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Lawyers in the Movies

I [Category A]

I Am Sam
I Want to Live!
The Incident
Inherit the Wind
The Insider
In the Name of the Father
Intolerable Cruelty
Intruder in the Dust

I Am Sam (2001)

A mentally retarded man fights for custody of his young daughter. Directed by Jessie Nelson, this film stars Sean Penn; his lawyer is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. I have not seen this film, but my parents did, and they are tough critics (and one is a lawyer). They admired it very much, in particular the emotional odyssey traveled by the lawyer.

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I Want to Live! (1958)

One of the first films to show an execution in the United States, director Robert Wise spares no detail when showing how a gas chamber is prepared. Supposedly based on a true story, the jury convicts the accused of murder, played by Susan Hayward, who, as a "woman of easy virtue," was an unsympathetic defendant. Susan Hayward won an Oscar for her performance.

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The Incident (1990) (made for TV)

A small-town lawyer during World War II is assigned to defend a German prisoner-of-war accused of murdering the Colorado town's doctor. The lawyer, a veteran of World War I, has to deal with the difficulties of the case, and the hostility of his neighbors, all while his son is off fighting in Europe. Walter Matthau stars; Harry Morgan plays the judge who assigns the case to Matthau's character because he believes him to be incompetent and just wants basic procedures to be followed. Directed by Joseph Sargent.

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Inherit the Wind (1960)

Boy, does this "monkey trial" case seem topical today. This movie, based on the excellent play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, presents a dramatized version of the actual 1925 trial of a biology teacher in Tennessee, John Scopes, who stood trial for teaching Darwin's theory of evolution to his students. His defense attorney was Clarence Darrow, who argued against fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan in a debate that continues to this day in the United States. The movie is not the best vehicle to discuss these questions, as the townspeople and reporters are caricatures and the defendant schoolteacher is distant. The focus is on the lawyers' rhetoric and sparring on the stand, and not on the underlying issue of whether religious beliefs can keep the theory of evolution from being taught. This is a battle fought every day by ordinary teachers in towns across the country, without lawyers at hand. I think it's more important for students to perform this play, or read scenes aloud, rather than see this movie, let alone its numerous remakes. The legal strategy - losing at trial to kick the case upstairs to the appeals court - is worthy of discussion. Directed by Stanley Kramer, the film features Spencer Tracy, Fredric March, Gene Kelly, Dick York, Donna Anderson, and Harry Morgan.

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The Insider (1999)

Directed by Michael Mann, loosely based on actual events as recounted in a Vanity Fair magazine article by Marie Brenner, this film focuses on the chief witness, magnificently played by Russell Crowe, who is a whistleblower trying to speak out against tobacco companies. (The lawyers are secondary, as they should be.) In 1994, 60 Minutes, a CBS news show, censored its own story on research cover-ups and deception in the tobacco industry because Westinghouse, which was in negotiations to buy the CBS network, objected to the piece, fearing a lawsuit from the tobacco companies. This film puts corporate practices and corporate influence on the media in the dock, as a witness cannot use the media effectively to bring dishonest practices to light if the media is too frightened to speak. The movie shows the effect of the stress on the witness, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, a tobacco researcher breaking a confidentiality agreement with his employer to speak out.

Eventually, the story leaked to the print media, and then the TV show was able to report on what others had stated in print. This film spotlights the courage of ordinary people who find themselves caught up in the legal process when hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Stellar performances are offered from Crowe, who was nominated for an Oscar, and from Al Pacino, who plays the 60 Minutes producer, and from Christopher Plummer, as reporter Mike Wallace, who is reportedly still upset about this movie.

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In the Name of the Father (1993)

Based on the powerful autobiography by Gerry Conlon, Proved Innocent, this film, directed by Jim Sheridan, tells the true story of a petty crook from Belfast who is falsely accused, with his father, of a terrible IRA bombing of a pub that killed several people.

Bullied by the police who are under pressure to arrest someone for the murders, Conlon confesses, and he and his father spend 15 years in prison. It is British attorneys, led by Gareth Peirce, who eventually win Conlon's freedom. The film has as much to do with the relationship between father and son as it does with the miscarriage of justice. It has been rightly compared to To Kill A Mockingbird for its ability to reach people no matter what their political views, and for showing defense attorneys as the principled lawyers they are. The film was nominated for seven Oscars. Gerry Conlon's speech outside the prison shows where the film draws its title: "I'm an innocent man. I spent fifteen years in prison for something I didn't do. I watched my father die in a British prison for something he didn't do. And this government still says he's guilty. I want to tell them that until my father is proved innocent, until all the people involved in this case are proved innocent, until the guilty ones are brought to justice, I will fight on. In the name of my father and of the truth!" Emma Thompson as Gareth Peirce, Daniel Day-Lewis, who lost 30 pounds preparing for the role in prison, as Gerry Conlon, and Peter Postlethwaite as the father, Giuseppe Conlon. All three were nominated for Oscars for their acting in this movie.

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Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

Directed by Joel Coen, this is a silly, enjoyable movie about a divorce lawyer (George Clooney) who falls for a divorcee (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who is just as familiar with, and able to exploit, the loopholes of the law as he is. I was surprised at how much legal discussion there was in this movie, which deals frankly with the willingness of some to marry - and divorce - for money and thus the need for an iron-clad pre-nuptial agreement, especially in Los Angeles. Billy Bob Thornton takes a star turn as a husband who is happily exploited for what he brings to the marriage. Set your expectations low, try not to see this with a matrimonial lawyer, sit back, and enjoy this comedy.

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Intruder in the Dust (1949)

Produced and directed by Clarence Brown, based on a story by William Faulkner, adapted for the screen by Ben Maddow, this film was shot in Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi. Intruder is the story of Lucas Beauchamp (Juano Hernandez), a black man wrongly accused of murder, and a white boy (Claude Jarman, Jr.) who owes the man a debt. Elizabeth Patterson (also known as Mrs. Trumbull on I Love Lucy) is an old woman willing to stand against a lynch mob to see that justice is done -- or at least to avoid an injustice being done. David Brian is the lawyer; Will Geer is the sheriff.

Thanks to Professor Ira B. Shepard, of the University of Houston Law Center, who pointed me to this neglected classic. He happened to have the 1949 New York Times movie review at hand. Bosley Crowther wrote:

[H]ere, at last, is a picture that slashes right down to the core of the complex of racial resentments and social divisions in the South … and does it in terms of visual action and realistic drama at its best…. And it is also, strictly on the surface, a story of shrewd detective work by a young Southern lawyer and a sheriff in tracing a callous murderer.

Prof. Shepard also recommends Rob Atkinson's law review article, at 49 Duke Law Journal 601 (December 1999), entitled, Liberating Lawyers: Divergent Parallels in Intruder in the Dust and To Kill a Mockingbird, which compares the novel Intruder favorably with the novel To Kill A Mockingbird. Why didn't I read law review articles like this in law school? Why were we focusing on footnote 4 (or was it 5) of the Carolene Products case? And the damn footnote wasn't even on the exam.

I think people come to law school with idealistic visions, and more opportunities to discuss the ideas of justice in our lives, perhaps using good films and drama as starting points, might make the experience more meaningful, and remove these discussions from the cauldron of campus politics.

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