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Law and Movies


Although no courtroom dramas likeTo Kill a Mockingbird or A Few Good Men, or even My Cousin Vinny are among the major movies this year, quite a few have interesting legal themes. Michael Clayton, for example, while offering a not very realistic view of a law firm “fixer,” does illustrate the ethical dilemmas of representing a client which is hiding some very damaging information. Tilda Swinton, as the general counsel, takes an extreme approach to client loyalty, by actually getting involved in killing witnesses. One hopes that her fate will dissuade others from following her example. And Tom Wilkinson, as the outside lead trial lawyer, does a beautiful job of going off the deep end when he can no longer stand representing a guilty client. Of course the ethically and morally correct answer is to follow neither of these examples. There is no reason why a lawyer cannot represent a client that is not a perfect angel, and still sleep well at night. But you have to disclose the damaging information if it was requested by the other side (presumably they are competent enough to do that) and then get the best result you can for that client in light of that information. Following this simple rule should prevent most lawyers from committing murder or suicide.

Then there is Atonement, which I haven’t seen yet, but that does not stop me from commenting because I did read the book. One key situation arises because of the legal system’s limitations in dealing with the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The law can only examine what witnesses actually ascertain through their senses, chiefly what they see and hear. But the mental process of observing is much more complicated than the law allows. In fact, it may be impossible for the mind to process a visual image without taking other information into account. So when young Briony “knows” who the guilty party is, she knows this by constructing a series of impressions that she did not properly understand. But the law forces her to say, erroneously, that she “saw” him commit the crime, leading to a tragic result. Judges and juries are only beginning to come to terms with the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. Often, though, it is all we have to work with. Stories like Atonement help us appreciate the pitfalls.

Sweeney Todd is gruesome but well worth seeing for its gorgeous music and production. Its central drama arises from the corruption of the legal system. Look at the trail of brutal murders prompted by the actions of one unjust and corrupt judge! Finally, we have in No Country for Old Men, as good an illustration as any of an essentially lawless society. The police are either corrupt or ineffectual, and the law of the jungle prevails. In such a world, even the heartless killer, as well as the heroic self-sufficient strong man, cannot survive.

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