Monday, November 15, 2010

"Courtroom Dramas - My Next Favorite Kind of Movie, After Westerns, And the Very Best Pirate Pictures"

I once told somebody that I really enjoyed watching courtroom drama movies, and they said, “Maybe you should become a lawyer.” For some reason that pissed me off, and I replied,

“My wife loves Agatha Christie novels, but it doesn’t mean she wants to be a detective.”

Sometimes, I’m a little short with people. Especially when tell me what I should become. Especially especially when, if I had wanted to become a lawyer, I would have remained in law school, instead of quitting after five weeks.

I could never be lawyer. “Lawyer” is a grown-up job, either in that it’s really dry and excruciatingly hair-splitty, or in the fact that, if it’s courtroom lawyering, another person’s fate is resting entirely on your ability to win the case, and what if you don’t?

“I’m sorry we lost. But you still have to pay me.”

I could never say that.

Regular readers know my views on the American legal approach to discovering the truth. I believe the “adversarial system” is a scam, perpetrated on society by persuasive arguers. That’s how persuasive they are.

They argued,

“We believe justice can best be achieved by the lawyers’ lying their heads off as convincingly as possible. The fact that we ourselves are extremely good at that has no bearing whatsoever on this belief.”

And they won.

Sticking us with a system where the evidence is less important than the comparative abilities of the attorneys. It could have been worse, I suppose. Murder cases could be decided by the opposing attorneys pitching horseshoes. Where’s the dignity in that?

“The defence attorney has a ‘leaner.’ The defendant is free to go.”

And yet, despite my hostility towards the process, I adore courtroom dramas. (Call me intriguingly inconsistent. Please. I like how it sounds.)

I’m clicking through the channels. I see a cowpoke galloping across the plains – I’m hooked. I see puffy-panted “sea wolves” flying in on ropes, their cutlasses clenched tightly between their teeth – hold my calls, I’m busy!

I see a courtroom set pop onto the screen; I am helplessly compelled to watch. Even if the attorney is Cher.

I find myself enthralled by the built-in suspense of a high stakes trial. Not just in movies, in real life too. I surrendered seven months of my life following every twist and turn of the O.J. Simpson trial. When they announced the verdict, I had to mute the TV, I was so wound up. The verdict still elicits a nausea response. And a reinforcement of the belief that the better lawyering team inevitably prevails.

A trial is a gunfight without the bloodshed. Two lawyers face off, and when the dust clears, only one of them’s left standing.

You just hope it’s the Good Guy.

In life, as I’ve whined at least twice in this post, victory in the courtroom regularly goes to the superior arguer, with justice, often, an incredulous bystander. But in movies, however, the screenwriter’s in control. They can make a point about the broken system – “You’re out of order! The whole court out of order!” – or they can send us home happy, secure in the knowledge that, at least for one brief, fictional moment, the “search for truth” has actually won the day.

I probably like that. It takes me back to the fifties westerns, where the Good Guy won, and the Bad Guy got shot in the hand. “You can rest easy, Little Fellah.” – that would be me – “The world is a fair place to inhabit.”

Not that all courtroom dramas end up with the appropriate verdict. In Witness For the Prosecution, a brilliant defense attorney has gotten his client off, only to discover that he’s guilty. Of course, in that one, the exonerated defendant winds us getting stabled to death, so it turns out okay.

In Anatomy of a Murder, the outcome is ambiguous – the defendant is found “Not Guilty”, but it’s ultimately uncertain whether he is. The only certainty is that the defendant skipped town without paying his lawyer.

My all-time courtroom drama favorites: The aforementioned two, plus Inherit the Wind, To Kill A Mockingbird, Compulsion, My Cousin Vinny (for courtroom pyrotechnics, and it’s funny) and 12 Angry Men, which is, more accurately, a jury-room drama. I even liked a courtroom drama that had Vin Diesel in it. Of course, I’m a sucker for these things, so I could be a little off on that one.

I will finish with The Verdict, screenplay by David Mamet, maybe my favorite courtroom movie of all time.

After a whistle-blowing nurse incriminates her surgeon-boss, for forcing her to falsify information which would have made the surgeon culpable for a patient’s death, the judge, biased towards the surgeon, has her testimony stricken from the record on a technicality.

Paul Newman, a down-on-his-luck attorney, representing the deceased patient’s family, his case now in shambles, argues this in his final summation.

This case, they win.

And it really feels good.

(Note: You may have to fiddle with the sound. I found it a little quiet.)


Mr. said...

Just curious: Your brother is a lawyer, although in Canada. Have you discussed this with him?

Max Clarke said...

If you want a good courtroom drama, try A Man For All Seasons. It won Best Picture in the 1960s, plus a bunch of other Oscars. Paul Scofield got Best Actor. Orson Welles does a heavy job as Cardinal Woolsey.

Almost the entire movie is a courtroom drama outside the courtroom, as Sir Thomas More tries to use the legal system to protect his body and conscience.

When the movie heads into the courtroom near the end -the House of Commons, I believe- the trial of Sir Thomas More is gripping. The outcome is never in doubt, however.

emily said...

How about Night Court? Bull would have taken care of O.J. in the first act.