Takeaways from Sundance’s secret Brett Kavanaugh documentary

January 24, 2023

“We’re getting more tips,” Amy Herdy announced Friday night, January 20, after the Sundance Film Festival premiere of “Justice,” a documentary she produced about the sexual assault allegations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, reports The Washington Post.

The film’s existence was a surprise, with the festival only revealing on Thursday–its opening night—that it was making a very last-minute addition to the lineup: the first documentary from “Swingers” and “The Bourne Identity” director Doug Liman. Within half an hour of the news getting out, Liman said in the post-screening Q&A, the film team started hearing from people who had sent the FBI tips before Kavanaugh’s confirmation, which the agency did not further investigate.

Suddenly, what was finished began anew. The tips were compelling enough for the team to start investigating and filming again with plans to add footage to the completed film, Liman said. In a wild and rare move, the finished documentary had converted back to a work in progress.

“I thought I was off the hook,” said Liman, who self-funded the film to retain independence and keep it secret. “I was like, ‘We’re at Sundance. I could sell the movie.’ … And yesterday, Amy’s like, ‘We’re not done.’ Seriously. Monday morning, they’ll be back at it.”

The film, which Liman said in a news release is meant to “[pick] up where the FBI investigation into Brett M. Kavanaugh fell woefully short,” debuted to a packed house of nearly 300 people. Someone asked if he’d show it to Kavanaugh. The answer was a joking yes. “We’re looking for buyers,” said Liman, “and it had occurred to us that he might buy it.”

The justice’s fall 2018 confirmation process, which took place just before the midterm elections, became chaotic when Palo Alto-based psychology professor Christine Blasey Ford accused the Trump nominee of sexually assaulting her when they were in high school. After the Post published Ford’s story, two more women accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault.

Deborah Ramirez, one of those women, told The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow and Jane Mayer that Kavanaugh thrust his penis in her face during a party when they were at Yale University. The FBI interviewed Ramirez, whose attorneys said the bureau never followed up with any of the 20 witnesses who might have been able to corroborate her story. The FBI’s investigation into Kavanaugh generated 4,500 tips that largely went un-investigated.

After reviewing an FBI report compiled in one week, which Democrats decried as rushed and incomplete, the Trump White House declared it found no corroboration of the claims against the justice. Kavanaugh, who was part of the conservative 6-3 majority that overturned Roe v. Wade, has categorically denied all accusations and does not appear in the film outside of archival footage.

The public information office of the Supreme Court did not return The Post’s request for comment on the documentary. The FBI’s national press office did not have a comment on the documentary—but reiterated that their services in a nomination process are limited to fact-finding and background investigations.

“The scope of the background investigation is requested by the White House,” an agency spokeswoman told The Post in a statement. “The FBI does not have the independent authority to expand the scope of a supplemental background investigation outside the requesting agency’s parameters.”

Liman told the Sundance audience he started thinking about making this movie in 2018 while watching the hearings and “knowing that something very wrong was happening.”

After all, the director grew up around the law. His father, Arthur Liman, was chief counsel in the Senate’s investigation into the Iran-Contra Affair and helped lead the investigation into the Attica prison uprising. Doug Liman’s older brother, Lewis, is a federal judge in the Southern District of New York.

Liman and Herdy, an investigative journalist who made the 2015 sexual assault documentary “The Hunting Ground,” kept their Kavanaugh investigation secret for a year by using nondisclosure agreements —an impressive feat in the small world of documentary film.

Liman intersperses archival footage with testimonies from Ramirez, Ford’s friends, and Kavanaugh’s Yale classmates—who said the justice was often severely inebriated—but the film feels unfinished. (Variety called it “an exercise in preaching to the choir.”) Although, one potent moment reveals a previously unheard recording of a tip to the FBI about another accuser.

Liman gives Ramirez the public platform she never got in front of the Senate. A long, emotional interview with the Boulder-based former Yale classmate of Kavanaugh’s forms the movie’s spine. Although the interview doesn’t contain much that hasn’t already been reported, it’s powerful to hear someone who doesn’t enjoy being in the spotlight tell her own story with all the anguished starts and stops that come with trying to recall a nearly 40-year-old traumatic event.

Ramirez discusses her Catholic upbringing and early desire to be a nun. She also talks about entering Yale in 1983 as the shy, half-Puerto Rican daughter of parents who didn’t go to college—and trying to fit in to the predominantly wealthy, White, male institution that only had started admitting women 15 years prior. She offers a detailed recounting of getting inebriated at a party and looking up to find a penis in her face, which—having never touched a penis before— she accidentally brushed with her hand. All her friends began laughing at her.

She’d blocked the memory, but as Farrow interviewed her, she says details resurfaced, and she’s positive Kavanaugh was her assailant.

“The prominent memory is the laughter,” she says in the documentary, echoing what Ford had said in her testimony. “I have never forgotten it in 35 years.”

The film opens, rather curiously, with the camera trained on Liman sitting on a white couch, as a blonde woman asks why he would want to get into something this contentious. The audience only sees the back of Ford’s head in that moment, then a little more of her at her sons’ basketball game right after the opening. Otherwise, she is seen only in footage of her hearing.

Instead, her close friends tell her story. One says Ford told him about the Kavanaugh assault without naming him in 2015, when Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner received a lenient sentence after being convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious female student, Chanel Miller.

Liman said in the Q&A he felt Ford didn’t need to be subjected to another interview after baring everything on the national stage. He preferred to turn the camera and allow her to ask some questions.

“I felt that Dr. Ford has given so much to this country,” he said. “She’s done enough for ten lifetimes.”

If there’s a smoking gun in Liman’s film, it’s a voice message left on the FBI tip line from Max Stier, the president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, who attended Yale with Kavanagh and Ramirez.

In the previously unheard recording, Stier says classmates told him not just that Kavanaugh stuck his penis in Ramirez’s face, but that afterward, Kavanaugh went to the bathroom to make himself erect before allegedly returning to assault her again, hoping to amuse an audience of mutual friendsv. In the film, Ramirez says she’d suppressed the memory so deeply she couldn’t recall this second incident, even when Farrow explicitly asked her about it.

Stier’s message to the FBI also cites another incident involving a different woman, whom he says he witnessed “firsthand” a severely inebriated Kavanaugh, his dorm mate, pulling his pants down at a different party while a group of soccer players forced a drunk female freshman to hold his penis.

The woman’s friends told The New York Times in 2019 that she did not remember the incident and did not want to come forward after seeing the treatment of Ford. Stier does not appear in the film to elaborate nor did he give further interviews when his tip first surfaced in 2019.

The filmmakers told the audience Friday that they have a website, JusticeFilm.com, where people can send tips. “I do hope that this triggers action,” said Herdy. “I do hope this triggers additional investigation with real subpoena powers.”

Research contact: @washingtonpost