Movies That Matter

New Plaza Cinema last week hosted one of its popular Zoom presentations with film historian Max Alvarez. The theme this time: The Cinema Seeks Justice, and the examples included courtroom dramas and other stories in which the law was used to achieve greater fairness or to redress wrongs.

Filmmakers wanting to make an “issue movie” face a number of challenges. Perhaps the first challenge is to move past Samuel Goldwyn’s famous admonition: “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” If their story based on real life, as all of Alvarez’s examples were, situations probably don’t work out as quickly or neatly as the film portrays. Real life is messy; a film has to be selective about the size of the cast of characters (too many are confusing and require too much backstory) and they may simplify complex stories. Nevertheless, they can be powerful emotional touchstones. Alvarez illustrated a half-dozen issues with the films that portrayed them. This type of film must be popular in my family, because we’d seen most of them.

The issue of human rights emerged in a 2006 film from the late Michael Apted, Amazing Grace, set in 1787 England, in which William Wilberforce struggled to persuade Parliament to abolish Britain’s transatlantic slave trade. While the movie ends on an uplifting note, it wasn’t until 1833 that the practice officially ended. A young Benedict Cumberbatch appears as William Pitt on the anti-slavery side.

The quest for racial justice has any number of strong films, and Alvarez selected the 2017 movie Marshall, set in 1941, in which young NAACP lawyer and later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (played by the late Chadwick Boseman) defends a young Black man on a false charge of raping a white woman. His second example was Loving, from 2016, the story of a mixed-race couple who lived in a Virginia county where such marriages were illegal. Their case, which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, led to the elimination of laws banning miscegenation.

In the environmental justice category, the 2019 film Dark Waters dealt with a DuPont chemical disaster (with Mark Ruffalo and Tim Robbins) in Parkersburg, West Virginia, and the company’s practice of deny, deny, deny. I especially admired Tim Robbins’s performance as the conservative head of Ruffalo’s Cincinnati law firm. In 1998’s A Civil Action, lawyer John Travolta takes on the W.R. Grace Company and Beatrice Foods also for contaminating the local water supply of Woburn, Massachusetts. The film is a good example of the long tail of these cases. The lawyers lost this one, but the EPA took it up and, years later, the environmental cleanup in Woburn finally began.

Several noteworthy films have been made about justice for Holocaust victims, including, most memorably, Judgment at Nuremberg, with its all-star cast (Burt Lancaster pictured). Alvarez also highlighted Denial, about the 2000 British trial of David Irving, an infamous Holocaust denier, played by the always excellent Timothy Spall. Playwright David Hare took much of the dialog verbatim from the trial transcript. Glues you to your seat.

The legal system itself can perpetuate injustices, which Alvarez illustrated with the 1993 film, In the Name of the Father, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four—young men wrongfully convicted of a 1974 London bombing. Police lies resulted in life sentences for them men. After 15 years in prison,  they were exonerated and released.

Finally, Alvarez illustrated the issue of what he called global justice with the 1969 Costa-Gavras political thriller Z (in French), a slightly fictionalized depiction of the assassination of a democratic Greek politician. It received Academy Award nominations for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, winning the latter. (Costa-Gavras, never one to shun controversy, also was responsible for the terrific film Missing, about an American father and wife trying to learn the fate of their son and husband in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power. Here, the U.S. legal system was no help.)

Movie Picks: 1917, Just Mercy

1917

I was sorry not to like 1917 better, because that conflict is cinematically neglected (trailer). Director Sam Mendes was inspired to make it by his grandfather’s stories of World War I (a rare veteran who would apparently talk about his war experience).

Lance corporals Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Schofield (George MacKay) are given the near-suicidal task of crossing nine miles of hostile territory to reach the commander of some 1600 British troops, Blake’s brother among them. They carry orders for the commander to call off an offensive that is a certain trap. The power of the opening scene, one long take, and the two lads’ perilous trek across no-man’s land dwindles into predictability. There’s an overlong chase scene through a bombed-out town, and an unnecessary encounter with a Frenchwoman and baby (why?). Still, audiences not familiar with The Great War may find it bracing.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 89%.

