Roger Ebert passed away last week, robbing us of a great film critic and an equally insightful social critic. Ebert loved the movies and his critical ire was only raised when films failed to live up to the standards he’d set in his own mind.

But one genre of film seemed to give Ebert consistent fits — the legal movie. From drama to comedy, if the film found its way into a courtroom, Ebert was likely on the wrong side of public opinion. As a tribute to the critic, we’ve gathered some of his reviews to pass final verdict on Ebert’s understanding of the legal genre….

There may be some spoilers here if you’re the kind of person who worries about spoilers from movies made 50 years ago.

To Kill a Mockingbird

Conventional Wisdom: AFI Top 100 #25, AFI’s #1 Courtroom Drama, AFI’s #1 Movie Hero of the 20th Century (Atticus Finch), ABA Journal #1 Greatest Legal Movie
Roger Ebert: 2.5 stars

The problem here, for me, is that the conviction of Tom Robinson is not the point of the scene, which looks right past him to focus on the nobility of Atticus Finch. I also wonder at the general lack of emotion in the courtroom, and the movie only grows more puzzling by what happens next. Atticus is told by the sheriff that while Tom Robinson was being taken for safekeeping to nearby Abbottsville, he broke loose and tried to run away. As Atticus repeats the story: “The deputy called out to him to stop. Tom didn’t stop. He shot at him to wound him and missed his aim. Killed him. The deputy says Tom just ran like a crazy man.”

That Scout could believe it happened just like this is credible. That Atticus Finch, an adult liberal resident of the Deep South in 1932, has no questions about this version is incredible. In 1962 it is possible that some (white) audiences would believe that Tom Robinson was accidentally killed while trying to escape, but in 2001 such stories are met with a weary cynicism.

The construction of the following scene is highly implausible. Atticus drives out to Tom Robinson’s house to break the sad news to his widow, Helen. She is played by Kim Hamilton (who is not credited, and indeed has no speaking lines in a film that finds time for dialog by two superfluous white neighbors of the Finches). On the porch are several male friends and relatives. Bob Ewell, the vile father who beat his girl into lying, lurches out of the shadows and says to one of them, “Boy, go in the house and bring out Atticus Finch.” One of the men does so, Ewell spits in Atticus’s face, Atticus stares him down and drives away. The black people in this scene are not treated as characters, but as props, and kept entirely in long shot. The close-ups are reserved for the white hero and villain.

Verdict: Ebert’s right. I’d expected to disagree with Ebert, but his reasoning is pretty incisive. The decision to move the film off the mooring of a child’s memory renders a lot of the subtext invisible, and the film is terminally disrespectful of the African-Americans whose plight theoretically forms the basis of the legal tension. I’d never mistaken To Kill a Mockingbird for much more than the white, liberal interpretation of the Jim Crow South, but after reading Ebert’s review, I can’t unsee the substantive flaws in the film.

My Cousin Vinny

Conventional Wisdom: 84% Fresh Tomatometer rating, ABA Journal #3 Greatest Legal Movie
Roger Ebert: 2.5 Stars

`My Cousin Vinny” is a movie that meanders along going nowhere in particular, and then lightning strikes. I didn’t get much involved in it, and yet individual moments and some of the performances were very funny. It’s the kind of movie home video was invented for: Not worth the trip to the theater, but slam it into the VCR and you get your rental’s worth.

Verdict: I guess Roger is right that this is the sort of movie VCRs were invented for, but only because a movie like this demands repeated viewing. Admittedly, there is a lawyer’s bias toward enjoying this film since its depiction of the courtroom is one of the more realistic (voir dire of the expert witness in front of the jury aside) in cinema. Justice Scalia has even cited the film in argument. Peter Kalis loves it. Judge Kozinski gives it a perfect score. But beyond the legal candy, the film is smart and funny, and well worth the price of admission. Ebert missed the boat on this one.

A Few Good Men

Conventional Wisdom: Nominated for Best Picture, AFI’s #5 Courtroom Drama, ABA Journal #14 Greatest Legal Movie
Roger Ebert: 2.5 Stars (this is becoming a trend)

Rob Reiner’s “A Few Good Men” is one of those movies that tells you what it’s going to do, does it, and then tells you what it did.

It doesn’t think the audience is very bright. There is a scene that is absolutely wrong. In it, a lawyer played by Tom Cruise previews his courtroom strategy to his friends. The strategy then works as planned – which means that an element of surprise is missing from the most important moment in the movie, and the key scene by Jack Nicholson is undermined – robbed of suspense, and made inevitable.

Verdict: This is a film where the acting overwhelms the plot. Sure, we all know Jack Nicholson is going to botch his testimony under pressure, but that doesn’t diminish the impact of his admonition of our truth-handling capabilities.

Perhaps this review best sums up Ebert’s problem with the courtroom setting — it’s never really a surprise. By its nature, a litigation is a planned event. Even when Hollywood tries to spice it up, it can’t run away from the fundamental premise that a team of lawyers will meticulously plan a strategy that they will, most likely, carry out with some level of success. If the legal protagonists don’t plan a strategy and then watch it unfold, then they aren’t doing their job. A film has issues if the audience thinks the protagonists are bad at their jobs.

Think about the entire crew of Armageddon. It doesn’t take a Roger Ebert to know that movie sucked.

To Kill a Mockingbird [RogerEbert.com]
My Cousin Vinny [RogerEbert.com]
A Few Good Men [RogerEbert.com]

Earlier: The ATL Interrogatories: 10 Questions with Peter Kalis of K&L Gates
A Movie Recommendation from Chief Judge Kozinski


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