Doing Justice

We live in a litigious world. Lawyers proliferate like locusts, except that the six-legged insects have a seventeen-year gestation period while the two-legged pests require only three. Yet no matter how many thousands of litigators law schools pump into the pipeline annually, the crime rate rises and the legal system sinks further into a quagmire. Too many bad guys get off, too many good guys get screwed, and too many lawyers get rich in the process. Widespread corruption is a given; cases like Operation Court Broom shock us not because we didn't think judges could be bought, but because we never realized how cheaply.

Everybody knows the game is rigged and the high rollers get preferential treatment. Yet as cynical as we've become about the real-life legal system, we still love those courtroom dramas on TV and at the movies. They've replaced westerns as our modern-day morality plays. From Inherit the Wind to My Cousin Vinny, the gavel is fast supplanting the pistol as our weapon of choice for cinematic dueling.

Oddly enough, even as lack of faith in the law and distrust of legal institutions reach epidemic proportions, so does our appetite for fictitious courtroom melodrama continue to expand. Perhaps we still have more grudging faith in the old scales of justice than we care to admit. Or maybe it's like our attitude toward sports A everybody bitches about the referee, but the game goes on. No shortage of players or patrons.

Two of the better films released by major studios at the tail end of 1993, Universal's In the Name of the Father and TriStar's Philadelphia, involve contentious legal battles and reach their dramatic climax in courtrooms. Both films play by the rules of generic courtroom drama: Heroes and villains are clearly defined; unjustly persecuted good guys fight long odds, endure extreme emotional duress, and bear up like champs; overconfident bad guys scheme and lie and try not to gloat too profusely. In each film the bad guys make careless mistakes that undermine their cases, the hero's attorney risks invoking the judge's wrath by making an impassioned speech on behalf of his client, and the judge (who appears to favor the villain) cautions against future outbursts. In the end it's not about money won or time lost, it's about principle, justice, and that old Hollywood favorite, the indomitability of the human spirit.

It's no small irony that Philadelphia, a movie about prejudice and intolerance toward homosexuals, is set in the "City of Brotherly Love." Tom Hanks portrays Andrew Beckett, a hotshot attorney abruptly fired by his prestigious law firm. Jason Robards is Charles Wheeler, the firm's head and a rancorous old boy who swears he cut Beckett loose because the up-and-comer wasn't pulling his weight, not because Wheeler just happened to find out Beckett was gay and had AIDS. Beckett, of course, takes his former employer to court. In the old days they'd have faced off at high noon on Main Street.

That's it in a nutshell. They can him, he sues. Denzel Washington is the audience surrogate, Hanks's attorney. He's a sleazy, homophobic ambulance-chaser at first but (surprise!) becomes both brilliant and tolerant by the movie's end. He doesn't want to take the case when Beckett offers it to him initially (after being turned down by nine other lawyers), but then he sees Beckett being discriminated against and it strikes a responsive chord. Soon the plucky little team is taking on the city's most powerful law firm, which has all the time, money, and manpower in the world. Exchange the courtroom for a boxing ring and you've got another story of a lovable underdog facing long odds in the fight of his life. Maybe it's no coincidence that Rocky was filmed in Philadelphia as well.

Which is not to compare Hanks to Stallone. Much has been made of Hanks's bravery for putting his boy-next-door image on the line to portray a homosexual infected with AIDS, and he deserves kudos for taking the risk. But his Beckett is so likable, a man of such vulnerability, composure, and grace that he's one of the most sympathetic characters Hanks has ever played. Screenwriter Nyswaner and director Demme take great pains to make Andrew Beckett the most lovable, nonthreatening male lead this side of the dog in Beethoven. True, Hanks's character contracted AIDS from a quickie in an all-male porno movie house. But that was ten years ago; he didn't know the risks at the time and he's been faithful to his doting lover Miguel ever since. It's as if to atone for the transvestite psycho-killer character that so riled gay activists against his Silence of the Lambs, Demme airbrushed away Beckett's genitals. You see Hanks kissing babies at a family get-together, but you don't see him kissing Miguel. (Maybe Washington, who reportedly counseled Will Smith "don't be kissing no man" for the latter's role in Six Degrees of Separation, prevailed upon Hanks and Demme as well.)

