Courtroom Drama: Part I: A Review Essay on The Judge

Courtroom Drama


Howard Adelman

Part I: A Review Essay on The Judge

I missed seeing The Judge when it played at the Toronto International Film Festival, but I caught it last night. I have also missed seeing films for the last while and writing about them. We have been busy settling into Victoria – it is a very beautiful city. We have already bought a property that closes Wednesday and that has kept us very occupied. But I had to write about this film.

There is already a controversy over the movie. There are those who view the movie as a courtroom drama wrapped around a sentimental tale of a father-son relationship. Those critics generally are not impressed by the film. That interpretation is countered by those who see the movie as a tale about a father-son relationship that uses the courtroom scenario to put the relationship of the father and son on trial much more than the innocence or guilt of the person accused of killing someone in a hit-and-run accident. Those critics generally appreciate and love the film. Then there are those (only a few in the two other options) who say it doesn’t matter. The movie is either just a gestalt which can be read both ways or else our imaginary connection belongs to a trend in creating hyphenated genre films.

To eliminate the suspense, I belong to the second group. I loved the movie about the relationship of a father who is a judge (played superbly by Robert Duvall in an award-winning performance), who is always called, even by his own children, “Judge”, and a son who is a defense attorney. Robert Downey Jr. plays the latter role with all the variety of facial expression that this actor uniquely brings to his characters, but this time he turns the cold, calculating and cocksure Hank Palmer, who only brackets his swagger when his own alienation from his father comes up, into a totally credible character. Downey turns Hank into a human being even before the events in the film humanize him. The son ends up defending his father against a charge of murder.

I will argue not only that the film is primarily a father-son relationship genre movie, but also that grasping the genre matters for both interpreting the movie as well as really appreciating it. Even further, in understanding why it matters, the film can be seen as a much larger film, an allegory rooted in biblical text about father-son relations. (I will put that argument forth in tomorrow’s blog.)

Let me begin by putting the case before you, as if we are conducting our own critical trial, by arguing the position of many if not most critics that I read — and against my own conclusions — that the film certainly belongs to the genre of courtroom dramas. It is, of course, ironic that, in a film that is supposedly about justice and truth, if it is primarily a courtroom drama, or about submission and rebellion and the love needed to overcome that tension in a father-son movie, a viewer first needs to understand the movie in aesthetic terms to grasp its essential value. This, as I shall argue tomorrow, is the only serious flaw in the movie.

The film has many of the essential elements of a courtroom drama. Like most courtroom dramas, not only must a significant part of the film take place in a court of law – and the latter part of The Judge does take place in a courtroom, but in the American movie world, courtroom dramas are often set in a small town, important since small towns stand for democratic justice wherein the prejudices of all small towns and factions within must be overcome in the name of detached reasoning and principles of fairness. The Judge is set in the small town of Carlinville, Indiana as a contrast to Chicago where Robert Downey Jr. practices law. There is a real Carlinville in Illinois. I presume the setting was transferred to Indiana to allow Downey to arrive by airplane and to transport his daughter by air. However, there is probably more to it, but I could not discern an important reason for changing the state.

In American folklore, in the small towns, the people in the end render justice, even when they are generally Christian fundamentalists, as in Dayton, Tennessee, and believe initially that the accused is guilty, as in the movie Inherit the Wind about the so-called 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial”. It is the jury which must stand in for the audience to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused. The people, the jury, must be swayed by the objective evidence and not by all he emotionalism connected with the issue or the accused.

Thus, it is no surprise that the first legal issue that arises in The Judge is whether the prosecution should request a change in venue in conducting the trial of a respected judge who served on the bench in Carlinville for over forty years. As Robert Downey Jr. points out, the prosecutor’s request for a change in venue is a feint, for there are as many people with connections to others convicted by the judge as there are people friendly to and respectful of the judge. Contrast how the request for a change in venue is handled by Jake Tyler Brigance, played by Matthew McConaughey, in the 1996 film A Time to Kill set in Canton Mississippi, where the setting is crucial to the issue of Black vigilante justice versus KKK vigilante racist action. The issue of setting goes to the core of the film and is not just a set piece for a movie that is really about something else.

