CRUSADING HERO LAWYER
My favorite crusading lawyer in movies was of course, Atticus Finch portrayed by Gregory Peck in To Kill A Mockingbird (1962). To stand up for the underdog against personal ridicule and prejudice inspired a generation of lawyers who, like me, keep a picture of Finch in his summer white court suit in their office.
Tom Cruise as Lt. Daniel Kaffee is a slacker who turns into a hero lawyer in A Few Good Men (1992) just in time to stop Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup from getting away with murder because “you can’t handle the Truth”. An ending scene, where a marine, referring to Kaffee shouts, “Ten-hut, there is an officer on deck” reminds me of the scene in To Kill a Mockingbird when one of the trial spectators after the verdict says to Scout, “Stand up, a great man (Finch) is coming by.” They merited that measure of respect in winning and in defeat.” Another hero lawyer was Paul Newman’s Frank Galvin, an alcoholic “ham and egger” in The Verdict (1982) who disobeyed his client’s decision to settle a medical malpractice case at great personal risk but was vindicated by the size of the verdict in the end.
A disillusioned or obtuse lawyer is represented by John Travolta as Jan Schlichtmann in A Civil Action (1998) which is a true story of how a lawyer actually bankrupted himself suing a big corporation who papered his practice and his clients to low ball settlement death. He had a good environmental law case, but lacked the funds to challenge the expensive experts paid by the big company to cover up the pollution which sickened a town in Woburn Massachusetts. In real life Mr. Schlichtman left the law greatly disappointed after the case was finished but subsequently returned a more jaded realist.
Another disillusioned lawyer, Al Pacino’s Arthur Kirkland in And Justice of All (1979) sees the guilty go free and the innocent declared guilty in a corrupt legal system, until he can’t take it anymore, screaming at the Judge “No you’re out of order, the whole Trial’s out of order” knowing his antics would cost him his legal career. And don’t forget The Paper Chase (1973) where Hart, played by Timothy Bottoms sails the letter containing his grades from the Harvard Law School tyrant Professor Kingsfield unforgetably played by John Housman, into the ocean. Kingsfield had earlier told him, “Here is a dime, call your mother and tell her there is serious doubt of you ever becoming a lawyer.”
Under the vengeful category we find other characters, not necessarily lawyers, taking vengeance on the legal system. Banker Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) takes his sweet revenge in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) against the corrupt and sadistic warden Samuel Norton (Bob Gurto) by showing how the warden, with Dufresne’s help, methodically stole from the prison system over many years. The result was the warden took his own life, while he and Red (Morgan Freeman) wind up on a paradise beach in Mexico.
Other revenge movies would include True Grit, (2010) Gladiator (2000), Bravehead (1995) and many others where the bad guys get their justified comeuppance in the end.
Finally, we have the buffoon lawyers. Some old classics are Adams Rib (1949) and Duck Soup (1933), but my favorites are My Cousin Vinny and Animal House.
My Cousin Vinny (1992) presents Joe Pesci as Vinny Gambino, an inexperienced New York lawyer trying his cousin’s murder case in Alabama before an uncompromising Judge (Fred Gwynn) in an anti-yankee climate made for laughs. I didn’t know that no self respecting southerner could cook grits in less than 20 minutes, or that Mona Lisa Vito (Marise Tomei), a beauty queen, was also an expert auto mechanic.
Regarding Animal House (1978), who can forget Otter’s (Tim Matheson) famous Courtroom speech, turning the Delta Fraternity expulsion case into an indictment of our education system in particular and American society in general. Delta was not going to sit there and listen to Dean Wormer (John Vernon) bad mouth the United States of America!
The variation of portrayals of lawyers is as diverse as our society. They share the connection or disconnection of the legal system and citizens it purports to serve. They are entertaining and enlightening and we can’t wait for the next one. - JDG