For all that, it's still a well-told, moving story. Hanks and Washington earn their salaries; they both give solid, affecting performances. Mary Steenburgen is appropriately cold and tenacious as the law firm's counsel, Antonio Banderas injects as much sensuality into the thankless role of Miguel as Demme will allow him, and Jason Robards is, well, Jason Robards. There's no faulting the performances. And Demme's direction, while low-key, is suitably accomplished. The combination more than compensates for the script's faint-heartedness and predictability. It's good work all way around.

Parallels abound between Philadelphia and Schindler's List. In both cases, you have to applaud the filmmakers for broaching the subject matter at all. If, before these films were released, someone had polled all the producers in Lotusland about their most dreaded box office poisons, you can bet AIDS and the Holocaust would have topped the list. Curiously, it's as if tackling such weighty subjects took the spunk out of Spielberg and Demme. Both films are meticulously politically correct and, by Hollywood's standards, timely. They're solid pictures that could have flirted with greatness had their writers and directors resisted the temptation to canonize their lead characters. And in both cases, the finished product is more valuable for its perceived sociological impact than for its artistic merit. If either picture can give pause to just one bigoted asshole, it will have accomplished its mission. These films may be important cultural happenings, but they're only better-than-average cinema.

Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father aspires to be something more, to go for the whole enchilada A big political statement and heart-rending personal drama rolled into one. No one's going to accuse Sheridan of watering down his lead character for mass consumption. His latest film stars Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, a petty thief growing up in war-torn Belfast in the early Seventies. Conlon is a disaffected youth who plays a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse with both British authorities and IRA volunteers. After he helps precipitate a rock-throwing altercation with British troops, the IRA snatches Gerry and threatens to blow off his kneecaps for drawing unnecessary attention to IRA hideouts with his antics. At his father's behest Gerry ships off for London to live with his aunt until things cool off. Upon arrival he passes on his aunt's hospitality and joins a hippie commune looking for, in his words, "free love and dope." He finds plenty of both. Unfortunately, anti-IRA hysteria in London has been mounting because of a series of bombings; one day blasts rip through a pair of pubs in Guildford, a small town outside of London. Five people are killed.

Public outcry is immediate. The police need to produce suspects, civil liberties be damned. Using the authority of a newly enacted law that grants sweeping powers to gather and detain suspects for up to seven days without counsel, the police round up Gerry and three of his friends and railroad them into signing confessions. So begins the saga of the Guildford Four, who will each spend fifteen years in prison for crimes they didn't commit.

But that's only half the story. When Gerry's father, Giuseppe, tries to get his son out of prison, the police become suspicious and lock him up, too -- in the same cell as Gerry. Their relationship was strained to begin with; now overprotective father and rebellious son must learn to coexist in a hostile prison environment to which they've been unjustly sentenced.

In the Name of the Father is, to put it bluntly, a tour de force. Pete Postlethwaite as the deeply religious Giuseppe Conlon and Daniel Day-Lewis as his ne'er-do-well boy Gerry couldn't have played their parts any better if they'd really spent years in a cramped cell together. Day-Lewis's turn, in particular, is a stunner. His transformation from happy-go-lucky, rabble-rousing youth to bitter, defeatist prisoner to hardened middle-age crusader is an eye-opener almost on par with De Niro's in Raging Bull (although he doesn't gain 40 pounds). Take it from me -- I thought Wes Studi badly upstaged Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, as did Michelle Pfeiffer in The Age of Innocence. But Day-Lewis's performance here blew me away.

What can you say? Every now and then a movie comes along that does damn near everything right. In the Name of the Father is such a film. One or two scenes feel clipped and abrupt, as if some expository material had been left on the cutting-room floor, but to dwell on these details would be like criticizing the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team for celebrating too profusely after beating the Russians. From the tumultuous early scenes of British troops clashing with a defiant mob in Belfast while Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile" blasts away on the soundtrack, to mass demonstrations on behalf of the Guildford Four in the movie's final reel, neither Sheridan nor any of his actors hits a false note. The movie may end with a trial, but it's anything but another predictable courtroom drama.

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