The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)

D: Milos Forman
S: Woody Harrelson, Courtney Love, Edward Norton

Superb fact-based drama directed by Milos Forman (Valmont) featuring an excellent young cast and a mature attitude to its subject which serves it well. Concerned with the life and sordid career of Hustler owner Larry Flynt, the film is bound to raise hackles not only because of the details of the world in which it is set and which it portrays fairly graphically, but because Flynt is here held up as a figure of heroism. Screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski cleverly approach the world of pornography not in terms of morality, but as a legal issue. As much at the centre of the drama as Flynt himself (brilliantly portrayed by Woody Harrelson) is Edward Norton as his tireless lawyer. The latter's efforts to defend Flynt's rights under the First Amendment take the pair to the Supreme Court, where a historic verdict underscores the point that whether or not you agree with what Flynt does, you must respect his right to do it in a free, democratic United States.

This is the point upon which the film turns, and it provides it with a worthwhile centre, but this route alone could easily have still resulted in a sleazy apologia for pornography. By adding an element of human drama in the form of Flynt's love for his free spirited wife (played by Courtney Love), Alexander and Karaszewski pull off a substantial coup of making him not only heroic, but sympathetic. Under Forman's direction the film delicately overcomes the obstacles which stand between it and the casual viewer. Potentially repulsive subject matter is made to seem relatively wholesome, certainly no more or less outrageous than the stories at the basis of many courtroom dramas or contemporary romances. Harrelson and Love's convincing performances help to seal it, and the film ends on a believable melancholy note which deftly avoids triumphalism. It argues that love is the only source of pleasure or pain which matters, a neatly self-contained conceit which sidesteps conventional questions raised by pornography, and leaves us with enough of a sense of Flynt's loss to empathise with him on a human level.

The film charts Flynt's life and career from childhood, demonstrating his ruthlessness and willingness to exploit human weakness. From scenes of him pedalling moonshine in the backwoods of Kentucky to him as owner of a chain of strip bars, his philosophy of giving the people what they want has the sneaky taint of amorality. It combines collective blame with entrepreneurship in a way which shifts the burden of responsibility onto the audience (representing the public at large). This trajectory continues throughout the film's documenting of his rise to that hallowed status of successful millionaire where so many figures of American myth are located. It is deliberately ironic that his success is based upon willing exploitation, and the film subtly turns the tables on its audience by forcing them to address the expected issues while itself getting on with other things. Its appeal is ultimately to sincerity, hitting out at hypocrisy (in the form of a sub-plot involving Flynt's legal troubles with evangelist Jerry Falwell), and lionising the demagoguery which took him to those heights as a form of public service ("Why should I have to go to jail to protect your rights?" mouths Harrelson at one point.) Meanwhile the film's main battles are fought in the American courts in the name of great principles, with Norton eventually making his final stand in a nicely climactic moment.

Flynt's motivations throughout the latter parts of the film are viewed in terms of his love for his wife, a difficult appeal to ignore which Forman reinforces by deemphasising the Supreme Court verdict and fading out with scenes of him watching video footage of his deceased beloved. This is a combination of high and low which plays both ends against the middle of human relationships (the love story); a risky gambit which in less accomplished hands might not have paid off. Forman manages it beautifully, and the result is a powerful and highly watchable drama which forces the viewer to weigh the legal and moral questions for themselves rather than draw obvious conclusions. Though there is an element of canonization to it as a biopic, Forman's stated distaste for his subject and the film's aloof style gives it a level-headed tone which allows us to make our own minds up. Some may not wish to of course, and for those there is probably much at which to find offense. For most others it is well worth seeing and strongly recommended.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.