Of all the films excerpted in Nancy Buirski’s warm, roving documentary “By Sidney Lumet,” the one she keeps returning to is the great director’s 1957 first feature, “12 Angry Men.” It was, as Lumet recalls, a project he landed through sheer luck, after Henry Fonda saw an off-Broadway play he had directed and recommended him for the job.
Yet happenstance doesn’t account for how thoroughly that film encapsulates so many of Lumet’s career motifs: a persuasive portrait of a government institution, a fascination with the creaky machinery of law and order and a drama that pits one man’s principles against a hostile, uncomprehending majority. From “12 Angry Men” onward, through “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” “The Verdict” and numerous others, Lumet’s filmography has concerned itself with men forced to act on little more than conscience and nerve, to stand up to the sneering individuals and rotting systems that threaten to swallow them alive.
Early in this documentary — built around an interview that Buirski conducted with an 83-year-old Lumet in 2008, three years before his death — the director recalls his own fight-or-flight moment, when he once witnessed a horrific act of violence in Calcutta and failed to intervene.
But having offered up this confessional moment, Lumet deflects our impulse to read too much into it. While acknowledging the presence of a clear moral sensibility in his work, he notes, “I’d say it’s an unconscious choice. I don’t pay any attention to it.” Or, as he says later: “All good work is self-revelatory.”
True enough. Focusing on the task at hand, allowing deeper meanings to assert themselves naturally, more or less captures this director’s working method, and perhaps accounts for his tireless, astonishingly prolific output over his six-decade career. Luck, hard work, discipline, sensitivity, professionalism — these are the qualities that he repeatedly highlights as the hallmarks of his success, shunning even the slightest hint of authorial self-indulgence or ego.
None of which should be taken to mean that Lumet took an impersonal attitude toward his work, even if some of his critics have suggested as much over the years, mistaking the director’s stylistic restraint and clean, direct storytelling for a lack of aesthetic ambition. One of the achievements of Buirski’s absorbing documentary is that it allows Lumet to remind us, in his own voice, of the passion in his ostensible dispassion — the way he deftly subsumed self-expression within the brisk rhythms of his material and the superb performances of his actors.
Not unlike the recent “De Palma,” a similarly fine portrait of a great American director, “By Sidney Lumet” pulls us into the hypnotic, cascading flow of its subject’s words, with no outside voices on hand to challenge or corroborate them.
With: Sidney Lumet.
Director: Nancy Buirski.
Running time: 103 minutes. Vulgar language. In Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.