In a certain sense, we should be grateful for The Pelican Brief, because of the very particular case study it offers in the changing face of filmmaking: not just in the context of Alan J. Pakula's career, but in the difference between the 1970s and the 1990s more generally. For The Pelican Brief recalls Pakula's All the President's Men, released 17 years earlier; nay, it does not "recall" the earlier film so much as it is stunningly eager to remind us that the same man directed both, a man who had at one point been perhaps the greatest master of paranoia thrillers in American cinema. I should hesitate only slightly in proclaiming them the two most similar films in Pakula's career - if not in the particulars of narrative, then absolutely in terms of mood, tension, and the overall view of the world presented by the piece. You could barely hope to find a better pair of movies to compare, really, and it's something of a relief to see Pakula returned so firmly to the métier of his two greatest works (that's All the President's Men and The Parallax View) after stumbling around aimlessly throughout the 1980s, and having spent the 1990s to that point (this was 1993) making degraded copies of his best works in Presumed Innocent and Consenting Adults.

But now we must confront an ugly fact, that while The Pelican Brief might indeed recall the glories of All the President's Men, it does so without being anywhere nearly as good as All the President's Men; and if I would still call it one of Pakula's very best films since the end of the 1970s, that says far more about the decline of his career than anything else. There are by my count three hideous flaws that counterbalance nearly everything good about the film - and make no mistake, there is good about the film. It is the first movie in many years where the director's presence can really be felt in some of the compositions, and there is one scene in which the two lead characters are in a car that we know to be rigged with a bomb, and Pakula's handling of the camera during the business of "he's going to start the ignition - no he's not - yes he is" is so deft that you're about ready to claw your kneecaps off from the tension, even though the scene is, by any logical reading, a bit silly. But yes, three hideous flaws, that very nearly threaten to tip an otherwise fine and wholly engaging paranoia thriller like they just weren't making anymore in 1993 (and look around you: they still aren't) right into the shitter. If I still tend to like The Pelican Brief, it is only by the thinnest of margins, and largely because it is not Consenting Adults.

I could do this in any order, but convention holds that I discuss the story first, and the monumental, gaping problem at its center - not a plot hole, though like most thrillers, plenty of people have found plenty of holes here, and not all of them are equally valid criticisms. So to begin with, The Pelican Brief is adapted by Pakula (his fourth and last screenplay credit) from a John Grisham novel, and it came rather early in the curious boom of Grisham movies of the 1990s - making, arguably, the last and least time that Pakula functioned as an unassuming bellwether for the new trend in cinema (even better: the only earlier Grisham film, The Firm, was directed by Sydney Pollack, who has always seemed to be the less talented alt-Pakula, at least to me). I am no fan of Grisham's work; I have not read The Pelican Brief, but I am content to blame its worst structural problem on the source material, for the particular nature of this flaw seems to be indebted to trashy beach novel convention. But at any rate, here is what happens-

A mysterious man (Stanley Tucci) kills two SCOTUS justices, for no reason that anyone can immediately determine: they were not ideologically close, and the more conservative was inches away from death while the more liberal was the newest appointee to that body. Naturally, this becomes the cause célèbre among the media, legal thinkers, and the like: and there is one particular young woman, a Tulane law student named Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts, insanely young), who sets herself to forming a theory of her own, asking the question that she hasn't seen anyone else ask, "What did these men have in common?" Eventually she comes up with a possible solution that seems absolutely preposterous to her, but just for fun she hands it over to her professor and lover, Tom Callahan (Sam Shepard), and he hands it to his buddy in the FBI, Gavin Vereek (John Heard), and he hands it to his boss, Director Voyles (James B. Sikking), and from there it gets to the President of the United States himself (Robert Culp), whose response is to ask the head of the CIA (William Atherton) to make sure the whole thing gets disappeared. Which is a disproportionate response to a theory that even the theorist finds to be laughably far-fetched, don't you think? Though Darby is a lot less convinced that it's so far-fetched when Tom dies in a car bomb.

In the meantime, a reporter for the Washington Herald (changed from the Post, and here we start to go from "this is generically akin to All the President's Men" to "this is a damned remake of All the President's Men"), Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) has been pursuing the story himself, with a mystery source calling himself Garcia (Jake Weber) prodding the reporter towards whatever truth Darby has apparently dug up. She is by this point certain that she's a target for murder, and she makes contact with Gray; after some amount of paranoid wrangling, they get together in New York, and she tells him her theory. This happens almost exactly at the midway point of the movie, incidentally; the second half follows as Darby and Gray hustle across the Eastern Seaboard trying to find enough documentary proof for her theory that he can publish it in his august paper of record.

