After several fairly serious columns, I have decided to take a decidedly different course in this feature. I have subjectively selected my top 10 lawyer movies of all time, picked on the basis of a personal criteria, with which you may or may not agree.
First of all, the movies selected had to feature a lawyer in a pivotal role, thus excluding “12 Angry Men,” which while about the law, does not feature lawyers at all.
Secondly, the movies had to feature modern day attorneys or relatively so. This cuts out the “Man for All Seasons” and Sir Thomas More, but enough was written about him two weeks ago.
Thirdly, ALL of the John Grisham-based movies were rejected as they have very little to do with the reality of the practice of law, and are generally totally fiction. I looked for films that had some degree of realistic portrayal of evidentiary and procedural matters.
Finally, for brevity sake, this list is split into two columns, 10 thru 6 this week, 5 through 1 next. So stayed tuned.
So here goes, in reverse order:
10: MY COUSIN VINNIE
While the movie is a comedy with the most famous scenes dealing with “Two Utes,” Vinny Gambini’s cross examination and meticulous destruction of the state’s witnesses by simply picking apart every aspect of their story--the boiling time for grits, the tire tracks of the metallic green Pontiac, and whether or not a key witness was wearing her glasses at the time of the incident--are first class examples of what Irving Younger would call the “Art of Cross-Examination”...
9: BODY HEAT
While a murder plot is the theme, the way lawyer Ned Racine (William Hurt) is manipulated by Matty Walker--a very young and steamy Kathleen Turner--into drafting a will that is completely flawed, eventually resulting in the entirety of the estate going to her when the probate court voids the will, simply is great..
With the line from Turner to Hurt, “You’re not too smart. I like that in a man," Body Heat is a classic. Any film that makes the “Rule against Perpetuities” part of the plot, makes the list.
8: A CLASS ACTION
Somewhat of an unknown film, this movie deals with a lawsuit against a major auto maker for multiple fiery deaths, allegedly due to a faulty wiring system, and specifically a signal switch too close to the gas tank. This Pinto II case involves corporate greed, document hiding, but above all, the triumph of the law when force fails.
Gene Hackman play the radical plaintiff lawyer opposed by his estranged daughter, who works for a firm that “spits out baby lawyers like sharks have teeth.” Plot twists abound, but the real lesson is that even the worst of corporate misdeeds and document destruction can be exposed with hard work, and when they are, they will be severely sanctioned.
Tom Hanks’ performance as the AIDS-stricken lawyer fighting against the discrimination of his former firm won him his first Oscar. As the attorney who picks up the case after so many had rejected it, Denzel Washington should have won his second.
At times tough to watch, but with an uplifting and inspiring, message--not to mention the Oscar-winning score by Bruce Springsteen--the film celebrates the law as the great temple in which secular priests in black robes decide the troubles of a conflicted society.
The lawyer as hero, blind justice as the avenging weapon for the oppressed, and good over evil. A great movie all around.
6: A CIVIL ACTION
John Travolta as hot shot Boston lawyer Jan Schlictman, the film begins with a $2 million settlement in a malpractice case, right before trial, with the appropriate celebration afterwards. It goes on to tell the story of the case that placed a multi-millionaire lawyer into bankruptcy, his battle against corporate giants W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods arising out of controversial drinking water contamination blamed for clusters of cancers in a small New England town.
Battling a crafty Harry Armstrong-like veteran attorney named Jerome Facher, played wonderfully by Robert Duval, the Schlictmann firm mortgages all of its personal assets just to fund the litigation, only to go broke, failing and disappointing the grieving parents.
“A Civil Action” tells the truth about so-called “David vs. Goliath” cases, that sometimes, many times in fact, Goliath wins, forcing David to trade in his Porsche for a seat on the city bus.
This concludes the first half of the list. Feedback is always welcome, pro or con. The rest of the list is coming next week..