Just Mercy

Based on Bryan Stevenson’s book of the same name, Just Mercy, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, is the story of Stevenson’s early days as a legal advocate for prisoners (trailer). His organization, Montgomery, Alabama’s Equal Justice Initiative, has freed more than a hundred wrongly convicted death row inmates.

In the film, Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan) has taken on the case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), convicted to murdering a young white woman on evidence so flawed no court should have accepted it. Jordan and Foxx do a terrific job—Jordan, unwavering; Foxx, afraid to hope.

Stevenson, in real life, and in one scene in the movie, says the issue is not the fate of a single individual, but the system that institutionalizes discrimination and thwarts equal justice. (See his inspiring recent Firing Line interview here.)

Half a century after the Civil Rights movement’s heyday, those battles are not over, and the movie, though bringing out familiar tropes in both black and white characters, is a good reminder. As Danny Leigh says in the Financial Times, “The markers of the story are so familiar (venal law enforcement, leaned-on witnesses, the courtroom), it takes nerve to tell it this simply.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 99%

NETFLIX: Unbelievable

This Friday, September 13, Netflix begins its eight-episode mini-series Unbelievable based on a fascinating true crime story (trailer). Journalists T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on how different police departments handled the uncertainties and ambiguities that arise in rape cases. And, in the book, they go into the long, sorry history of why women are so readily disbelieved.

Created and executive produced by screenwriter Susannah Grant, with novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon, the series stars Toni Collette, Merritt Wever, and Kaitlyn Dever.

Miller and Armstrong found they still had more to say about the contrasting investigative approaches—one, involving a case that takes place near Seattle where a young woman’s story was disbelieved, and others, in the Denver suburbs, where police went to extraordinary lengths to tie together their investigations with those of other local departments. The authors report what they learned in the new book Unbelievable, an excellent, real-life police procedural.

Read my full review on CrimeFictionLover.com, see the mini-series, or read the book!

****The Honorary Jersey Girl

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By Albert Tucher – Al Tucher returns to the Big Island of Hawai`i in this fast-paced adventure that shows how, underneath the tropical paradise veneer, the mai-tais and the surf, you find the same criminal proclivities everywhere.

Criminal defense attorney Agnes Rodrigues has successfully defended her client Hank Alves against a charge of murder, but apparently not everyone accepts the verdict. Now someone is trying to kill him. And because the murder victim was a cop’s wife, it may be the loyal brothers in blue.

Rodrigues is convinced of Alves’s innocence—he’s too lame to commit an actual murder. He needs protection, and she knows where to find it. She flies ten hours across the country to New Jersey to try to persuade Diana Andrews, a former high-end prostitute who now runs a top-notch personal security business, to take the case. But Andrews turns the job down. She’s had dangerous encounters in Hawai`i in the past—two, in fact—and won’t go near the place. But she does offer to send two of her operatives.

The trio arrives at the remote ranch where Rodrigues has stashed Alves and start work. Before long, there’s another attempt to kill him, a long-distance rifle shot that barely misses. The police arrive to investigate, but get nowhere. It’s clear that protecting Alves will depend on identifying who really murdered the woman. Rodrigues suspects her policeman husband.

This would be an entertaining book to take on a Hawaiian vacation, in real life or the armchair variety. The number of towns and locales where this investigation takes Rodrigues and crew is like a travelogue. Tucher’s characters are confronted with significant logistical difficulties and road hazards—smoldering lava, deep gorges, torrential rain that turns unpaved roads to mud fields—but his easygoing writing style moves them along smoothly.

Information that Don Savage has been investigated by internal affairs for shaking down prostitutes starts Rodrigues and crew on the trail of a different motive and reveals a much larger crime in the background. Then the body of a prostitute washes up near the town of Kalapana, and Diana Andrews can help after all, mining her contacts within the relatively small sorority of high-end escorts.

This is a short book (only 129 pages), and I can’t say more about its fast-paced plot without revealing too much. Despite its brevity—another feature that makes for great vacation reading—it’s filled with colorful characters who reflect the diversity of Hawaiians’ ethnic and cultural backgrounds. And how does Rodrigues become an honorary Jersey Girl, itself practically another ethnicity? Like anything else gets done these days: connections.