So the audience for The Judge is told that this is not a trial about the prejudices and fairness of a jury, as in the classic, Twelve Angry Men. Instead, the jury is selected based on profiles of those who are free-wheeling in their imaginations and are not formulaic, thereby initially undercutting the democratic presumptions of the “objectivity” of juries. As if to compound and emphasize the irrelevance of juries to a rational process of justice, as a humorous interlude, Hank Palmer uses the trivial device of selecting members of the jury based on the stickers people put on the bumpers of their cars. As one insertion for comic relief, one juror selected has the slogan “Wife and Dog Missing. Reward for Dog.”
Not all courtroom dramas take place in small town America – think of Norman Jewison’s 1979 film, And Justice for All. That movie takes place in a real Baltimore courtroom. In military courtroom dramas, like A Few Good Men, the trial takes place on a military base, in this case in Guantanamo Bay long before the name became synonymous with illegal torture of prisoners. In the older classic, The Caine Mutiny, the trial also takes place on a military base, for there the issue is whether, in an authority-based military system where three military officers judge their own, there can be a fair trial at all. Just think of the most classic courtroom drama of all time, Judgment at Nuremberg, which does take place in a relatively small German city, but which is also a military trial in which American officers must judge German judges accused of war crimes who are defended by American lawyers. In that film, the question is not only about military justice, but about victor’s justice and whether, even in cases involving the Holocaust, justice can be rendered.

The absence of a larger social, ethical or political issue behind the legal drama should be a clue that, unlike typical courtroom dramas, this movie is not about the possibility or reality of justice emerging from a legal trial. It is not about justice at all, but about alienation and reconciliation between a father and son. The courtroom is simply a setting where the interpersonal drama is acted out. But I am getting ahead of myself and not giving due space to the claim that the film is primarily a courtroom drama.

In addition to the frequent use of small town settings, the role of juries as representatives of the people is the central theme of Sydney Lumet’s film Twelve Angry Men that uniquely is about the jury process itself. That film insists that one man, Jimmy Stewart, in the face of a gaggle of other jurors convinced of the guilt of the accused, can convince the other jurors that an individual must be presumed innocent until the evidence itself convinces all the jurors that the man is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In that movie, the trial actually takes place in the jury room where Jimmy Stewart is really a substitute for a previous lazy and incompetent defence attorney.

However, The Judge is not about truth and/or justice, even though there are a few bits of truth that need to be revealed and even though justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done. True to the form, in The Judge, prosecuting attorneys are more concerned with undermining an accused and getting a conviction. The defense attorney is focused on twisting the truth to provide the best defence for his or her client. Robert Downey Jr. as the defence attorney, begins by playing true to form as does Billy Bob Thornton, the cold-hearted prosecutor determined to upstage Downey.

Thus, in addition to juries as well as the judge (or judges), courtroom dramas involve the defence attorney and the prosecutor. There are always two sides – the prosecution and the defence. The prosecution must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt; the defense need only establish reasonable doubt about whether there is sufficient evidence for a conviction on the evidence presented. The tension in a standard courtroom drama builds because we are not certain of innocence or guilt or, at the very least, whether a conviction can be obtained when the accused is guilty or an acquittal obtained when there is an overabundance of evidence of guilt but the accused appears to be innocent. Further, the defence attorney may be a recovering failure – usually an alcoholic as in Al Pacino’s role as Arthur Kirkland in And Justice for All, but, in spite of his justified rage and resentment, is even capable of ably defending the cynical and sadistic prosecuting attorney who brought a conviction against his former innocent client who was subsequently killed in prison. For even the worst of humans is owed the presumption of innocence.

In The Judge, those characteristics extend into the judge’s personal life. Robert Duvall plays a man of integrity determined first that his clever but unprincipled son not defend him, and then, when the judge accepts the necessity that his son defend him, becomes concerned that the judge’s personal integrity and commitment to truth or, at the very least, his reputation for both, are protected. In order to do that, the judge also insists that the trial be conducted in a way that demonstrates not only the protection of those values but an actual commitment to both values and not to the slick and clever dramatics of big city defence attorneys.

Matthew McConaughey for a significant part of his career has played lawyers, particularly defence attorneys. Paralleling the role of Robert Downey Jr. as a smarmy smart-assed big city shark, McConaughey in Lincoln Lawyer (2011) played Mick Haller without any of the sentimentality of The Judge. As Downey Jr. cynically pronounces in this allegedly primarily courtroom movie, I defend the guilty because the innocent can’t afford me.

