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Lawyers in the Movies

R [Category A]

The Rainmaker
Red (Rouge)
Red Corner
Regarding Henry
The Return of Martin Guerre (Le Retour de Martin Guerre)
Reversal of Fortune
Reversible Errors
The Road to Brown v. Board of Education
Rules of Engagement
Runaway Jury

The Rainmaker (1997)

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, based on a novel by John Grisham, this film follows a young lawyer as he joins an older, cynical lawyer to challenge a large firm and its major client, an insurance company that is refusing to pay for a potentially life-saving operation for a young boy. I have not seen this film, but I hear the trial preparation and courtroom scenes are well done. The cast features Matt Damon, Danny DeVito, Claire Danes, and Jon Voight. A few law review articles have used the film as a vehicle for a discussion of legal ethics --- could you do anything if your cause is just? The answer you learn in law school is, "Define 'anything.' " This movie apparently illustrates that. Contains many cogent observations about the legal profession, few of them favorable. The most admirable legal character is the judge, played with calm dignity by Danny Glover.

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Red (Rouge) (1994)

Co-written and directed by Krzysztof Kieslowski, this French-language film, which takes place in Geneva, is the third part of a trilogy. A model (Irene Jacob) meets a retired judge who, out of boredom or loneliness, spies and eavesdrops on his neighbors. I saw this movie, thought parts of it were beautifully filmed, but don't remember it at all. I prefer strong plots, and this genre of film is more about relationships, with red being the color of passion.

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Red Corner (1997)

This is a fascinating look at the criminal justice system in Communist China. Part of it was actually secretly filmed in Beijing. Richard Gere plays an American attorney working on a business deal in China. He is arrested and accused of the murder of a young woman with whom he'd slept the night before. Was he framed? Will the legal system give him a chance? It was interesting to see that he was assigned a court-appointed lawyer, a beautiful woman played by Ling Bai, who falls for Gere (as what woman wouldn't) and tries to fight, really fight, for his release. The legal system there is designed to convict the accused, and all trials seem to be empty formalities.

The film was directed by Jon Avnet. The Internet Movie Database states that: "For the scene in which Gere's character is intimidated with video of a government execution, the filmmakers used actual execution footage that had been smuggled out of China."

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Regarding Henry (1991)

A strong movie about a big-firm lawyer, convincingly played by Harrison Ford, who is shot and loses his memory as well as some motor skills. He is rehabilitated into a better man. Directed by Mike Nichols, the excellent cast also includes Annette Bening. One of the pitch-perfect touches is the portrayal of the law firm's treatment of Henry, particularly the loss of his corner office after his injury, and his treatment by the firm's support staff. There is a mystery to drive the plot, but the focus is on Henry's character, and I enjoyed that.

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The Return of Martin Guerre (1983) (Le Retour de Martin Guerre)

An early case of identity theft, much of this film is based on 16th-century courtroom transcript about the trial of a man (Gerard Depardieu) who returns, after many years of fighting in the Hundred Years' War, to a medieval French village and poses as the farmer Martin Guerre. The farmer's wife (Nathalie Baye) consents to the substitution, and the family almost survives. But eventually, the village is too fragile, and the law too demanding, for the ruse to last. The courtroom scene is quite memorable, and director Daniel Vigne paces the drama quite well. You have to wonder how any one of us could prove that we really are who we are. I love these period movies - apparently the costumes, farm life, and scenery are meticulously accurate. It is truly a work of art.

The film was remade, in English, as Sommersby and set in Tennessee after the Civil War. (See its entry under "S.")

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Reversal of Fortune (1990)

The story of the Claus von Bulow trial, in which a millionaire was tried for killing his wife, Sunny, who had been sick for some time. Directed by Barbet Schroeder, the strong cast includes Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, and Ron Silver as the arrogant but successful defense lawyer Alan Dershowitz. The movie shows the trial and witness preparation process in more detail than usual, including the use of students as unpaid labor (which happens frequently when law professors take on cases), and highlights the difficulties of the lawyer-client relationship when lawyer and client come from different classes and ethnic backgrounds.

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Reversible Errors (2004) (TV)

Based on the novel by Scott Turow, directed by Mike Robe, this film shows a corporate lawyer's investigation of a ten-year-old conviction of a black man for a triple homicide. It is one of Turow's weaker novels, but William H. Macy, as the lawyer, is always worth watching. The cast also includes Tom Selleck and Glenn Plummer as the man on death row. I have not seen this movie, but apparently it shows how vested the prosecutor (Monica Potter) and the police officer (Selleck) are in sustaining the conviction, since admitting error would hurt their careers.

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The Road to Brown v. Board of Education (1989)

This documentary thoroughly examines one of the most important decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court --- the decision to end racial segregation in our school system. The film highlights the work of the lawyers, predominantly black lawyers led by Charles H. Houson, who were working to end segregation in schools, textbooks, school funding, teachers' salaries --- in every aspect of American education. Separate but equal was not equal. I think of Thurgood Marshall (later Supreme Court Justice Marshall) as leading the case, and he did argue it before the High Court, but this film shows all the legwork and dedication put in by so many others to end segregation and its effects. The movie includes video footage from the period, as well as interviews with some of the people who helped build and win the case. Written and directed by William Elwood and Mykola Kulish.

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Rules of Engagement (2000)

I have not seen this film. The Internet Movie Database states: "Directed by William Friedkin. Cast: Tommy Lee Jones; Samuel L Jackson; Guy Pearce. Colonel Terry Childers is a patriot and war hero. But when a peacekeeping mission he leads in Yemen goes terribly wrong, he finds himself facing a court martial. Accused of breaking the rules of engagement by killing unarmed civilians, Childers' only hope of vindication rests with [his] comrade-in- arms … a military lawyer of questionable abilities."

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Runaway Jury (2003)

Directed by Gary Fleder, based on a novel by John Grisham, I was fascinated by this movie that focuses (finally) on the most important people in the courtroom: the jurors. Further, it notes a near-universal truth: lawyers do not want to choose an unbiased jury; they want to choose jurors who are biased towards their side, or at least not hostile to their arguments. This film shows the jury consultants and professional efforts to psychoanalyze ordinary people called to serve. The movie seemed to imply that there was something sinister in that. On the contrary, I think, so long as the sides are evenly matched, the more attention that is focused on choosing a jury, the sounder the verdict. But that's real life. This film shows a lot of manipulation, egos, and corruption (it's set in New Orleans) permeating an emotional process in which a gun manufacturer is on trial. I thoroughly enjoyed it, down to the scenes of New Orleans' heat and terrific food.

Technically, though, a runaway jury is one which starts to investigate a crime for which the accused is not charged. Lately, it's also come to refer to juries that award enormous sums of money out of pity for an injured victim or anger at a wealthy corporation. I think the term is now meaningless; popular culture has run away with this expression. The plot of this film has been criticized as straining credulity, but hey, it's a good mystery and it's fiction. John Cusack, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Weisz, and Bruce Davison sweat it out in New Orleans.

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