by Scott Saul
It's the summer. Relax and have some fun. I like examining the intersection of our profession with easily relatable pop culture.
The law and lawyers, as they are portrayed in the movies; blah, blah, blah; yada, yada, yada; been there/done that way too many times. Creating a list that has legal stuff is soooo pedestrian (and boring). Let’s be realistic, a computer can deftly round up that data based upon catch phrases.
How about movies that hit your bullseye? How about movies that create strong empathy? Story-lines that infiltrate actual moments of your existence! You’re watching them saying “Hey, that’s me! That’s my life!”
There’s been a number of legal flicks that may have the capacity to hit the South Florida lawyer practicing within the criminal justice system, right between the eyes. I am assuming that most of you are familiar with these films so many of my comments are presumptuous. Please keep in mind that I do not hold myself as being an expert at film, so this list is not offered as being exhaustive. While I’m no authority, I am a lover and purveyor of the arts so these lists flow as a form of passion and tribute. Contributions, elaborations, clarifications, criticisms and further insight are always welcome.
1. Paths of Glory- This Stanley Kubrick masterpiece is a war film (or rather an anti-war film). It’s the World War I tale of a fictional France and their participation in a no-win, catastrophic military maneuver that horribly falters. Of course, it failed since it could never succeed to begin with. In order to motivate the rest of the French army, a group of callous and apathetic generals decide to symbolically court martial and execute battle survivors from their previous suicide mission.
Kirk Douglas portrays the passionate “Colonel Dax” the survivors’ commanding officer and, before being in the military, an accomplished criminal defense attorney. Upon hearing of the ridiculous, sacrificial plan by the military brass, he tries to impose a concept of due process for his underlings only to learn, as the process unfolds, that it doesn’t matter what he says since the entire trial is a farce; it’s the epitome of a “kangaroo court”.
Gentleman of the court, there are times when I’m ashamed to be a member of the human race and this is one such occasion. It’s impossible for me to summarize the case for the defense since the court never allowed me a reasonable opportunity to present that case.
Sound familiar? Have you experienced such an exercise in futility? Would an apt, subsequent blog post be actual South Florida judges that deserve Col. Dax’s soliloquy?
2.To Kill a Mockingbird- This 1962 classic tells the very serious story about prejudice, false allegations and sorrow through the eyes of a young, naïve child. It also has Southern gentleman lawyer, “Atticus Finch” as the main protagonist. After Atticus loses a racially charged, trumped-up rape case, his client’s family and contemporaries give a standing ovation as Atticus dejectedly exits the rural, one room, court house.
The personal relevance of this film is twofold;
1) Atticus personifies, with his class, righteousness, tenacity and professionalism, what every trial lawyer should be and
2) With trying a case having the impact of being so
emotionally and physically draining, it would nice to
get some recognition…even if you’re on the losing
end. Nobody, in criminal law, wins all the time. Is it a
pipe dream to be applauded even in defeat?
3. My Cousin Vinny – On its surface, this movie looks like a silly, inconsequential piece of comedy fluff. However, to the experienced lawyer there’s gold in them thar’ hills.
With wonderful bits of cross-examination, addressing issues of discovery, courtroom etiquette (I know, the irony of ME commenting on the subject) and being home-towned, fish-out-of-water Brooklyn lawyer “Vincent Gambini” may be more relatable than some would like to admit to.
Of course, a highlight in the film (at least to the practicing attorney) is the defense's brief, yet marauding, opening statement,
” Everything that guy just said [referring to the prosecutor] is
bullshit! Thank you”.
How many times, especially in federal court, would that be a fitting opening?
My Cousin Vinny may be somewhat cartoonish but it’s a lot more accurate than many other films (that take themselves way more seriously). With it in a continuous run on satellite television, unflappable and unimpeachable hair stylist Marisa Tomei, an automotive expert via familial osmosis, should stop most juris doctorate channel surfers right in their tracks.
4. The Verdict – Paul Newman plays sole practioner "Frank Galvin", an over-the-hill, burnt out, personal injury attorney lawyer hard on his luck and waiting for the phone to ring.
Before being a lawyer, when I first viewed it, The Verdict seemed to be about second chances, redemption and not taking short cuts. Many years later, seeing it through an experienced attorney’s eyes, especially the beginning of the film, it plays like a gut-wrenching, starving-lawyer horror movie. With harsh themes of loyalty, a lawyer being out-resourced, and judicial bias, this film exemplifies the underdog lawyer taking on the establishment.
Practicing in Federal court anybody?
5. The Paper Chase- The trials and tribulations of first year, Harvard law students is the theme of this uneven 70’s flick where a first-year law student romances his professor's bionic daughter (if you grew up in the 70’s, you know what I mean). The love story pretty much stinks but the lecture hall and legal study scenes hit pretty close to home.
