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Lawyers in the Movies

A [Category A]

A Civil Action
A Cry in the Dark
A Few Good Men
A Man for All Seasons
A Map of the World
A Passage to India
A Soldier's Story
A Tale of Two Cities
A Time to Kill
The Accused
Adam's Rib
Anatomy of a Murder
...And Justice for All

A Civil Action (1999)

Based on Jonathan Harr's magnificent book of the same name, A Civil Action is the closest thing a civil procedure professor can get to a video casebook for walking students through a class action environmental lawsuit. In this case, based on a true story, Jan Schlichtman (John Travolta) is a personal injury lawyer representing families whose children died of leukemia. Was their illness caused by water contaminated by two corporations?

This film shows what and where the real legal "action" is: it is negotiation, constant negotiation, in the hallways and boardrooms with opposing counsel, in chambers with the judge, and most importantly, in "negotiations" with clients, to encourage them to join the suit and then to accept a settlement. Schlichtman's law partners - wonderfully portrayed by William H. Macy and Tony Shalhoub - also compellingly illustrate the negotiations that take place within a law firm as the case drags on, draining the firm financially. Superbly directed by Steven Zallian, who won an Oscar for directing Schindler's List, the strong cast includes John Travolta, Robert Duvall, John Lithgow, William H. Macy, Stephen Fry, James Gandolfini, Dan Hedaya, Zeljko Ivanek, Kathleen Quinlan, and Tony Shalhoub. The book focuses on the lawyer's deterioration as the case continues, but this film rightly focuses on the families and the court process.

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A Cry in the Dark (1988)

Based on a true 1980 incident in Australia, this film tells the story of a family on vacation at Uluru (Ayers Rock in the Australian outback) whose baby daughter disappears in the night. The mother is certain that the baby was carried off by a dingo - an Australian wild dog - but she is soon put on trial, accused of killing her own child. This film shows how every aspect of the family was put under the spotlight and in some sense corrupted both by the media and by the legal process.

The parents, magnificently played by Sam Neill and Meryl Streep, are members of a religious minority (Seventh Day Adventists), and this makes them suspect and unsympathetic to many members of the public and the media. The trial, rather than a search for truth, becomes a confirmation of public prejudices --- something that everyone should be aware of when the defendant is a member of any minority group. The prosecution plays the public and the media like a violin. This film is merciless in showing how the tabloid press feasts off of the family's tragedy, and is instructive for journalists as much as for lawyers.

The family's faith sustains them, but I didn't think the film was sanctimonious in any way, in part because of Streep's performance as a stoic woman, shocked and then numbed by the tragedy, rather than acting the weeping mother that the public and the media wanted to see. The scenes of the public talking about the case in restaurants and grocery stores will ring true to those who recall the O.J. Simpson murder trial and other "trials by media." "A dingo ate my baby" was used as comic conversation filler in "Seinfeld," showing how the media, through sheer repetition, can drain a tragedy of all meaning. In spite of the fact that the conviction of the mother was eventually overturned, one out of every three Australians still thinks that she murdered her daughter. That's the journalists' doing.

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A Few Good Men (1992)

One of my favorite legal dramas, this film, directed by Rob Reiner, focuses on an inexperienced Navy lawyer (Tom Cruise) who must defend two Marines facing murder charges. This film, like Breaker Morant, illustrates the concept of the law within the military, and touches as well on cultural, class and racial differences between lawyers and clients. There are also tensions between a female attorney (Demi Moore) and her male counterpart (Cruise). The friendship between defender Cruise and the prosecutor (Kevin Bacon) is realistically portrayed. Miracle of miracles, there is one lawyer (Kevin Pollak) who is portrayed as a decent, ethical professional, and I've had a crush on Pollak ever since I saw this movie. It's interesting to watch the film with people from military backgrounds, who may feel that the commanding officer, as unforgettably played by Jack Nicholson, has the better of the arguments at trial. ("You can't handle the truth!") Based on an excellent play of the same name by Aaron Sorkin, reportedly based on a true story his sister, a lawyer, had heard about in the JAG corps, the film works dramatically in large part because it is quite faithful to his stage play.

