The Pelican Brief (film)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Pelican Brief
Theatrical release poster
Directed byAlan J. Pakula
Screenplay byAlan J. Pakula
Based onThe Pelican Brief
1992 novel
by John Grisham
Produced by
CinematographyStephen Goldblatt
Edited by
Music byJames Horner
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 17, 1993 (1993-12-17)
Running time
141 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$45 million[1]
Box office$195.3 million[2]

The Pelican Brief is a 1993 American legal thriller film based on the 1992 novel by John Grisham. Directed by Alan J. Pakula, the film stars Julia Roberts in the role of young law student Darby Shaw and Denzel Washington as Washington Herald reporter Gray Grantham. The film, which features music composed by James Horner, was the last film that featured Pakula as both writer and director before his death.[3]


An assassin named Khamel kills two elder Supreme Court justices, Jensen and Rosenberg. Tulane University law student Darby Shaw writes a legal brief detailing her theory on why they were killed. Her law professor and lover Thomas Callahan, a former clerk of Rosenberg's, reads the brief and gives a copy to Gavin Verheek, special counsel to the director of the FBI. Soon after, Callahan is killed in a car explosion, which Darby barely escapes unhurt. Realizing her brief was accurate, she goes into hiding and reaches out to Verheek.

An informant calling himself Garcia contacts Washington Herald reporter Gray Grantham about the assassinations but disappears. Darby also contacts Grantham. Meanwhile, a friend tells Darby that her computer, disks, and files have disappeared from her home. Darby is attacked at her hotel hideout but escapes. She and Verheek arrange to meet, but Khamel kills Verheek and impersonates him at the meeting. Before Khamel can kill Darby, an unknown person fatally shoots him in public square.

Darby meets Grantham in New York City and shares the theory expressed in her brief: the assassinations were done for oil tycoon Victor Mattiece, who intends to drill the oil found beneath a Louisiana marshland that is habitat for an endangered sub-species of brown pelicans. A court appeal to deny Mattiece the drilling rights is expected to reach the Supreme Court. Darby surmised that Mattiece, hoping to turn the case in his favor, is behind the two justices' murders, as they shared similar environment protection views. As a generous donor to the president, Mattiece expects him to appoint justices favoring oil and gas exploitation over environmental issues while the next president may not.

Grantham's informant, Garcia, is actually Curtis Morgan, a lawyer in the oil and gas division at a Washington, D.C. law firm. Darby pretends to have an appointment with Morgan, but learns he was recently killed in a mugging. Suspecting his murder was related to the incriminating information, she and Grantham visit his widow. She gives them a key to a safe deposit box and Darby retrieves its contents. After barely escaping a car bomb, the two arrive at the Washington Herald. They and Grantham's editors review the document and tape found in the box. The tape corroborates Darby's theory, and Morgan's documents verify that Mattiece ordered the justices' assassinations. Based on this evidence, Grantham writes his story. FBI Director Voyles confirms to Grantham that Darby's "Pelican Brief" was delivered to the White House. He reveals the president ordered the FBI to "back off," and that the CIA is investigating Mattiece. One agent killed Khamel to save Darby. The FBI flies Darby to a safe location under the United States Federal Witness Protection Program.

Sometime later, Darby watches a TV interview with Grantham that reveals Mattiece, four aides and lawyers have been indicted, the president's chief of staff Fletcher Coal has resigned. The president (who received $4.2 million in contributions from Mattiece) is unlikely to run for reelection. Grantham deflects speculation that Darby is fictional but agrees she is "almost" too good to be true, causing Darby to smile.



In October 1991, Daily Variety announced Alan J. Pakula's involvement in writing, directing, and producing a film adaptation of John Grisham's novel The Pelican Brief. Carolco Pictures, with whom Pakula had a first-look agreement, secured the film rights for $1.3 million. Initial plans outlined John Grisham drafting the first script iteration while Pakula was in pre-production for Consenting Adults (1992). However, financial troubles at Carolco led to Pakula's departure from the company, resulting in an early termination of his contract and the transfer of The Pelican Brief project to him. Subsequently, Pakula struck a two-year deal with Warner Bros. Pictures, which paid $1.75 million to option the film rights.[4]

Julia Roberts ended a yearlong hiatus from acting by signing on to portray "Darby Shaw," undergoing preparation by attending law classes at Tulane University in New Orleans, where filming commenced on May 21, 1993. Tony Goldwyn campaigned for the role of "Fletcher Coal," convincing Pakula he could portray a younger version of the character than depicted in the novel. Goldwyn consulted with White House advisor George Stephanopoulos to prepare for the role.[4]

