Sunday, May 28, 2006

Reel Justice: How Accurate are Courtroom Movies?

We're speaking with attorney and professor Paul Bergman, who is, with Michael Asimow, the co-author of "Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies" (from Andrews McMeel Publishing). "Reel Justice" is a fascinating analysis of hundreds of courtroom movies. It sheds a lot of light on the legal system, the accuracy of courtroom films, and it tells us a lot about how we perceive the law.

NOLO: Paul, let's start with a basic question. Can a film be inaccurate in terms of how the legal system is portrayed, but accurate as to the spirit of justice? That is, the facts are wrong, but the result is correct.

PAUL BERGMAN: Yeah, very definitely, and I'd say that, you know, it probably happens more often than not in films. The best example of that is a film called The Verdict made in the early eighties, with Paul Newman as a kind of boozed-out lawyer named Frank Galvin. He's representing a woman who went into a hospital to give birth, and she ends up comatose, allegedly as the result of being given the wrong anesthetics. The film is a medical malpractice case, on behalf of this woman against the two doctors, the anesthesiologists at the hospital, and Newman hasn't done any work on the case, you know, he's been drunk most of the time, but he finally manages to get the case to go to trial. But his witnesses disappear, the judge excludes most of his other evidence, so there's no way the case should go to the jury. In fact, the name of the film should be, not The Verdict, but The Directed Verdict for the Defense. But nevertheless, the case does go to the jury, and the jury somehow manages to do justice. They realize somehow that the defendants were, you know, did use the wrong anesthetic. And their verdict punishes them, not so much for doing that, but for a reason that really resounds in everyday life. I mean, what happened is, the anesthesiologists tried to cover it up -- they changed documents, they fired a witness, so it was the cover-up rather than the original negligence, that really allows the jurors to want to punish the defendants with their verdict. So they achieve justice, even though there's no real evidence on which to base it, and for a reason that we see happen all the time in ordinary life.

NOLO: Okay, let's try and imagine our legal actor dream team -- Richard Gere, Gene Hackman, Spencer Tracey, Paul Newman... they're all known for their portrayal of lawyers. But what actor really gets it right?

PAUL BERGMAN: I guess I could watch Spencer Tracey as Clarence Daryl in Inherit the Wind probably every week and get inspired; he just does such a great job. But, you know, there's others that are right up there. In an older film called Compulsion, kind of a dramatized version of the Leopold and Logue trial, Clarence Daryl represented Leopold and Logue in that case, and in the film Compulsion, he's played by Orson Wells, and Orson Wells is just magnificent. Another one you'd have to put up there is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. He's ultimately not successful, but if you wanted a lawyer to represent you, you couldn't think of one better than him. So I would hire Spencer Tracey, Orson Wells, and Gregory Peck as co-council to represent me, I guess.

NOLO: And if you were an Enron-type corporation looking to hire an evil lawyer, who would you pick?

PAUL BERGMAN: Jon Voight in The Rainmaker or James Mason in The Verdict.
NOLO: One thing you point out in Reel Justice is that women lawyers in movies tend to be portrayed as aggressive, over-emotional, and they make bad romantic decisions. Why is that portrayal so common?

PAUL BERGMAN: You know, I guess it's a great way to create drama, by not only having kind of a who-done-it, and is-the-client-guilty-or-innocent, but to play on stereotypes about women getting emotionally invested in people, and not being just interested in legal analysis, so it's a way to create a triangle... the legal problem, the lawyer, and now some romantic problem that the lawyer has to confront. We see this a lot, actually. In Suspect, Cher plays a public defender who falls in love with one of the jurors on her case. In Jagged Edge, Glen Close plays a supposedly hard-bitten, tough-as-nails lawyer, very experienced, but nevertheless she immediately believes that her client (played by Jeff Bridges) is innocent of the murder that he's charged with, she falls in love with him, and virtually has a hissy fit right in the middle of the trial when some prosecution witness testifies to how he regularly cheated on his wife. So it's kind of just taking advantage, maybe say blending the courtroom drama with the women's weepy drama, that has traditionally been a staple in Hollywood. Actually one of the worst portrayals of female lawyers, not a romantic one, but if you remember Demi Moore's character in A Few Good Men, she is a co-council with Tom Cruise, who plays Lieutenant K now, Demi Moore's character has tons of trial experience, she's straight-military, Tom Cruise has no trial experience... nevertheless by halfway through the film, the Demi Moore character is pretty much reduced to bringing Tom Cruise a cup of coffee; she just totally fades into the background, a pretty demeaning portrait of a female lawyer.

NOLO: You also point out in Reel Justice that in the movies, it's the lawyer who is more charismatic, tricky, or lucky who prevails. You mean that's not the case in real life?

PAUL BERGMAN: I guess more lawyers wish it were. But the great movie that sends that message, by the way, is the recent one Chicago, which kind of has this great scene, in which a courtroom alternates with a circus, to suggest that everything is just another form of entertainment, and the one who's the best entertainer is the one who's going to succeed. Most lawyers prepare hard, they're drowned in paperwork, they're in court on pre-trial notions, there's not a whole lot of trickery or charisma that counts. You kind of have to have "the goods" as they say, and I think more lawyers wish they could just go in and weave a spell-binding tale, and not have to worry about all the hours, weeks, and months of work that precedes what happens in court.

