, and although she is not a major character, her role is very important none-the-less.
It later becomes clear that Johnson's ex-husband has sexually abused the son Malcolm, whilst Johnson herself made strange accusations against the pre-school, such as Ray Buckley could fly and that Peggy drilled a child under the arms. With her oddity throughout the film, it is discovered that she is suffering from mental issues and in 1986 is found dead in her home from complications of chronic alcoholism.
Again, her characters shows that even the most unreliable and bizarre accuser can cause an entire media riot and so much emotional damage. Her character is unstable and odd from the first moment, proving that the McMartin's innocence was already rather clear.
Various small characters all make up the effective story and from the children to the courtroom judge, each role is played effectively and flawlessly. Even the three teachers who were also accused, play an effective but small role where it shows just how bizarre the accusations were.
The British director Mick Jackson does an excellent job throughout, particularly for a TV movie. The film's direction is perfect and flawless, with everything being performed effectively and professionally. Jackson manages to capture the right tone of the film, the right lighting and the right camera angles throughout. His direction clearly managed to get the best of each actor's ability and combined it with effective camera work and strong visual drama.
The film was filmed in Los Angeles, California, USA, where the real pre-school was found also in California, near Manhattan Beach. This allows the film to stay true to the real story and therefore remain very effective throughout.
The music is from the film composer Peter Rodgers Melnick, who does a convincing job when the music is needed. Not much music is used, aside from the opening and ending credits, which mainly used female harmonic vocal, almost given a church choir-like sound. When the music is used, it works well and fits nicely enough.
The film's editing was strong throughout and flawless although whenever the film skips through the years of the trial, some scenes did cut rather abruptly, although this doesn't really make much different - the scene isn't exactly cut off but the abrupt scene end takes you by surprise more so than anything else.
The film was an overall critical success, where it also met some controversy over the story. The film won 2 Golden Globes, another five wins and nine nominations.
Soem of these include:
Won - DGA Award - Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Dramatic Specials: Mick Jackson, Diana Pokorny (unit production manager) (plaque), Aaron Barsky (first assistant director) (plaque), Barbara M. Ravis (second assistant director) (plaque)
Won - Emmy - Outstanding Made for Television Movie: Oliver Stone (executive producer), Janet Yang (executive producer), Abby Mann (executive producer), Diana Pokorny (producer)
Won - Golden Globe - Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV
The film originally aired on HBO in America and today the film is readily available on DVD but only in America. This means the DVD is not the UK's usual Region 2 but Region 1 instead. The DVD can be obtained cheaply in the UK but a multi-regional DVD player or a computer that accepts Region 1 is required. A VHS version was released in the UK officially which is now out-of-print.
The Region 1 DVD features subtitles but only limited extras, mainly biographies on the cast.
The film is rated R for graphic language and disturbing visuals related to a trial. The VHS version in the UK was given an 18 certificate although in my opinion, a 15 would be more accurate in my opinion.
I highly recommend this film to any fan of drama-related films or films based around justice and law. Whilst the true story is compelling enough, the entire movie is not once boring or out-of-place. Director Mick Jackson manages to capture the right amount of emotion throughout the film. Whilst James Woods, as always, remains the highlight of the film, every other character is portrayed wonderfully well and therefore makes the film immediately strong and flawless in the plot/acting department. As mentioned, the direction, editing and overall filmmaking is excellent and works in the most effective way.
Whilst the story contains many messages, the film's effect on the viewer is very strong, and after watching, I found myself thinking about the entire McMartin trial, as well as how the media exposed the family as monsters when no real evidence was shown. Woods' character understood too, that when the children make these stories, then people think it must be true. The emotion of the film is entirely powerful throughout and that's where the success of the film lies - showing the incredible strain that the McMartin family go through. This is done without the film becoming too bias, instead it is simply telling the story accurately and truly as it occurred. What makes the film most incredible is that from watching it, you can feel that the filmmakers and actors genuinely cared about the story and the innocence of the real McMartin family. Both emotive and shocking, Indictment: The McMartin Trial is a strong film with a meaningful message that is portrayed most effectively.
Although no trailer seems to be available online, a scene involving Rubin and Stevens amongst others in a meeting: http://arkdog.posterous.com/scene-from-i​ndictment-the-mcmartin-trial