Wanted and Desired'

Dir. Marina Zenovich
(Not Rated) ★ ★ ★ ½

What makes the law such popular fodder for film and television is that the adversarial system of justice provides inherent conflict. There’s a prosecutor and a defender arguing their case before the court. One of them is right, and one of them is wrong, and maybe one is even good and the other evil. In the end, there is a verdict, and truth prevails; the guilty are punished or the innocent exonerated … At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. The fascinating documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired recounts a case where justice was turned sideways. It’s about a guilty defendant and two adversarial lawyers who ended up adversaries not of each other but of the judge.

Of course, Roman Polanski is the famed director of Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. In 1977, he was arrested for statutory rape for engaging in sexual intercourse with a thirteen-year-old aspiring actress, Samantha Gailey. In 1978, he fled the United States for Paris and hasn’t been back since, but even the prosecuting attorney, Roger Gunson, admits he can’t blame Polanski for leaving under the circumstances.

The judge was Laurence Rittenband, and if he were a character in a fiction film you wouldn’t believe him. As a Superior Court judge in Santa Barbara, one of California’s busiest districts for celebrity cases, he presided over Elvis Presley’s divorce, Marlon Brando’s child-custody battle, and other sensational trials. He was skilled at self-promotion and kept a scrapbook of press clippings about himself. The lengths to which he manipulated the Polanski case to further his own interests are shocking even if your only experience with jurisprudence is reruns of Law & Order.

It’s disappointing how frequently the opposition is demonized in legal dramas for the purpose of dramatic tension. If the heroes are the prosecutors, the defense attorneys are unscrupulous mercenaries putting criminals back on the street for a buck. If the heroes are the defenders, the prosecutors are ruthless bullies looking for a conviction at any cost. So it’s refreshing that both lawyers on the Polanski case are equally just and right-thinking men. Deputy District Attorney Gunson and Polanski’s representative Douglas Dalton are the film’s most compelling subjects, because their belief in the system supercedes their belief in the specific case, and that allows them both to recognize that Rittenband’s audacity is beyond the pale, no matter the crime being prosecuted.

It isn’t a question of Polanski’s guilt. He is guilty by his own admission. He pled to one count of unlawful sexual conduct and surrendered to the workings of the American legal system, until Rittenband asked him to jump through one hoop too many. Director Marina Zenovich’s real subject is the right to due process. American justice is founded on the principle that all men, from jaywalkers to mass murderers, should be treated with equal fairness under the law. The fact that Polanski is a foreigner who has willfully exiled himself from the country he once regarded with fondness further underlines the point. Today, the parties may have different opinions about the crime, but all of them — including Polanski’s victim, who has publicly forgiven him — agree that he deserved better from the courts. We all do.