In a way, we should all be thankful that David Irving’s (Timothy Spall) moment in the spotlight took place twenty years ago, when the Internet was still relatively new. If he’d peaked now, he’d likely have his own alt-right radio show, a regular speaking gig on Fox, and a couple of bestsellers squatting toad-like on the shelf next to Anne Coulter and Rush Limbaugh. He’d have millions hanging on his every word, happy to launch boycotts and screeching email campaigns were anyone to even SUGGEST that he lacked the right to his opinion.
As it is, he’s now known as a debunked Holocaust denier and anti-Semite: slinking hatefully on the fringes of the far right and likely gazing at the Steve Bannons of the world with envy. We owe his ignominy in no small part to his attempt to sue scholar Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz) for libel, after Liptsadt claimed that he was an anti-Semite.
Denial concerns itself more with the substance of how to fight such a man than the normal hammer-and-tongs courtroom stuff. The outcome is never in doubt, and the film only fitfully attempts to make drama out of it. That actually constitutes the weakest moments, when we fall back on artificially heightened tension for no reason other than to tell us things seem to be coming to a head. That might be part of why the film came and went last Oscar season, despite glowing reviews. It also arrived while we all still reeled from the ongoing election and its ultimate hideous outcome. The wounds were fresh and extremely raw.
Now, of course, we’re a lot tougher than we used to be. What initially appeared as a stodgy Oscar also-ran grew way too painful way too quickly, but now has aged remarkably well and has never felt more pertinent.
The Irving case was notable for being tried in England, where proof in libel rests with the defendant. That meant Lipstadt had to successfully prove that Irving was an anti-Semite – which she claimed in her book – rather than Irving having to prove that he wasn’t. It was an audacious ploy. If he won, it would grant him the academic legitimacy he craved. If he lost, he’d still be a debunked Holocaust denier, which is what he always was.
But that isn’t the interesting part of the story. Irving served as his own lawyer in court and was thoroughly trounced by Lipstadt’s legal team, who left no stone unturned in their ritualized depantsing. The interesting parts come in the discipline it took to do that the right way lest he use the whole thing as a stunt for free publicity. The slope becomes very slippery very quickly. It’s clear from the beginning that Irving revels in the spectacle of a public brawl, because it knows it grants him legitimacy in the eyes of the public. He fires his opening salvo by standing up in the middle of Lipstadt’s lecture and waving $1,000 in the air as a reward to anyone who can prove him wrong. She gapes in outrage, while one of his cronies records the whole thing for later media distribution.
Lipstadt is used to meeting bullies head-on, but when the lawsuit begins, she turns to Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson) and Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott) to represent her. They have to fight the man on his terms. They can’t just settle or they’ll be granting him legitimacy. They can’t concede an ounce of leeway or he still gains victory: notoriety, memorability, and maybe a few more people willing to overlook his status as a hateful little fraud. He needs to be trashed, and it needs to happen while he’s capering like a deranged gibbon at every camera in sight: claiming in increasingly strident terms that he is the real victim.
That means thinking three steps ahead, which also means going against the obvious logic of putting any Holocaust survivors on the stand to refute Irving’s claims first-hand. Lipstadt herself chafes against those restrictions, eager to state her case and allow the victims to make their voices heard. She herself can’t fathom why they would deny some of their strongest evidence, but the lawyers understand: Irving wants a shitshow, and the last thing they should do is give it to him. A survivor misremembers a detail, someone speaks out of anger, and he’ll latch onto it like a lamprey as proof – PROOF! – that he’s the target of persecution.
The push and pull between Rampton and Lipstadt forms the real core of the drama, and with it, an implicit understanding of how we got into our current mess. She swallows her anger at their behest, making the sacrifice so they can do their job. They do so masterfully and methodically: drawing Irving out with enough noose to hang himself with and skirting past his procedural tricks with the nimbleness of tightrope walkers. They have it in the bag – every argument he makes elicits an avalanche of duly gathered evidence refuting it – and yet one missed step spells absolute doom. It’s telling that the decision came down to a single judge. Had he been more biased, things might have turned out differently.
The argument parallels that of a lot of folks ready to see Trump and his whole rotten crew hell and gone as quickly as possible. As has been noted, we’re basically being trolled by the President of the United States, along with a gaggle of followers who will happily burn the nation – and perhaps the world – down if it means pissing off the rest of us. Their rage, their hateful glee, and their obvious joy at the pain they inflict so arbitrarily finds a fitting face in Spall’s weasel-eyed sneer. Naturally, Irving doesn’t admit defeat, even when he’s trounced, and he shows no signs of halting his hateful attacks simply because he’s been humiliated.
And here we sit: seething at a similar bully, outraged by his awfulness, shocked to the bone that anyone could buy his two-bit carny act, and yet appalled by just how many of our countrymen will happily embrace it. We’re old friends with Lipstadt’s outrage by now… but beneath the daily hate-fests comes the slow and methodical progress of people like Robert Mueller, and the hope that justice will ultimately prevail. No one knows where that will lead, and we’ve been admonished many times not to pin our hopes on its outcome. And yet it still represents the rule of law over a man determined to destroy it: the idea that our values have not been shattered, merely bent. Hope comes in short supply these days. Denial reminds us that doing it the right way can still prevail… as well as the need to ensure that the hammer falls swift and true. It’s not enough to make him go. He needs to look like the psychotic game show host he is: devoid of the legitimacy he so desperately craves and relegated – along with his followers – to the ash heap their behavior deserves. We can do it. Hope is there. And sometimes it comes down to just playing the game better than he does.