In Amistad, McConaughey acted the role of the American aristocratic Yankee in Spielberg’s 1997 movie set in 1839. McConaughey plays a specialist in property law who defends Mende tribesmen captured from Sierra Leone who were transported illegally across the Atlantic when the captive slaves mutiny and take over the ship. Like the Scopes Trial (Inherit the Wind) and Caine Mutiny, the film is based on a real case, this time one that played a role in President van Buren’s defeat and in building the foundation for the American Civil War as Yanks in the name of justice attacked the legal foundations of not only the slave trade, but slavery in general. In both cases, the attorney acting for the defence is transformed. In both cases, as in most courtroom dramas, larger issues of ethics and social values are at stake.
In Dallas Buyer’s Club, McConaughey played a would-be lawyer who starts as a bigot (a Hollywood exercise in poetic freedom) and ends up as an advocate for gays, but Dallas Buyer’s Club is not a courtroom drama; all films about lawyers do not belong to that genre. In the comic movie Bernie (2011), McConaughey plays against type as the unheroic prosecuting attorney intent on finding a fussy and very generous funeral director guilty of the murder everyone agrees he did commit. That film may end in the courtroom, but it is primarily a quirky comedy about an obsessive and generous funeral director, a movie more along the lines of Peter Seller’s simpleton who becomes an advisor to the President in the 1979 film Being There, or the most worldly of characters, the unworldly Garp, in The World According to Garp. Films that end up in court are not necessarily courtroom dramas.

Courtroom dramas are used to try much larger social issues of justice and fairness, of human character flaws that lead to unanticipated actions because of circumstances (Bernie kills his patron because she gradually enslaves him, not the usual theme of a courtroom drama). Courtroom dramas explore the circumstances when murder or mutiny may be just even when it is illegal. But that is not the point of The Judge. The innocence or guilt of the Judge is never in doubt, though his conviction or acquittal may be. But even the latter result is not the product of clever lawyering, though there is much of that in the movie. The pronouncement of guilt or innocence is the direct result of the accused’s character and his interaction with his son. Rather than the courtroom drama, the court is used (and clearly misused if legal court norms were operating) to act out the father-son drama. Though there are revelations about evidence – the lack of skid marks when a turtle is killed crossing the road – the only real issue at stake in the court is intent. Did the Judge intend to kill his hit-and-run victim? But it is not the trial that resolves the issue but the judge’s character.

True, there are other elements of the courtroom genre present in the film. But one key element is clearly missing – the zinger of a line that sums up the issue of innocence and justice at stake. Think of A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson plays the base commander who famously condemns himself by shouting from the witness stand, “You can’t handle the truth!” when Tom Cruise as the prosecuting attorney insists he wants the truth. Recall Charles Laughton playing the famous barrister Sir Wilfrid Robarts who poses the question to Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s 1957 film Witness for the Prosecution, “Are you or are you not, in fact, a chronic and habitual liar?” Or the line in Inherit the Wind when Brady as William Jennings Bryan as a biblical expert is asked when was the world created when the judge bans archeologists and other scientists from being witnesses. William Jennings Bryan offers a specific date based on biblical scholarship and replies at exactly 9:00 a.m. Clarence Darrow then delivers his zinger: “Was that Eastern Standard Time?”

More importantly, though truth and justice are core issues in a courtroom drama, historical truth is not. Courtroom dramas are not historical texts. In the actual Monkey Trial and in history, William Jennings Bryan was more concerned that the textbook used by the teacher – Civic Biology – taught eugenics and the inheritance of characteristics such as alcoholism and pauperism – as if the latter was an ideology. Darrow made the core issue the teaching of evolution.

The use of characters or lines as comic relief for the suspense in a courtroom drama is a common feature, but in The Judge comedy is not used for relief at all but as a shaggy dog story as when Dax Sheppard, who plays the small town inexperienced and inexpert lawyer whom the judge initially hires instead of his own son, vomits first on the sidewalk and then, with the advice of Robert Downey Jr., on the lawn in front of the courthouse just before each day of the trial.

Thus, the scaffolding of a courtroom drama is used. But in the end, the drama in the court is not about justice or truth and certainly not about larger political or ethical issues. What is it about?
Tomorrow: Fathers and Sons.


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