NOLO: In Reel Justice, you explain that movie lawyers often get away with attacking the character of witnesses, when it would not be permitted in real life. Maybe you can give us a couple of examples of that.

PAUL BERGMAN: Yeah, kind of a classic example is Suspect -- you have the defendant who's charged with murder, who has a few missteps on his record, minor transgressions for various kinds of acts involving a little bit of violence, and the prosecutor starts out by cross-examining him by bringing out all of these little acts of violence he's committed in the past, just suggesting that this is a violent guy, just the kind of guy who would commit a murder. Basically sort of a principle of our system of justice, that probably people have heard of, is we say we judge the act and not the actor. So, we try to make judges and jurors focus on, what's the evidence about what happened in this case, let's not turn every trial into a morality trial where we're judging how you've lived your life. So the films are very misleading in that, and Suspect is one of them, Anatomy of a Murder even has a scene where the defense lawyer attacks a prosecution witness by showing a string of misdemeanors and kind of just showing he's a bad guy, so the idea is if you could just disgrace a witness in the eyes of the jury, that they won't believe him. And that kind of thing happens all the time in movies, and in tabloid newspapers or magazines, but it doesn't happen in real cases.

NOLO: One thing you reported in Reel Justice is that in the courtroom genre, in older films, lawyers are portrayed as fine human beings and competent professionals. But in newer movies, from 1980 onwards, they're usually portrayed as greedy, unethical, or incompetent. Can we attribute this to John Grisham, or did Grisham just mine the trend?

PAUL BERGMAN: Yeah, I guess we shouldn't attribute that much power to Grisham. Yeah, I think there's a variety of reasons. I'd go back to Watergate, or "don't trust people in authority," the power elite... I think we also had an era in which people were very much concerned about rising crime rates, and lawyers were often in the media representing drug lords and killers, and people often tend to associate the lawyers with the sometimes nasty people they represent.

NOLO: Let's talk about Legally Blonde for a moment. You're a law professor, so how accurate is the portrayal of law schools and law professors in films?

PAUL BERGMAN: Well, I guess we all wish there were more law students like Reese Witherspoon in law school than we teach. Yeah, I think it's fair to say that it's probably no more accurate about law school than they portray trials. In the films, and there aren't that many that feature law professors, there's the classic Kingsfield and the Paper Chase, and they're always stern, autocratic, cold, all they care about is rational legal analysis, they don't care about their students, and it probably never was true, but it certainly isn't true these days, when professors' advancement depends in part on how their students evaluate them, so even if they didn't want to be, professors have to be at least somewhat caring and interested in their students these days.

NOLO: The new addition of Reel Justice has a feature that's very interesting, it's called "Picturing Justice." Tell us why you added that section, and maybe give us an example.

PAUL BERGMAN: I think the idea at least that I had in mind was to.... well, the book primarily focuses on legal strategies, and we thought it'd be fun to focus on the filmmakers' strategies when making the films, like, what are the ways that they use a visual medium to get their messages across, and by focusing on little film techniques, I think we can help give readers a feel of what film is really all about. There's an old Hitchcock film from the fifties starring Henry Fonda, called The Wrong Man, it's a great film, about a very contemporary problem: eye-witnesses misidentify the person who rob them; Henry Fonda is arrested and thrown in jail, and the film is basically about what a horrible experience it is to be wrongly accused, and it focuses on every little aspect of the process, so it's not a fast-moving film, but by moving so slowly it kind of brings each horror individually to the viewers, and in one little scene where Henry Fonda's character is thrown in jail, we see one of the bars of the cell, and it's filmed in such a way that it goes right across his neck, the shadow falls right across his neck, and it looks like a noose -- very clever, and the suggestion is that he's experienced a kind of death just because he's been thrown in jail for something he had nothing to do with, so it's an example of a film technique kind of helping to promote the message of the film.

NOLO: Paul, we accept the fact that movies are entertainment, and we also accept the fact that the legal system is for real, so is there any danger to the public in creating an inaccurate presentation of the legal system?

PAUL BERGMAN: Yeah, there's a danger that viewers might leave a film mistaken about what a rule of law is, what actually goes on in a trial, I suppose they might be somewhat misleading yeah, but overall, I think the films are a giant plus for our system of justice.
NOLO: Paul, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

PAUL BERGMAN: It was a pleasure, I really enjoyed it and I hope people enjoy the interview, and maybe the book, and certainly the films.

NOLO: Well, I know they'll enjoy the book. It's a fantastic book; it's fun for cinema people, and for people interested in the legal system, and I hope we'll be back soon to interview you for some of your Nolo books, I know there's a new addition of The Criminal Law Handbook that will be coming out soon.

PAUL BERGMAN: Thanks! I look forward to that.

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