Q & A does not rank among Sidney Lumet’s most prestigious films, though given the quality of his output, that is not an indictment of the movie itself. If anything, at least among his many movies about New York City police, it may be the one that speaks most directly to the current cultural moment in the United States.
When viewed as a police procedural, which is how it was marketed, the movie is fairly simple. The bad guy, a police officer named Mike Brennan, played by Nick Nolte, is the first character introduced, and his status as the film’s bad guy is established right away: he tracks a man, kills him, and falsifies evidence to make it look like he acted in self-defense. Not long before the movie ends, Brennan is brought to justice. This being a Lumet film, the audience is unable to feel much catharsis as a result.
The movie’s protagonist, a young lawyer named Aloysius Francis Reilly, is brought in to lead the investigation into the murder. After the opening titles roll, it is Reilly who provides centers the plot from the beginning of the film to the end. As played by Timothy Hutton, he’s a shrinking violet and difficult to pin down, an issue that starts with his name. He asks to be addressed as “Al,” but other characters also call him Aloysius, Francis, or Reilly. His inability to establish a name for himself in a literal sense mirrors his inability to steer the investigation into Brennan, and also his inability to be seen by other characters as the fundamentally good person he imagines himself to be, the fundamentally good person the audience is apt to assume him to be in the beginning based on his status as the handsome babyfaced protagonist.
The movie takes place at a very specific time in New York. Irish-Americans, who were early recruits to the police department, are at the height of their political power, to the point that the movie has no recognizable WASP or Dutch New Yorker characters. Brennan, Reilly, and their patron Quinn, an assistant district attorney contemplating a run for DA, represent different aspects of this establishment, which produced several mayors in the real world, and which is experiencing a crisis of legitimacy in the movie as other ethnic groups rise through government administration, the police, and the world of organized crime. Brennan tries to persuade a mafia don that things were better when ethnic groups mixed less, and the mafioso agrees so fully that he decides to call out a hit on Brennan himself.
There is also a powerful Jewish scene of political advisors and senior lawyers in the DA’s office, whose members don’t act personally threatened by the ups and downs of relationships between ethnically identified political strivers, and thus tend to act as kingmakers and judges in the conflicts that arise within the government sphere. Reilly derives a significant part of his self-image from his interethnic relationship with his mentor, the senior assistant district attorney Bloomenfeld. Weighing Quinn’s direction against Bloomenfeld’s advice and adhering to the latter enables Reilly to believe that he is separating himself from the city’s ethnic feudalism and serving the cause of justice impartially.
All this is going on in the background of both the police-procedural A plot and the Reilly-growing-up B plot.
That Brennan is guilty is shown in the pre-credits scene. In his second appearance, he entertains the fellow-officers who booked him with a story about throwing an Italian-American suspect out a police station window and fingerprinting him with the suspect’s own feces, establishing him as a bigot. Yet the movie shows all the police, including black and Hispanic officers, to be bigots.
It gets interesting when Lumet, who also directed Dog Day Afternoon, looks to reveal the full extent of Brennan’s villainy. He does so in a series of scenes in which Brennan preys on transgender characters who have no recourse against him, or against any of their antagonists for that matter. Brennan isn’t the only character in the movie to discriminate against the queer community, but in each scene, it is clear where the audience’s sympathies are to lie. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s also not Dressed to Kill or Silence of the Lambs, where transgenderism is equated to psychopathy. Q & A’s transgender characters are people first, and when other characters deny their humanity, there is no question as to who is at fault.
At the same time as the movie slowly opens its audiences’ eyes to Brennan’s atrocity, the plot about Reilly growing up centers on his implicit bias. He comes back into contact with his ex-fiancé Nancy, the girlfriend of a witness to Brennan’s crime, and it turns out that she dumped him because of the look on his face when he realized that she was mixed race, and her father black (Nancy is played by Lumet’s daughter Jenny, who, through her mother, is part of the showbiz branch of the Brooklyn Horne dynasty). At first Reilly insists his reaction to Nancy’s father was not racist, and then he says that it might have been, but that he has since changed. He goes around asking other characters cagily about his implicit bias (not using those terms — this is 1990, after all), and they all confirm they see it in him. A black police detective named Chappy, Brennan’s old friend and arresting officer, even claims to prefer bigots like Brennan — at least with them, their animus is on the surface.
Q & A is not an optimistic movie. Unlike Lumet’s Serpico and Prince of the City, both made several years earlier, there is no structural fillip that suggests police reform is possible. When Chappy offers Brennan an opportunity to turn himself in honorably, Brennan calls him the whitest black man he’s ever known and makes it immediately clear the extent to which that is an insult. We last see the district attorney’s office as Reilly physically trashes it. The movie ends not with his umpteenth request for reconciliation with Nancy, but with the stoic silence with which she meets it. Nancy, as written and played, is a phenomenal character, being constantly called on to be a trophy wife to ambitious men, while refusing to be confined and charting her own course within this challenging world. In Lumet’s imagined world, Nancy, even more than the kindly Bloomenfeld, is the character whose benign condescension the others do well to seek.
Lumet is famous for filming his scenes in just one or two takes, which is magic for realistic dialogue, but which makes several monologues sound like script read-throughs. Only Nolte and Armand Assante, playing a Puerto Rican drug kingpin, are able to nail all their set-piece speeches. Lumet, in all his movies, has a strange aversion to using extras in outdoor locations, and the emptiness of his New York City sidewalks can make scenes look like they were filmed on sound stages. His police precinct, on the other hand, is always buzzing with activity. In one scene, an extra sits in the background with a child climbing heedlessly on his lap.
Children often add an extra bit of realism to Lumet’s movies due to their unpredictability. The tendency of child actors not to wait for their cue, but to behave antsily when adults near them are having adult conversations makes both the children and the adults around them, seem more true to life than in other directors’ pictures. Nolte and Luis Guzman may have been genuinely surprised by the offscreen antics of the child actor playing Guzman’s son in one scene, which is the better for it.
Lumet and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak often film Nolte in close-up. His expressions are worth it, but sometimes, as when Brennan touches Reilly’s face with a mix of tenderness and threat, you do get to wondering what interesting things his body is doing outside the frame. Bartkowiak is at his strongest when he films an entire scene with a single establishing shot, something he does often and a technique all other cinematographers but Roger Deakins seem to have since eschewed. In all his work with Lumet, Bartkowiak tends to place the establishing camera in a location that a human observer would have to stand. In small dressing rooms, it’s wedged in a corner, sometimes too low for comfort. Conference room scenes are shot from a wall, sidewalk scenes from the opposite sidewalk, corridor scenes from the end of the hallway, car scenes from outside the car or a passenger seat, marina scenes from pre-installed floating docks, and an airport hangar scene from a distance not determined by the size of the plane or the characters in the frame. Viewers feel both that they’re physically there, watching what’s going on, and that they are outsiders and voyeurs.
Lumet offers his audience a window onto the eve of the point at which all non-Hispanic European-American ethnicities collapsed into a single, nearly homogeneous white identity, a time of racial and sexual conflict and uncertainty. He does not turn away from, explain away, or entirely forgive his characters’ many failings, but his very empathy, and his success in winning viewers over to it, opens up possibilities of recognition, disappointment, and heartbreak in a forbidding world.