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  • Benjamin May

Indictment: The McMartin Trial (1995) Review

It is 1983, and Ray Buckey- a teacher at his grandmother’s preschool- is arrested after numerous children accuse him of sexual assault. Awaiting trial, Buckey is assigned fast-talking defence attorney Danny Davis, who isn’t interested in whether he in innocent or not; only caring about the mechanics of the law. As the trial unfurls, however, Davis becomes increasingly disturbed by the way social worker Kee MacFarlane extracted the children’s confessions of abuse, and starts to believe in Buckey’s innocence. Will Davis be able to convince the jury, or will Buckey be found guilty on all counts?

Directed by Mick Jackson from a screenplay by Abby and Myra Mann, ‘Indictment: The McMartin Trial’ is a riveting retelling of a sadly true story that is prescient and relevant- perhaps even more so now than when it was first broadcast. A frightening and gripping court-room procedural, the Mann’s narrative moves at a brisk pace and is brimming with strong dialogue, both humorous and dramatic. They raise interesting questions about the reliability of memory, the validity of testimony and the ethics of investigation, while their examination of the McMartin case exposes a multitude of flaws, in the world of social care work, the legal profession and- particularly- society in general.

The Mann’s use the McMartin case to shine a light on one of the more troublesome aspects of modern society: the rush to judgement after an accusation is made. The media controlled the discourse around Buckey, painting him as a criminal before his trial even started, dictating the opinion of the masses in regards to same. The film criticises the idea that accusations should be- and are- considered as fact before proper investigation, and that accusers should always be believed. Though in the 90s, when the film was made, this was certainly topical; in the era of MeToo it feels even more so.

While the filmmakers lean on the side of Buckey, they don’t take a simplistic or one-sided view of the case, rather exploring the complexities and ambiguities of the evidence and relating testimonies. In addition, the procedural elements are well-realized, with the scenes involving Davis preparing Buckey for court being especially grounded and believable. Furthermore, Jackson’s inclusion of actual archival footage and real-life interviews adds a sense of stark realism to proceedings that bolsters the overall narrative impact.

Moreover, Rodrigo García’s muted cinematography is subtle, contributing to the mood of the piece but never distracting or dominating scenes. His use of close-ups and artificial lighting in the court-room sequences is particularly effective, while he manifests suspense with his utilisation of low-angles and wide shots. He creates a realistic and immersive atmosphere, which is only compounded by Peter Rodgers Melnick’s subdued score and Howard Cummings’s unobtrusive production design.

‘Indictment: The McMartin Trial’ finds James Woods starring as Danny Davis, delivering a typically energetic performance both engaging and entertaining. Woods handles the comic and dramatic with equal aplomb, never appearing as anything other than authentic, whether in court or out of it. He carries the film, and works well alongside co-stars Mercedes Ruehl and Henry Thomas. Ruehl, for her part, does strong work as the prosecuting attorney, who has her own stake in the game; while Thomas’s performance as Ray Buckey is nuanced and sympathetic. Also worth mentioning is Lolita Davidovich, who steals all her scenes as the sinister and saccharine Kee MacFarlane with ease.

A powerful and pointed made for TV Movie, ‘Indictment: The McMartin Trial’ retells an important chapter of modern history that should never be forgotten. An indictment of society and those who rush to judgement, it is both relevant and compelling, featuring punchy dialogue, sharp cinematography and a fine score. Boasting strong performances from the likes of James Woods, Henry Thomas and Lolita Davidovich, Mick Jackson’s ‘Indictment: The McMartin Trial’ is a film innocent of irrelevance and guilty of greatness.


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