Did you spot the flaw? Maybe not, because I was just synopsising, so perhaps you just assumed I didn't mention it. But that point, midway through, where Darby tells Gray her theory? Here's the thing - we don't know what the theory is yet. We find out very soon thereafter, mind you: he plays the tape of her statement, and I'll leave it as a surprise for the viewer (it is, by the way, kind of silly and implausible) almost immediately after their interview is done. But the point remains that for over half of the movie, we don't know what Darby - the protagonist - has discovered that is so terrifying and unlikely and true. And that is one hell of a tricky wire to navigate, the protagonist who is smarter than the audience in what is being pitched as a mystery thriller. Look at All the President's Men: within the context of the movie, we are pretty much always exactly in step with Woodward and Bernstein, although of course every single viewer in 1976 knew exactly what they were going to discover. It's a good, solid way to build a mystery: it binds our POV nice and tight to the main characters, and gets us quite engaged with their process as the story unfurls. But The Pelican Brief is just a cocktease: it is not just keeping us in the dark but telling us flat-out that it's keeping us in the dark, and asking us to sympathise with a heroine who knows exactly why she's being chased, even though all we know is that she has found "The Truth" - whatever the hell that might be. It makes it kind of impossible to engage with Darby when we're aware that she's a step ahead of us. Gray makes for a much better main character, but he's not really very present until just after the midway point, which is exactly when we understand Darby's plight and can better sympathise with her. So all around, the film gets a lot better at the midway point.

I promised three flaws. That was one. The second is much easier to describe: The Pelican Brief is utterly, obnoxiously visually plain. This was predestined the moment that Pakula teamed up for the second time with Stephen Goldblatt, his Consenting Adults cinematographer - leastways, it was if you agree with me that Consenting Adults had to that point been the director's most visually undistinguished movie. The Pelican Brief probably tops it, though: while Pakula's blocking is significantly better than it was in the last film, and the use of camera angles is generally more thoughtful (there is a return to the long-forgotten "Pakula Shot" - an extreme wide angle of two people engaged in some significant piece of business - and some very nicely-executed bird's-eye-view shots), the images are nonetheless inordinately flat, with absolutely functional use of focal depth, and perfunctory, uninflected lighting: it's not just that it looks boring, it looks so boring that it damn well hurts. It is so boring that it makes you want to sleep and not have to keep looking at it.

The third flaw: Julia Roberts. Okay, so back in the day I was one of those reflexively anti-Roberts people, but I have grown some sense since then (her extremely fruitful relationship with Steven Soderbergh helped that process a lot). But I still think it demonstrably true that she isn't a natural actress. A natural movie star, without a doubt. But it takes some doing to coax a good performance out of her, and in this stage of her career, nobody had really figured out how to do that yet (if you say Pretty Woman, I will cut you. I will fucking cut you over the internet), although Pakula, always a good director of actors, did his best. The result is sort of a nearly-good performance that keeps stranding itself a little bit too readily in Doe-Eyed Ingénue Land, although maybe I am just at this late date stunned to see Roberts when she was practically a little kid. But whatever causes it, I find that too much of her performance is at a '30s movie register of "bigness" at odds with every other element of the movie. And even the good parts of her performance feel like her absolute best impersonation of how Holly Hunter would play the role with a Midwestern accent.

So in the face of those crippling flaws, what can the film offer us that is good? Well, even when we don't know what's going on, it's a nicely high-momentum thriller that keeps going too quickly for us to stop and notice the smaller plot contrivances, and like I said, there are a few particular setpieces where Pakula seems to have woken up for the first time in 15 years and remembered how exactly you're supposed to make a movie.

It's the right mood for the filmmaker, that's what does it. Maybe no-one, and almost certainly no American, has ever surpassed Pakula for creating a tone of sheer paranoia through camera perspective and editing, always keeping us trapped in a bubble with the main character, who is constantly aware of the number of ways that somebody else might be about to kill them. And of course, like his classic paranoia trilogy, The Pelican Brief posits a world in which everyone is out to secure their own measure of power at the expense of absolutely everyone else, meaning that the universe itself is out to get the characters. If the 1993 film doesn't match the heights of, say, The Parallax View in creating that kind of world, I guess it's largely because it is lousy with problems. But you can see the shape of what it should look like; and that's at least some compensation. Even this late into unrecoverable mediocrity, Pakula could remember what it meant to be a great filmmaker; it is both touching and frustrating that The Pelican Brief should come so close to being good without quite finding a way out of its own Hollywood-bound inconsequence.