Dawn Porter’s Gideon’s Army (2013) is the best example I have seen of documentary story-telling so far with its dramatic tension that keeps you riveted until the jury’s verdict is read.

Gideon’s Army follows three public defenders in the Deep South as they work against enormous odds — professional, financial, and personal — to represent their clients in the justice system. Travis Williams, Brandy Alexander, and June Hardwick handle more than 120-plus cases at a time while trying to balance their budgets and personal lives. Supporting them is a program called the Southern Public Defender Training Center, run by Jonathan Rapping.

But there is no balance, really, as each one struggles to work within a system that sees many people quit each year. Porter’s documentary follows each public defender and a key case. Each one shares the moral complexities of the job and their attempts to make sense of it, even with the guilty and thankless clients. Alexander, for example, learns that a client has planned her murder. The represented defendents, however, are shown with sensitivity as people facing challenges both within and outside the legal system.

Alexander’s and Williams’s cases create a classic dramatic tension that weaves throughout the documentary and brings it to the high points with the trials and the verdicts. Setbacks along the way, such as with evidence and testimony, push that tension further. Their outcomes remain uncertain until the verdict is delivered in each one.

A small moment in this documentary struck me. Near the end, the man in Williams’s case goes into the courthouse to enter a plea for hopefully a lesser sentence. As he does, a person campaigning for office hands out fliers and asks for votes. The juxtaposition raises a powerful, if subtle, point in that if he receives a sentence, he loses his right to vote during incarceration.

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