Filming locations in New Orleans included an apartment in the French Quarter, doubling as "Thomas Callahan's" residence, Antoine's restaurant on St. Louis Avenue, Bourbon Street for a crowd scene featuring over 1,000 extras, and the warehouse district for Thomas Callahan's car explosion. Production shifted to Washington, D.C., on June 20, 1993, with scenes shot at various locations including the Supreme Court steps, Georgetown University Law Center, FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building courtyard, and Washington International School portraying "Parklane Hospital." The National Cathedral, Howrey & Simon law offices, and Citadel Soundstage were also utilized for filming.[4]

Pakula and Warner Bros. opted to film an additional, more upbeat ending, leading to extra shooting in Montecito, California, on November 27, 1993, extending the runtime by approximately ninety seconds. A private screening at the White House, hosted by President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton, was held on December 10, 1993, a week before the film's theatrical release, attended by Grisham and Pakula.[4]


Box office[edit]

The Pelican Brief grossed $100.8 million in the United States and Canada, and $94.5 million in other territories, for a worldwide total of $195.3 million,[2][5][6] against a production budget of $45 million.[1]

Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 55% based on 55 reviews, with an average rating of 5.6/10. The site's consensus states: "Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington are a compelling team in the overlong Pelican Brief, a pulpy thriller that doesn't quite justify the intellectual remove of Alan J. Pakula's direction."[7] On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 50 out of 100, based on 15 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[8] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "B+" on an A+ to F scale.[9]

Pat Collins, from WWOR-TV, said that the film was "A heart-stopping, spine-chilling, adrenaline-pumping, run-for-your-life thriller." In The Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert gave it 3 out of a possible 4 stars, writing "the movie delivers while it's onscreen" but also believed The Pelican Brief was inferior to the film adaptation of Grisham's The Firm (also 1993) and ranked as one of Pakula's lesser efforts.[10]

Film critic Brian Lowry of Variety wrote in his review:

Pakula does a remarkable job in weaving and making sense of these complex strands. Although there's plenty of suspense as Darby and Gray evade her pursuers, the director eschews the cheaper tricks of the trade, respecting the audience's ability to keep track of what's going on. Also, Brief is a relatively gore-free thriller, with most of the violence effectively conveyed offscreen.[11]

Film critic Janet Maslin of The New York Times wrote in her review:

The Pelican Brief is best watched as a celebration of liquid brown eyes and serious star quality, thanks to the casting of Ms. Roberts and Denzel Washington in its leading roles. Neither of these first-rate actors is shown to great dramatic advantage, but they both do a lot to make the movie shine.[12]

Home media[edit]

The Pelican Brief was released on VHS on June 15, 1994, by Warner Home Video.[13] The film was released on DVD on June 24, 1997, by Warner Home Video. The film was released on Blu-ray on February 10, 2009, by Warner Home Video.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "The Pelican Brief". The Numbers. Nash Information Services, LLC. Archived from the original on October 16, 2018. Retrieved October 16, 2018.
  2. ^ a b "The Pelican Brief (1993)". Box Office Mojo. Amazon. Archived from the original on October 17, 2018. Retrieved October 16, 2018.
  3. ^ "The Pelican Brief". Turner Classic Movies. Archived from the original on July 18, 2018. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d "The Pelican Brief". American Film Institute. Retrieved January 29, 2024.
  5. ^ Fox, David J. (December 20, 1993). "Pelican' Soars at the Box Office Movies: The mystery, with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, takes in more than $16 million. 'Mrs. Doubtfire,' 'Schindler's List' also do well". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on July 1, 2012. Retrieved November 30, 2010.
  6. ^ Fox, David J. (January 3, 1994). "'Mrs. Doubtfire,' 'Pelican Brief' propel final week and 'Jurassic Park' chews up the competition as industry receipts hit $5.2 billion". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on September 24, 2009. Retrieved October 26, 2010.
  7. ^ "The Pelican Brief (1993)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango. Archived from the original on April 7, 2019. Retrieved February 1, 2024.
  8. ^ "The Pelican Brief Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on October 8, 2018. Retrieved October 16, 2018.
  9. ^ "CinemaScore". Archived from the original on 2018-12-20.
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger (December 17, 1993). "The Pelican Brief". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on July 18, 2018. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  11. ^ Lowry, Brian (December 12, 1993). "The Pelican Brief". Variety. Penske Media Corporation. Archived from the original on October 18, 2014. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  12. ^ Maslin, Janet (December 17, 1993). "Review/Film; Presenting Nancy Drew For the 90's". The New York Times. Archived from the original on July 18, 2018. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
  13. ^ "Vid bits". The Free Lance-Star. June 11, 1994. Retrieved May 23, 2022.
  14. ^ "The Pelican Brief". Warner Home Video (Blu-ray). February 10, 2009. ASIN B001NHX3ZS. Retrieved July 18, 2018.

External links[edit]