Many people have worked very hard over the years so that "military justice" is no longer a contradiction in terms, and this film can be seen as a tribute to their work.

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A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Based on the play by Robert Bolt, this play tells the true story of Thomas More, who refused to support King Henry VIII when the monarch sought a divorce from his wife, which required a divorce of the monarchy from the Catholic Church and eventually England's divorce from Catholicism. The climax of the film is Thomas More's trial in Westminister. But the plot centers on what we today would call the "plea negotiations": various interrogations of More, including by Cromwell at Hampton Court; the pressure from friends and high officials to take the deal and spare his life; and a hearing while More is imprisoned in the Tower of London. Paul Scofield is magnificent as Sir Thomas More; Robert Shaw is a human Henry VIII; Orson Welles is in his element as Cardinal Wolsey. Every conniving person who lies to advance his career can point to Richard Rich (immortally played by John Hurt) as a patron saint. Sometimes called A Film for All Time, this is the movie to watch when your case or cause is doomed to short-term failure but long-term glory.

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A Map of the World (1999)

I haven't seen this film, which was directed by Scott Elliott, based on the novel by Jane Hamilton. It received strong reviews, particularly for the performances of Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore. The Internet Movie Database summarizes the plot as: "A woman's life falls apart after she is convicted for an accident on her property."

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A Passage to India (1984)

Directed by David Lean, based on the novel by E.M. Forster, this film presents colonial India as seen by Adela Quested, a repressed, white British woman (Judy Davis) who is visiting her fiance. As Miss Quested's last name suggests, she is on some kind of mission to find something, or to break free. An Indian doctor shows her magnificent caves, but she is frightened --- perhaps by his kindness, or by her feelings for him, and by the vastness of the caverns and the world she is frightened to experience. She comes rushing out of the caves, and runs through brambles, which scratch her bloody. As in real life, we never hear her accuse anyone of rape. The next thing we, the public, see, is the trial. The doctor, played with great dignity by Victor Banerjee, sees his reputation and his life destroyed. It is interesting to wonder whether Ms. Quested was bullied into making the accusation, and how much courage it requires for someone to recant. The racial, ethnic and class issues permeate the film: this white woman could destroy this Indian doctor with a few words. There are also issues of privacy at the trial --- whenever sexual conduct is an issue, the privacy rights of all concerned seem to be violated at every turn. I remember how grateful I was to see the calm proceedings of the trial (of course, much or all of it British procedure). Sometimes, a slow, orderly explanation of what occurred is the only way to uncover the truth. This is a long film, but very deep, and well worth watching.

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A Soldier's Story (1984)

Directed by Norman Jewison, based on the play and screenplay by Charles Fuller, this movie about black soldiers in Louisiana during World War II is considered one of Jewison's finest films. A soldier (Adolph Caesar, nominated for an Oscar) is murdered and an investigator (Howard E. Rollins) is given three days to investigate the crime. The superb cast includes Robert Townsend, Larry Riley, Art Evans, David Allen Grier, David Harris, Dennis Lipscomb, and a young Denzel Washington. I have not seen this film, but I really must, for what it says about race and justice in the United States sixty years ago, and today.

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A Tale of Two Cities (numerous film versions; a 1989 British/French TV mini-series is well-regarded)

Arguably one of Charles Dickens' finest novels, the central character - and hero - of A Tale of Two Cities is a British lawyer, Sydney Carton, who is drawn into the lives of French aristocrats after the French revolution, when it was not a good time to be a French aristocrat. Like many lawyers then and now, Carton lived an unhappy life, but he falls in love with Lucie Manette. But Lucie marries a Frenchman in exile in England, Charles Darnay, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Carton. Carton defends Darnay from a false charge of treason. Does Darnay give thanks for his freedom and settle down? No, Darnay goes to Paris to try to rescue a wrongly imprisoned family benefactor whose "trial" under the post-Revolution rules is quite interesting, if you like bloodthirsty juries. Darnay is himself arrested, and condemned to the guillotine. Sydney Carton comes to the rescue, in an end that is far, far better for his client than it is for him.

