The Pelican Brief is a 1993 American legal political thriller based on the novel of the same name 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. Music was composed by James Horner. This was the last film to feature Pakula as a producer and writer before his death.


Two Supreme Court justices are assassinated by the professional assassin "Sam" Khamel (Stanley Tucci).

Tulane University Law School student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) writes a legal brief detailing her theory on why they were killed and under whose orders. She delivers it to her law professor, mentor and secret lover Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard). He gives a copy to his friend Gavin Verheek (John Heard), attorney and special counsel to the Director of the FBI.

Callahan is killed by a car bomb; Darby escapes because she refuses to enter the car with her drunk lover and is subsequently attacked by an unknown assailant. Realizing that her brief was accurate, she goes into hiding and reaches out to Verheek for dire assistance.

Political reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) is contacted by an informant posing as "Garcia" with information about the assassinations, yet "Garcia" suddenly disappears, and Darby contacts Grantham, who finds her information is valid and accurate.

Darby's computer, disks and files have disappeared from her home, where she is also attacked but manages to escape. She contacts Verheek again and they arrange to meet, but Verheek is murdered by Khamel who impersonates his victim and proceeds to the meeting. However before Khamel can kill Darby too, he is shot and killed by an unknown agent.

Darby contacts Grantham again and agrees to meet him in New York City, where she gives him the details of her brief that speculates the assassins were loyal to Victor Mattiece, an oil tycoon who intends to drill for it on a Louisiana marshland, a known habitat of an endangered species of brown pelicans. A court appeal to prevent such harm is expected to reach the Supreme Court, before the two slain justices, known for their history of environmentalism. Intelligently, Darby surmised Mattiece, hoping to turn the case in his favor, is behind the Justices' murder, so when Grantham tells her about "Garcia", they discover that the man is Curtis Morgan (Jake Weber), a lawyer at the White & Blazevich oil and gas division in Washington.

Darby visits White & Blazevich, pretending to have an appointment with Morgan, and is told he had been killed. Suspecting that his murder was related to the incriminating information, she and Grantham visit his widow who gives them a key to a safe deposit box.

Darby visits the bank to retrieve the contents of the box. After barely escaping death by a car bomb, they reach the Washington Herald building where they review the documents and a videotape recovered from Morgan's box. The tape confirms Morgan's discovery that Mattiece ordered the assassination of the Justices and the documents confirm the accusations. With this evidence, Grantham writes his story. He gives the FBI a chance to comment and FBI Director Voyles (James B. Sikking) confirms the Pelican Brief was delivered to the White House. Off the record, he reveals the President ordered the FBI to "back off", CIA agents were investigating Mattiece and one of them killed Khamel to save Darby's life. A plane is arranged for Darby to flee the country.

The movie ends with Darby at her hideaway watching a TV interview of Grantham where it is revealed that Mattiece and four of his lawyers and aides have been indicted in federal court, the President's chief of staff has resigned and the President himself will not run for office again. Grantham deflects speculation that Darby is fictional, but does agree that she is "almost" too good to be true. Darby smiles as the screen cuts to black.

Differences from book

The film does not contain the murder of Matthew Barr and therefore does not show the primary antagonist, Victor Mattiece.

Gray Grantham is Caucasian in the book. He is portrayed by Denzel Washington, an African-American, in the film.

The villains continue their hot pursuit as Darby Shaw opens the safe-deposit box, putting a bomb in Gray Grantham's car and shooting at them both in the parking garage in the film but not in the book.

The movie opens with Rosenberg speaking to Gray Grantham, where in the book he is speaking to one of his aides.

There is more dialogue by Khamel in the book, as he arrives on shore and meets a man who gives him a ride into the city. The man talks about knowing this is the terrorist, but not wanting to look at him because of that. Eventually he does look at Khamel, who kills him for it.

Darby's friend Alice goes to her apartment upon Darby's request, to find out whether her apartment has been broken into and tampered with. In the book, Alice speaks with Darby's neighbor about if anyone has been in the apartment. They do not show this in the movie.

Voyles is described as portly in the book but is quite tall and slim in the movie. Also, Fletcher Coal is bald in the book, while being covered in curly hair in the movie. In the book, Coal is also described as a workaholic spending 120 hours per week in the White House, whereas in the movie, he has a wife and two kids.

In the book, while Darby is in the offices of the Herald with Gray, finalizing their story, Mattiece's hired associates wait outside of the building, hoping to end Darby's life as she enters or exits. In the movie, there is no such watching of the building.

Darby cuts her hair very short and dyes it several times in the book while maintaining Julia's signature red, curly locks in the movie.

One of the biggest differences between the book and the movie is that in the book, there seems to be a burgeoning romance between Darby and Gray, which ends with them meeting up after she flees the country. In the movie, they keep it very business-like, and there is no love-story ending where they end up on a beach, talking about the future. The film is sometimes cited as an example of how American films of this era tended to avoid depicting interracial romance; however, the producers claimed the romantic element was removed from the film not due to racial issues, but because "it would detract from the thriller".[1][2]


  • Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) - second year Tulane University Law School student; author of the brief
  • Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) - reporter for the fictional Washington Herald
  • Fletcher Cole (Tony Goldwyn) - White House Chief of Staff
  • Khamel "Sam" (Stanley Tucci) - hired assassin
  • Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard) - Tulane law school professor; romantically involved with Darby Shaw
  • Gavin Verheek (John Heard) - lawyer, special counsel to the FBI director; friend to Thomas Callahan
  • F. Denton Voyles (James B. Sikking) - Director of the FBI
  • Alice Stark (Cynthia Nixon) - Darby Shaw's friend
  • Bob Gminski (William Atherton) - Director of the CIA
  • The President (Robert Culp) - elected U.S. President whose name is unspecified and is always referred to as "the President"
  • Smith Keen (John Lithgow) - Gray Grantham's boss, an assistant managing editor at the fictional Washington Herald
  • Justice Rosenberg (Hume Cronyn) - eldest, most controversial Supreme Court Justice
  • Justice Jensen (Ralph Cosham) - youngest Supreme Court Justice
  • Curtis Morgan (aka Garcia) (Jake Weber)[3] - lawyer for White & Blazovitch who stumbles across an incriminating memo, costing him his life.
  • Marty Velmano (Anthony Heald) - senior attorney at White & Blazovitch and conspirator on Victor Mattiece's behalf
  • Stump (Nicholas Woodeson) - assassin who stalks Darby Shaw


The film received mostly mixed reviews from critics. Pat Collins, from WWOR-TV, said that the film was, "A heart-stopping, spine-chilling, adrenaline-pumping, run-for-your-life thriller." Roger Ebert praised the film and gave it 3/4 in his review. It currently holds a 52% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:

Box office

The film was a box office hit and grossed $195,268,056 worldwide.[5][6]


  1. James Robert Parish, Denzel Washington Infobase Publishing, 2009 ISBN 1438111835 (p. 54).
  2. Renee Christine Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America Harvard University Press, 2009 ISBN 0674042883, (p. 276).
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External links

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