When I was an undergrad in the UW Milwaukee film program my father recommended I see four movies. He hoped they would encourage me to pursue a career in law, which I was generally opposed to, not really knowing any lawyers well and aware that just about everyone hates lawyers. I think he wanted me to see that attorneys can, at times, play a role in society more useful than that of the punch line to a joke.
Similar to Hemingway’s list of books that he “would rather read again for the first time . . . than have an assured income of a million dollars a year,” these titles, for me, have served as guiding lights, models of what practicing the law can be:
1. Inherit the Wind (1960) – A Hollywood dramatization of the Scopes trial that occurred in Tennessee in 1925 over the teaching of evolution in schools, you have to stomach some quaint plot exposition to get to the engaging courtroom scenes. A favorite is the defense’s questioning of a young boy who had been exposed to the science teacher’s course. He asks the young man: “What Mr. Cares told you, did it hurt your baseball game any? Affect your pitching arm any?” This simple line of questioning goes a long way in conveying the frivolousness of the charge. The ending is satisfactorily honest, deviating from the Hollywood formula and staying true to the real case, in that the defense loses.
2. Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – Shot on location in Upper Peninsula Michigan, starring Jimmy Stewart and with a soundtrack and cameo by Duke Ellington, this film has all the trappings of a great classic. It also conveys some of the most enduring themes of criminal law: how our intuitions about justice are called into conflict through the procedural pursuit of fact. As a system built and operated by humans, the process of criminal law comes off as fallible and imperfect. But rather than a cynical timber, the jurisprudence represented in Anatomy is somehow affirming, balancing a timeless wit and integrity.
3. The Verdict (1982) – This film begins with personal injury attorney Frank Galvin looking to settle. There is a moment when he is taking photos of his patient, bed-ridden and in a vegetative state, and the camera holds on his face as he realizes that this “client” is more than a potential settlement, that she is a human being that society has failed. In the following negotiation scene with the defendants Frank is offered a significant sum of money to settle and replies with a blunt soliloquy on truth. Adapted for the screen by David Mamet, the Verdict also contains Paul Newman delivering what is arguably the best closing argument ever.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) – Comedian Louis C.K. performed at the Riverside a couple weeks ago and during a bit on how the act of living life is a good deal, even if you live a lousy life, C.K. cited, among other things, the joys of eating chocolate, bacon and getting the opportunity to read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. The point is well made. It is hard to indentify a more heroic legal figure in the history of American fiction than Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck’s portrayal has become so iconic that I cannot read the book without seeing his face.
My mother recently found some of my late father’s old notebooks from when he was in high school. One of them had responses, in his teenage handwriting, to reading To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time. In it he recognizes that truth and justice are often ahead of their time, citing Atticus’s overwhelmingly convincing argumentation in the courtroom along with the reality of lingering prejudice ensuring Tom Robinson’s conviction. “This doesn’t mean [though] that the whole trial was wasted,” he writes, “it was a step in the right direction, and it got people thinking about what they were doing.”
This theme brings to mind one other film that helped tipped the scale for my decision to pursue law: Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), which I watched around the same time. It is as relevant today as when it first came out. Perhaps best known for the hero’s rousing invocation of a filibuster, there is also a scene early on that always stood out to me. Smith is speaking with an old friend of his father’s about their work together and recalls, “Dad always used to say the only causes worth fighting for were lost causes.” Paine replies: “You don’t have to tell me Jeff. We were a team, the two of us, a struggling editor and a struggling lawyer. The twin champions of lost causes, they used to call us.” We later learn that Paine has deviated from that noble course, and acknowledges that it cost his friend his life, defending an employee against a mining syndicate in the pages of his newspaper. The scene ends with Smith observing, “I suppose, Mr. Paine, when a fellow bucks up against a big organization like that, one man by himself can’t get very far, can he?”
Some movies help us believe in and hope for a better outcome to the failures in life (see Anatomy of a Murder and The Verdict). Other times, maybe where we need it most, they remind us that, even when we fail, not all is wasted.