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A Time to Kill (1996)

Based on John Grisham's first novel, which was rejected by 28 publishers, (his next novel, The Firm, became a best seller), this film features Matthew McConaughey as a young lawyer defending a black man who murdered two criminals after they raped and killed his daughter. The plot is reportedly based on a trial Grisham witnessed during his ten years practicing criminal law in Mississippi. The racial tensions of southern Mississippi are a vivid presence in both the book and the film. Grisham was born in Arkansas, but his father, a cotton farmer, moved the family to Mississippi, where Grisham attended law school. Grisham established a private law practice in that state, where lawyers in private practice are often asked to represent the indigent. I haven't seen this film, nor read the book, but as Grisham by now can and does donate virtually all of his proceeds to charity, I hope you buy the book and see the movie.

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The Accused (1988)

Three men gang rape a woman (Jodie Foster) in a bar. Enraged at the light sentences her attackers received because the prosecution painted her as a woman of "questionable character," the victim asks the district attorney (Kelly McGillis) to charge the onlookers who cheered on the attack. The district attorney faces bad facts: the victim had taken drugs and was acting provocatively in the bar, but she still didn't "deserve" it. Supposedly based on a true story.

I haven't seen this movie, but was fascinated to read of Jodie Foster's problems in shooting her courtroom testimony. According to Entertainment Weekly, director Jonathan Kaplan insisted that they shoot the rape scene first. "I thought if she had already filmed the rape, that experience would flood forward when we shot the courtroom stuff," he told the magazine. "But her own life experiences - the whole John Hinckley business [Hinckley had harassed Foster and eventually attempted to shoot the president to get Foster's attention] - had trained her not to get emotional in the courtroom, and she held back."

Filming became so grueling that Foster's mother wept when she saw her shaken daughter on the courthouse set. When the film wrapped, Foster was convinced that that she had ruined the film and she buried herself in graduate school. She won an Oscar for her work in this movie.

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Adam's Rib (1949)

A romantic comedy starring Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, who play a husband and wife on the opposite sides of an attempted murder trial, and the effect of the case on their marriage. This is an unbelievably annoying film if you care about the presentation of the legal process, even for a diehard Hepburn fan like me. But it's a classic film typically rolled out to demonstrate something about women lawyers --- we can be pretty and tough! The movie has certainly stood the test of time, a truer test than my opinion.

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Amistad (1997)

Based on an actual events, this movie recounts the story of a revolt on a slave ship, La Amistad, ("Friendship" in Spanish) bound for the United States and the subsequent trial of the man, Cinque, (magnificently played by Djimon Hounsou) who led the revolt. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the film also features Morgan Freeman as an abolitionist, Nigel Hawthorne as President Martin Van Buren, and Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, who argued the case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

There is a great deal to this movie, which is best known for its grueling scenes of "The Passage" --- the sea voyage from Africa to the United States on board the slave ship. But another issue the movie illustrates vividly is the communication gap between lawyer and client: in language, class, and understanding of the impact of the courtroom proceedings on the client's future. That hasn't changed much in 200 years.

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Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

I haven't seen this movie. Here are a few blurbs from the Internet Movie Database: "Director, Otto Preminger. Cast: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott. A courtroom drama of rape and premeditated murder. A jealous army lieutenant pleads innocent to murdering the rapist of his seductive, beautiful wife…. The lieutenant is uncooperative, the wife a floozy, the judge from out of town, and the prosecution lead by a sharp city lawyer." Original film score by Duke Ellington.

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...And Justice for All (1979)

Haven't seen this, but have heard is that it is an inspiration to defense lawyers everywhere. Here's the blurb from the Internet Movie Database: "Directed by Norman Jewison. Cast: Al Pacino, Jack Warden, John Forsythe, Lee Strasberg, Jeffrey Taylor, Christine Lahti. An idealistic young lawyer is torn between defending a judge accused of raping and battering a young girl, and exposing the corruption of the legal system, jeopardizing his own career." Tagline, again from IMDB: "This man needs the best lawyer in town. But the problem is... he is the best lawyer in town."

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