What is accurately depicted is the lack of glamour and cutthroat world an aspiring lawyer is voluntarily, but most likely unwittingly, stepping into.
How many of us could call previous law professors out on the carpet since they were so obviously (and pathetically) emulating John Houseman's iconic "Professor Kingsfield"?
6. And Justice for All – Al Pacino plays criminal defense attorney “Arthur Kirkland.” The character is righteous but overaggressive. While other movies may portray a courthouse as being a noble, hall of justice, this film gives you the warts and all. This movie picks up on the day to day madness that only insiders would be all too familiar with. Many of the characters are flawed, dishonest, deranged, devious or apathetic.
Could this movie be the inspiration behind the haunted house located at 201 SE 6th Street?
7. Legally Blonde – I first watched this movie and hated it;
my bad, it’s because I didn’t get it. Conversely, my
beautiful and fashionable wife (a lawyer) loved
it. In hindsight... my manliness blinded me, what a
Neanderthal I was.
From the female perspective, Reese Witherspoon’s “Elle
Woods” epitomizes so many female lawyers’ experiences
of not getting the proper respect in a male-dominated
profession. Double standards, stereotypes, misogyny and
antiquated arrogance are all examined in this
comedy. The tribulations of being a female lawyer are not
only examined, but the highly attractive, fashionable
criminal defense lawyer (I think she was like a CLI) overcomes the chauvinism, wins her case and is triumphant against the male establishment.
What if a man had to dress and emulate a woman in order to flourish? Impossible to imagine huh? Yea, now maybe from the “XY chromosome perspective” you can understand why Legally Blonde is extremely relevant.
8. 12 Angry Men- What actually goes on in that jury room? Do you really want to know? Actually, you really should know.
Sure, we’ve sidled close trying to overhear deliberations within that off-limits arena yet, how a verdict takes shape is a complete mystery to most of us. Once in a blue moon, a contemporary (or significant other of a contemporary) has actually been selected to a jury which should provide a treasure trove of insight to the smart, inquiring trial lawyer. However, to the vast majority of us, what goes on in that jury room may be an uncharted frontier that we have not even a clue as to what transpires.
12 Angry Men is a movie that is entirely about the jury deliberation process and the roller coaster ride that the path to a verdict may take place.
Most importantly, the movie alludes to the cunning trial lawyer, how voir dire is, by far, the most important aspect of the trial. The cavalier cliché of “I’ll take the first six in the box” is absurd since personalities may completely shape the outcome of a trial.
In 12 Angry Men, what starts out as an obvious, no-brainer verdict dramatically morphs into an outcome 180 degrees from where it started. Backgrounds, employment, experiences, social and family statuses…yep, you better pay very careful attention to such variables since they may certainly shape where that verdict is going.
12 Angry Men also demonstrates how one hold-out juror can change the consciousness of the jury as well as the trajectory of the rest of the panel. Be careful, very careful of a strong personality on a panel for you may be playing with fire.
9. Primal Fear- Richard Gere plays debonair, smarmy defense attorney Martin Vail, an arrogant lawyer who thinks he can beat any case…and usually does (real fictional huh? Wink, wink). He then gets involved in a murder case where he is the one being manipulated.
I can’t think of a movie that captures the ugliness of criminal law more accurately than this one. No matter what side of advocacy, prosecution or defense, there comes a time when a lawyer can become a pawn for the nefarious underpinnings for the side that you’re representing. Primal Fear captures the unnerving notion that you’ve been played.
Perhaps this movie is the antithesis of the nobility portrayed in Too Kill a Mockingbird?
10. The Rainmaker - All right, you’ve graduated law school
and now you are a member of the bar. So what?
Matt Damon plays “Rudy Naylor” a green lawyer looking
to make his mark…and make a living. Danny DeVito plays
an illicit investigator/business generator/muckraker
helping to hustle cases in exchange for a piece of the pie.
This is what they neither teach you in law school nor
working in the public sector…how to get business.
The Rainmaker epitomizes not really knowing what
you’re doing and learning as you proceed. As a new
Assistant State Attorney or Assistant Public Defender,
despite having an office full of mentors, you are thrown
into a chaotic "sink or swim" scenario. Nobody will admit
it until an exit from the office, but stuff falls through the
cracks all of the time. In the defense bar, where the vast
majority of the lawyers are sole practitioners, the odyssey
of Rudy Naylor is neither a work of pure fiction nor a
Have I missed some good and fitting movies? Of course I have. This is hardly any type of research project, this is me pulling from films that have settled into my cranial repertoire. Know of a movie (not a legal-themed movie but a legal-themed movie relateable to what goes on in our locale) that I've missed? Please add to this list.