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Lawyers in the Movies

M [Category A]

A Man for All Seasons
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
A Map of the World
Michael Clayton
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
Murder in the First
Music Box
My Cousin Vinny

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

Directed by John Ford, this film, which I have not seen, has been called a great Western. But it's a cynical look at the classic themes of cowboy movies: frontier justice, and how flawed men become heroes (apparently, by killing more seriously flawed men). The legend surrounds a lawyer, Ransom Stoddard, played in loveable aw-shucks fashion by Jimmy Stewart.

According to the Internet Movie Database, "Stoddard has been brought, bruised and beaten, to the western town of Shinbone following an altercation with a gang of stagecoach highwaymen, led by arch-villain Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin).… His nemesis is that stalwart icon of the heroic west, John Wayne, playing Tom Doniphan. His code of honor is as solid as his skill with a six-gun. Doniphan knows that might rules the West, and will inevitably vanquish evil. But [lawyer] Stoddard's mission is to see that justice is done through the more civilized rule of law…. Stoddard says of Valance, `I don't want to kill him, I just want to put him in jail!'"

That so rarely happens in Westerns. As the editor of the Shinbone Star says; "This is the West. When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend." Words many reporters sadly live by today.

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McLibel (2005)

This documentary is all about the clients. The film recounts the 15-year saga of two English activists, a gardener and a mailman, who distributed literature outside McDonald's accusing the fast-food chain of environmental abuse, making false advertising claims to children, poor working conditions and cruelty to animals. In 1990, McDonald's sues them for libel under England's draconian libel laws that require the defendants to prove the truth of their statements (rather than having the plaintiff prove the allegations are false). The two are unable to find legal representation at first and must defend themselves, learn the legal system and fight a public relations battle against a company that is a master at all three.

Directed by Franny Armstrong and Ken Loach, and written by Armstrong, the story is told entirely from the point of view of the very sympathetic defendants. It was a shame that no one from McDonald's could or would be interviewed, since it makes what could have been a strong documentary into a bit of a propaganda piece. But the film is well worth watching, if only to understand the important role that a lawyer could have played in the early days of the lawsuit, when the most important battles are fought and won.

The first skirmish is the most important, and the two don't realize it. McDonald's moves for a bench, not a jury, trial. This means that one judge would hear the evidence and render a verdict. The two defendants would have been very sympathetic to a jury of their peers, and probably would have won because no jury likes a bully. When faced with two ordinary people and a multinational corporation, the jury votes for the two ordinary people nine times out of ten, as long as the defendants don't alienate the jury. In this case, that would have meant showing up on time, speaking passable, courteous English and wearing clothes. But the two ordinary people were of course outfoxed by McDonald's lawyers, and lost the motion. So -- no jury.

This loss, of course, might have determined everything, if McDonald's lawyers had played their cards right. McDonald's just wanted an apology and a promise not to distribute the literature again. The corporate lawyers seemed to assume that the defendants would cave. It was a reasonable assumption. But they underestimated their opposition. The trial became the longest-running court case in English legal history, clocking in at 313 days---two and half years. The movie raises questions about libel law, and about the fairness of justice when resources are unevenly distributed (to put it mildly). The courtroom scenes were re-created, as cameras were barred from the court.

A brave young lawyer, who agrees to work pro bono, appears and helps the "McLibel Two" organize documents, understand the legal procedures, and prepare for court appearances. The film shows the nitty-gritty, dull work that lawyers do. Much of the work, even in this electronic age, requires enormous file folders and mountains of paper. The film does not shrink from presenting the detailed legal arguments and the occasional quarrels between the defendants. ("I thought you were going to handle this." "I thought YOU were." "Oh, bloody hell, all right." "Well, if you're going to be that way, I'll do it." "No, I'll do it." "Well, do you want to do it, or not?") One wonders how they survived.

But they did survive. And it's a good thing, too. If two peaceful people cannot distribute rather dull leaflets on a public street, without interfering with people or commerce in any way, then our civil liberties are in grave danger indeed. The judge ruled against McDonald's on many points, finding, for example, that the corporation's advertising was misleading, that the business was "culpably responsible" for cruelty to animals, and paid their employees poorly. But the defendants had not proved all of their charges. Thus, the judge ruled that they had libeled McDonald's and were liable for 60,000 pounds in damages (over $100,000). The judge's verdict, which took two hours to read aloud in court, is posted on the Web at: www.mcspotlight.org/case/trial/verdict/index.html.

The defendants appealed, still working with just one pro bono lawyer. In March 1999, the Court of Appeal ruled that it was "fair comment," that is, protected speech, to say that McDonald's employees worldwide were badly treated, in terms of pay and conditions. It was also true that if you ate enough McDonald's food, the appeals court found, your diet might become high in fat, with the very real risk of heart disease. Not the kind of thing that a fast food restaurant wants to hear. But the defendants were still found to have not proven all their charges, and were ordered to pay 40,000 pounds, which they never paid, because, as one of them explained, they didn't have the money.

