DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of Runaway Jury, (The Firm, The Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill, The Rainmaker) and Inherit the Wind, Rashomon, 12 Angry Men, Michael Clayton



Title:  Runaway Jury

Release Date:  2003

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 127 Min

MPAA Rating:  PG-13

Distributor and Production Company:  20th Century Fox, Regency

Director; Writer: Gary Fleder, screenwriters were Brian Koppelman, David Levien, Rick Cleveland and Matthew Chapman, based on a novel by John Grisham


Cast:   Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, John Cusack, Rachel Weisz

Technical: Panavision Widescreen, digital

Relevance to doaskdotell site:




What struck me is how trial lawyers are forced to take sides, and cannot be objective. The paradigm of my own writing is "open source" to be as objective as possible. If I were publicly committed to a point of view by my job, I could not do this.


Of course, this is more than adversarialism. Jury tampering is a crime; Jimmy Hoffa went to jail for that in the 1950s, and remember the film Hoffa! John Cusack, playing Nick Easter, comes across as too likeable, a sort of athletic semi-geek like Jake 2.0 on UPN, to do anything wrong himself. So he is set up as a “freelance juror” ready to swing the jury to the highest bidder. But I don’t really read the story (at least as in the movie) as his being on the take. He and his girlfriend manipulate the attorneys because they want to be important, to make a statement, like Nathaniel Heatwole did about the TSA and airline security.


And here we get to the political message, where Grisham uses his complex plotting to go beyond exposing corruption but to make political points, perhaps from the liberal side, as well. Here, we ask, why is a gun manufacturer in Vicksburg, Ms selling assault weapons to individuals who have no conceivable self-defense motive? This is your classic Second Amendment dilemma, and the denouement here is not libertarian.


Also, I love Grisham’s fascination with the South, those hot torrid, moss covered areas that might be flooded out of existence by the next direct hit from a hurricane (in this film, New Orleans) or another mid-continent earthquake. Oh well, one of the military ban attorneys told me that I was a walking John Grisham novel myself. And I am. 


Hackman and Hoffman perform their roles with their usual ardor, Hackman (the jury consultant) coming across as a real right-wing zealot. 


I wasn’t as concerned as a lot of the movie critics about all the geeky gadgetry the jury consultants used to spy on the jurors. All you need for that is to hire a few teenage hackers.


The original book is different; the enemy there is big tobacco (a big deal with the Attorney General in Mississippi in recent years) rather than the gun manufacturers.


There are several other John Grisham novels made into major films.


The Firm (1993, Paramount, dir. Sydney Pollack) presents Tom Cruise as the everyman hero, this time a young lawyer Mitch McDeere, who goes to work for the “wrong” law firm in Memphis after graduating from law school. In the book, the opening page is chilling, as Avery Tolar (Gene Hackman) picks out his candidates – being married is “mandatory.”  McDeere and his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) seem to have it all until the “cheating” of the firm (and its connections to the mob) unravels, and soon McDeere finds himself on the run to get his life back, evading both “goons” and “fibbies” on the bridges across the Mississippi River, literally. One scene in the film takes place on the Mall in Washington right after the 1993 March blizzard. The film is the only Grisham film not made in full wide screen format.


The Pelican Brief (1993, Warner Bros, dir. Alan J. Paluka) supposes that two Supreme Court justices have been assassinated. Denzel Washington plays Gary Grantham, the investigative reporter, and Julia Roberts is Darby Shaw, the law student drawn to investigate the deaths by her professor (Sam Shepard) and write a “brief” that could bring down the president. That led to my colloquial term where a “pelican brief” is a document written by an average person that could cause political change.


A Time to Kill (1996, Warner Bros/Regency, dir. Joel Schumacker) presents Jake Tyler Brigance (Matthew McConaughey) as a young lawyer defending a black man charged with killing two men who raped his daughter. The KKK has a rebirth in this film, and gets dangerous with burnings and destruction. The film brings back the mood of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  I stopped on vacation in Port Angeles, WA to see this before driving another 100 miles back to my motel in Tacoma.


The Rainmaker (1997, Paramount/Zoetrope, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) presents Matt Damon as the hero, Rudy Baylor, and ambitious young lawyer who goes to work for Bruiser Stone (Mickey Rourke) and pretty soon is, with sidekick Deck Shifflet (Danny Devito), is on his own. With no money, he moves into a client’s rooming house and becomes a shirtless lawn boy (sorry, still no chest hair). But pretty soon he has a big case fighting for a young leukemia patient (Johnny Whitworth) and his mother, whose claim is turned down by a fraudulent insurance company, represented by a cheesy lawyer played by Jon Voight. As Devito says, everyone wants to go after the insurance company. But Rudy shows real character over and over (despite a less than perfect background) in his willingness to fight for the little guy.





