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The Pelican Brief

Theatrical poster
Directed by Alan J. Pakula
Produced by Alan J. Pakula
Pieter Jan Brugge
Written by Alan J. Pakula
John Grisham (Novel)
Starring Julia Roberts
Denzel Washington
Sam Shepard
John Heard
Tony Goldwyn
James B. Sikking
William Atherton
Robert Culp
Stanley Tucci
Music by James Horner
Cinematography Stephen Goldblatt
Editing by Tom Rolf
Trudy Ship
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) December 1993 (1993-12)
Running time 141 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Gross revenue $195,268,056

The Pelican Brief is a 1993 legal crime 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.



Two Supreme Court justices are assassinated. A terrorist named Khamel (Stanley Tucci), who works as a hired assassin, shoots one of the justices as he lies in his sickbed. He strangles the other in a gay porn film theater. Tulane University Law School student Darby Shaw (Julia Roberts) theorizes that there may be some similarity in their otherwise-different voting patterns that may provide a motive for their assassinations. She discovers that both were protective of the environment in their votes. Her research also reveals that a U.S. District Court has already ruled in favor of the environmentalists, setting aside a verdict from a 3-man jury, which had voted in favor of Mattiece. Mattiece has appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is scheduled to hear the case later in the year. If either side in the lawsuit is unhappy with the ruling from the Fifth Circuit, they will in all likelihood appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Darby has correctly realized that Mattiece can't wait the usual 3 to 5 years for the Supreme Court to hear the case, for although Justice Rosenberg, one of the assassinated jurists will probably be dead by then, another President could be in the White House, possibly a pro-environment President. Mattiece gave the current President over $400,000 in campaign contributions, making him by far the largest single contributor to the President. By having two pro-environment Justices murdered now, Mattiece can guarantee that this President will appoint two pro-oil drilling Justices to the Supreme Court, guaranteeing his victory should the Court agree to hear an appeal of the Fifth Circuit's decision.

Darby decides to research who might have been responsible for the murders, and writes her theories into a paper which she shows to her law professor Thomas Callahan (Sam Shepard). He, in turn, gives the paper (which becomes known as the "Pelican Brief") to Gavin Verheek (John Heard), a friend of his in the FBI. Not long after this, Callahan is killed by a car bomb. Darby survives, afraid that she'll be the next target, Darby goes on the run.

Darby contacts Verheek to seek protection, and they arrange a meeting. Khamel murders Verheek and prepares to meet Darby in his place. She decides to go to reporter Gray Grantham (Denzel Washington) in order to publicize her ideas. After escaping from New Orleans, she meets him in New York and gives him the details of her brief from memory. Grantham tells her about Garcia, an unidentified informant who contacted Grantham, and they decide to try to locate the man. The man is Curtis Morgan (Jake Weber), a lawyer in the oil and gas division of White & Blazevich.

Darby visits White & Blazevich pretending to have an appointment with Curtis Morgan. When she is told that he was killed by muggers, she suspects that his discovery of incriminating evidence was the reason, and Darby hurries out of the office. They visit his widow and discover a safe deposit key.

While Darby visits the bank to retrieve the contents of the box, she is followed and a bomb is planted in her car. When she and Grantham return to their vehicle, Grantham has difficulty starting the car, and Darby recognizes the faltering sound as what she heard just before her professor was killed. She stops him and they flee the vehicle. They are instantly pursued on foot and by a car, which finally crashes into their parked vehicle, detonating the bomb and killing their pursuer.

They escape to the Washington Herald building, where they review the documents and a videotape from Morgan's box. With the evidence that he needs, Grantham writes his story. He gives the FBI a chance to comment, and Director Voyles (James B. Sikking) comes to meet with him personally. Voyles confirms that the Pelican Brief was delivered to the White House, but forbids Grantham to publish that the President interfered with the investigation. He tells Darby that the CIA were investigating Mattiece, and that one of them killed Khamel to save her life. In a dark, empty hangar, Darby and Grantham board a plane and fly to an undisclosed location. Upon arrival, they are given a copy of the day's Herald with their story.


  • 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; unofficial head of power
  • Khamel "Sam" (Stanley Tucci) - international 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 Sikking) - Director of the FBI
  • Alice Stark (Cynthia Nixon) - Darby Shaw's friend
  • Bob Gminski (William Atherton) - CIA Director
  • The President (Robert Culp) - elected U.S. President whose name is unspecified and is always referred to as "the President"; delegates many administrative duties to Fletcher Cole
  • 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; apparently homosexual
  • Curtis Morgan (aka Garcia) (Jake Weber)[1] - lawyer for White & Blazovitch who stumbles across an incriminating memo, costing him his life.


  • The rights to "The Pelican Brief" were bought before the book was even written; John Grisham had written a sample from the book and the rights were bought on the spot.
  • The President questions Cole's idea of addressing the nation while wearing a cardigan sweater; this is based on a real-life incident in which then-president Jimmy Carter addressed the nation in a cardigan during the height of the fuel shortages in the 1970s.
  • Victor Mattiece, the main villain, is never seen. Grisham's entire subplot of his behind-the-scenes machinations are totally absent from the movie.
  • In the novel Gray Grantham is white (as evidenced by physical descriptions of the character) and works for the Washington Post. The producers were unable to obtain permission from the Post to use its name in the film, and thus Herald was substituted for it.
  • Although not stated in the film itself, the final scene where Darby is in the beach cottage is Gray Grantham's cottage, and the two of them are in a relationship at that time. This was revealed by Julia Roberts in her interview with James Lipton in 1996.


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