Amazingly, the defendants did not stop there, and neither does the film. They went to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge England's libel laws. (Note that the laws apply to England and Wales, but not in Scotland). The case of Steel and Morris v. UK, filed in September 2000, ten years after the two were originally sued, is arguably more important that the original lawsuit in terms of its effects on libel laws in England. In February 2005, the European Court of Human Rights held that English libel law breached the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 6 (the right to a fair trial) and Article 10 (the right to freedom of expression). It is unlikely that there will be a sequel, since one hopes that corporate lawyers have learned their lesson.

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Michael Clayton (2007)

Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, and starring an intense George Clooney, this film brings every evil stereotype of a big city law firm to life. Clooney, who reportedly refused the role at first because he didn’t want to work with a first-time director, portrays Michael Clayton, a “fixer” and gambling addict in a money-hungry firm. Both the firm and its partners seem as burned out as empty buildings on the wrong side of the train tracks. The law firm represents a sinister pesticide business in a three billion dollar lawsuit.

The film opens as Clayton, desperate to pay off debts, leaves a poker game to answer a phone call from his firm and is told to fix a fellow partner’s drunk driving arrest. Clayton drives to Westchester (cue evil music). He takes a walk at dawn through a field -- one of the most beautiful scenes in any film, legal or not -- and then his car blows up behind him. The questions begin: who is trying to kill him? Does it have something to do with the pesticide client? Or the firm’s high-stakes merger? One of the firm’s senior partners, Arthur Edens, (wonderfully played by Tom Wilkinson) has a nervous breakdown and wanders naked as King Lear in a parking lot -- is he a good guy or a bad guy or a mad guy? Of course, Clayton/Clooney fixes everything, and gets it all on tape for the prosecutor.

I’m a huge George Clooney fan, and would pay good money to watch him recite nursery rhymes. But the clichés in this movie are hard to stomach. And hey, my dad represented agricultural products that I bet are in your refrigerator and they do use pesticides sometimes. (Sorry.) I found this film depressing as the innermost circle of hell. Legal movies need more heroes. Cities need better lighting. Corporations need ethical counsel to prevent them from getting into the kind of trouble this business faces. Corporate executives need to listen to decent lawyers’ advice. Not that there’s a decent lawyer in this movie whose advice is worth two cents, but in the real world, or in a different, more nuanced movie, we would not see, again, the Big Bad Firm Covering for the Big Bad Client. Once again, the devil wears a business suit, though this time it’s tailored for a woman -- Tilda Swinton, who won an Academy Award for her role in this movie.

Mine is a distinctly minority view. Michael Clayton is considered a superb movie and the acting is uniformly magnificent -- congratulations to this first-time director! If you can suspend disbelief and accept that lawyers are all lonely, corrupt skunks with the morals of the vermin the pesticide company is trying to exterminate, this film is certainly worth seeing.

The assumption is that Good Guys should never represent Bad Companies. I’d like to see a movie where regular people, whose characters are good and bad, work hard to try to get a regular company -- which provides goods and services that people need, as well as jobs -- to obey the law. The movie’s message -- there is more to law than making money -- is a bit predictable. What resonated with me was the theme of age: that as lawyers age, they look at their lives and at their clients differently. The despair of the older lawyer, as he looked back at his career, was poignant. That, more than the “gotcha” plot, is what remained with me after the film. It still chills my bones.

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Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997)

This movie, based on the novel of the same name by John Berendt, focuses on a murder and trial in the beautiful city of Savannah. The narrator is a freelance magazine reporter from New York, played by John Cusack, who is supposed to write a feature on a Christmas party in the city thrown by a homosexual antiques dealer (Kevin Spacey), whose flamboyant lover (Jude Law) turns up dead. I have not seen this movie, nor read the book, but it sounds as if it involves the confluence of law and journalism; the surprising tolerance of a Southern community for all its members as long as they are Southern, courteous, and dress well; and the need for the law to be rooted in, and earn the respect of, the characters in the community. These characters include: Lady Chablis, a drag queen (played by herself); Williams' slick lawyer, Sonny Seiler, (played by Jack Thompson), and Minerva, a spiritualist (Irma P. Hall). Directed by Clint Eastwood.

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Murder in the First (1994)

Inspired by the true story of a young offender who was supposed to spend a few days in solitary confinement in Alcatraz prison, but instead languishes there for years, until his case comes to the attention of a young attorney. The case eventually closes Alcatraz for good. Directed by Marc Rocco, the film has a strong cast, featuring Christian Slater as the attorney, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, William H. Macy, and Kyra Sedgwick.

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Music Box (1990)

A kindly older man, convincingly played by Armin Mueller-Stahl, is accused of having committed war crimes 50 years ago. His daughter, played by Jessica Lange, defends him. Lange was rightly nominated for an Oscar for her work in this film, which was directed by Costa-Gavras. In a cruel case of life imitating art, after the movie was released, the father of screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was accused of war crimes in Hungary.

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My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Two numbskulls get arrested down South, and their only hope is a relative, Cousin Vinny of Brooklyn, who just passed the bar exam on his sixth try. This will be his first case. This farce, which has become a classic, is a great antidote to any sanctimonious courtroom drama. Directed by Jonathan Lynn, the cast features Joe Pesci as Vinny, Marisa Tomei, who won an Oscar, Ralph Macchio, Mitchell Whitfield, and Fred Gwynne as the judge who has trouble understanding Vinny's Noo Yawk accent.

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