Law and Movies

2014 wasn’t much of a year for courtroom dramas, unless you want to count The Judge, which I really don’t. That movie’s only redeeming feature was the chance to watch two great actors, Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr., ply their trade. Otherwise, the story was weak and the moral would make no sense to any criminal defense attorneys I know. There was, however, a cute recurring bit showing the lawyers throwing up on the way into court in the morning. A nice commentary on how even the best trial lawyers still suffer nervousness and stage fright.

Then the year was saved when I saw two terrific films this week with legal themes. First was A Most Violent Year, starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, which is set in the rough and tumble heating oil business in New York City in the 1980’s. They should show this movie in business school as well as in law school, because it provides a great illustration of the economics of unrestrained competition, as well as the limited power of the legal system to keep that competition from turning violent and destructive. The story concerns one man’s drive to try to resist the forces that pull him toward becoming a gangster. He doesn’t mind being a little crooked, but he strongly wants to avoid becoming a gangster. We also see how the legal system can sometimes be used to try to maintain a more civilized form of competition, but also as just another tool in the warfare between competing businesses. And how the legal system can become susceptible to corruption and power also.

Then there was Selma, about the marches that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. There has been some controversy about the historical accuracy of parts of this movie, but I have to say that I don’t have much patience with those kinds of criticisms. Selma is not a documentary, even though it does use some documentary footage in one part, and the filmmakers are entitled to whatever artistic license they feel they need for the sake of heightening the drama. The point of the movie, which it succeeds at brilliantly, is demonstrating the power of a social movement to create change. In the processs, the movie also puts Martin Luther King, Jr. front and center so that we can understand and feel the leader’s personal struggle to balance the desire for change, the safety of his followers, his family’s needs, and his sense of the most successful strategy for achieving the movement’s goals.

What interests me as a lawyer, of course, is the role of the courts and the political system in the drama. The movie understandably puts the court proceedings somewhat in the background, except that the court case pops out somewhat unexpectedly at one point in the middle of a series of meetings and preparations. The movie offers a somewhat confusing portrayal of the aborted second march (based on the historical record, that day probably was very confusing), seeming to suggest that King obtained spiritual guidance that persuaded him to turn back. That may be true, but it is also true that he was thinking about the temporary restraining order he would have been violating by proceeding. Then we see the courageous Federal District Court Judge Frank Johnson (played by Martin Sheen) hearing a parade of witnesses before issuing an order that permitted the third march.

But it was the first march, the one that barely made it across the Edmund Pettus bridge before being met with horrific police violence, that shocked the nation, and probably did the most to impel Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act. I’m not sure I want to compare the situations in these two movies, but in both Selma and A Most Violent Year, it is violence that prods the legal system into putting the laws in place that ultimately bring a measure of justice needed to reduce that violence. And it is in both films the tension between the deliberate use or provocation of violence to achieve a party’s goals, and the desire to use the law to create a more just and peaceful solution, that creates much of the thought-provoking drama. (interesting trivia: David Oyelowo appears in both films.)

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