For pure courtroom drama we go back into film history, to the black-and-white didactic Inherit the Wind (1960, United Artists, 128 min) with Spencer Tracy as defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Frederic March as prosecutor William Jennings Bryan in the 1925 “monkey” trial of a teacher John Scopes for providing information on evolution in Tennessee public schools. The movie moves the trial to Hillsboro, but it appears that it took place in Dayton, in Rhea county, which in 2004 proposed an ordinance evicting homosexuals from the county! The courtroom scenes provide for a lot of philosophical oratory, maybe more appropriate for a play, but the pace or “beat” quickens at the end with resolutions for both attorneys and the reporter H.L. Mencken played by Gene Kelly. The film pales in plot and stakes when compared, say, with To Kill a Mockingbird. Yet, the film as a powerful statement about community values and what happens when people challenge them and why. Early scenes have the crowds singing “Give me old time religion, it’s good enough for me!”—something I heard from my roommate at that notorious fall semester for me at William and Mary in 1961. There are signs all over town, “Read the Bible.” There is talk that young minds can be infected by agnostic speech from teachers. Conformity is demanded almost like it is by the Taliban, but here it is used to defend “freedom,” for whites at least. Darrow, not allowed to introduce scientists as defense witnesses, challenges a Bible scholar to face the contradictions inherit in fundamentalism—do we throw out all of science? “Right has no meaning but truth has meaning!” (Paul Rosenfels wouldn’t have said that.) The psychology of all this becomes apparent. People lean on religion, not just as an opiate (Marx), but as a source of identity in a world that does not give them much personal choice like we know in our modern world today. So to challenge religious tenets must be very threatening to them. There is talk of throwing ideas in the wastebasket, and then that an idea is more important than a cathedral. At the end, Darrow chides the reporter for his detachment and objectivity and lack of willingness to fight for anyone, and the reporter charges back, “but you would defend my right to be alone.” There’s a touch of Citizen Kane here.


Rashomon (1950, Janus/Criterion, dir. Akira Kurosawa, stories by Ryunosoke Akutagawa, 87 min, sug PG-13) is an exercise in “truth detection” or reality testing. In 12th Century Japan, a woman is raped and her husband apparently stabbed and killed in the woods by a bandit. The bandit, the woman, the husband’s ghost, and a woodcutter’s version are all told as if they were “Canterbury Tales.” The details are shown for each but they all differ in subtle but simple ways that can fix guilt. Truth itself becomes relativistic, to be undone and redone. The concept seems important in crime or accident incidents, where someone may wish to deny reality and go on with things.  Commentary by Robert Altman and Ronalt Ritchie.


12 Angry Men (1957, United Artists, dir. Sidney Lumet, story Reginald Rose, 96 min). This black-and-white film takes place almost entirely within a jury deliberation room. Twelve men deliberate a case of a Hispanic male accused of stealing his father, with one eyewitness who claims to have seen the stabbing through the windows of a moving elevated subway train. One juror, Henry Fonda, votes not guilty to provoke discussion, and gradually “reasonable doubt” builds up and persuades more and more jurors, until unanimous. I was once on a jury in Texas that convicted on a weapons charge, but it was difficult.  No question, this film provides a good civics lesson, except for the fact that the jury is all white male (and in shirt and tie). Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Lee J. Cobb.


Michael Clayton (2007, Warner Bros. / Castle Rock / Summit Entertainment, dir. Tony Gilroy, 119 min, R). Although this could have been a movie about corporate malfeasance, or about the legal system, it is more a character study about what makes people tick. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a middle-aged corporate lawyer whose resume, viewed from the outside, seems like a bunch of contradictions. He is the “fixer” for a big law firm, the bullpen guy or savior getting the firm out of legal jams, oddly keeping his ethics – even if he is known as “Bad Guy.” He actually believes in “The Truth”. But, then, why did he never make partner? Why is he so worried about his takeaway fund? Why did he invest in a bar? Why is he divorced? (That one is easier.) The movie takes us through the last six days of his known career, starting near the end when he gets a call for a leaving the scene case, then drives to the country, gets out of the car to look at some houyhnhnms, and the car blows up. The movie shifts back four days to tell its episodic and interesting story, a lot of it having to do with a class action suit against a guilty company “U-North,” its ruthless litigator Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton) and the manic-depressive attorney Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson), who has streaked in a deposition and wound up in jail in Wisconsin, of all places. The composition of the script, from its various pieces, is quite interesting, as is the denouement where Michael can find out who he really is by outfoxing everyone and cabbying away. Sydney Pollack is his usual mentoring self as law firm CEO Marty Bach, who can be rude with his directing.


People could look at my resume and ask questions about seeming contradictions. The movie seems like a personal lesson.   




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