Photo: Emilia, creative commons license

****The Better Sister

wedding rings, rose

By Alafair Burke – Which is the better sister? An interesting question, but not one their husband Adam can answer, because he’s dead. In an intriguing plot complication, both women were married to the same man, just not at the same time. Nicky married him first, almost twenty years ago, but her increasingly erratic behavior finally forced Adam to seek a divorce and custody of their toddler son Ethan. Soon he moved to Manhattan where Chloe lives, and for a number of years he worked happily and successfully as a prosecutor in the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Chloe, now his wife, urged him into a much more lucrative job, a partnership at a white-shoe law firm. Adam hates it. Not only that, something’s gone wrong in their relationship, though you can’t quite put your finger on it—yet.

A bit of a control freak, Chloe doesn’t reveal the cracks in her armor right away. She’s also a bit of a modern hero, using her magazine to let not just media darlings, but everyday women tell their sexual abuse and harassment stories. Misogynistic Twitter trolls make her a target—an unpredictable, persistent threat lurking in the background.

When Chloe arrives home late one night, Adam has been murdered, which brings Nicky to Manhattan, hoping to reconnect with her now sixteen-year-old son and taking up residence in Chloe’s home office. These temperamentally opposite sisters circle each other like newly introduced housecats. At least Nicky has stopped the drugs and the drinking, and she’s started making jewelry to sell on Etsy. In an unexpected rebalancing of the scales of likability, you may find yourself more sympathetic to Nicky than Chloe, who works so hard at being perfect.

The police detectives clearly hope to pin Adam’s death on Chloe, but when they realize Ethan has lied about where he was the night of his father’s death, they focus laserlike on him. A third strong woman enters the story in the character of Olivia Randall, Ethan’s lawyer. Chloe would like to manage the case, Nicky would like to do something rash, but Olivia stays in charge. But if Ethan didn’t kill his father, who did?

Author Burke’s real-life experience as a prosecutor serves the story well, and the details of the trial and the strategies of the attorneys make for excellent courtroom drama. The pressures of the trial bring forth a few “I didn’t see that coming” surprises too. It’s is an engaging, well-told tale that benefits from Burke’s clear writing style.

Photo: Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

Lawyers, Guns, and Money: CrimeCONN 2019

lawyer

Organizers of this year’s CrimeCONN—led by Chris Knopf and Charles Salzberg—truly delivered. Their MWA-NY sponsored committee put together excellent panels and presentations, followed by entertaining keynote speaker Peter Blauner, whose resume includes the award-winning novel Slow Motion Rider and several seasons of Law & Order.

Lawyers as Characters

Authors who are lawyers or are writing legal thrillers peopled several panels. Some of them use their lawyer-character as a nexus of the story’s conflict. The conflicts may be external to their character and arise because of the inherent contentiousness of situations they set up, essentially because of the conflict between the lawbreakers they represent and orderly society. They also use characters who are advocacy lawyers—say, working for an environmental or women’s rights group—to raise issues without clunky exposition.

By contrast, other authors said their emphasis is on the character they are developing, and the fact the character is a lawyer is almost incidental to the story. These characters’ conflicts are often internal, when their needs and values conflict with the actions required of them.

Either way, writers and lawyers are professional storytellers following a loosely analogous process. A lawyer starts a case with the facts (novel set-up), makes arguments (development of the novel’s plot), and arrives at a conclusion/summation (denouement).

Attorney-author Connie Hambley said when she writes, she envisions her reader as “very smart opposing counsel,” answering in one way or another all the objections that reader might make. A variation on this point was the observation that lawyers are logical, accustomed to preparing their cases in a logical way, and a crime story also generally follows a trail of logic, through its accumulation and interpretation of evidence.

What Goes Wrong?

We remember the things that bug us, and though novels/tv/movies get a lot of details right, panelists had a long list of pet peeves. These included stories in which: surveillance is easy (and affordable); extradition happens almost overnight; judges make snap decisions about motions; and if it’s an organized crime case, there’s lots of electronic evidence. IRL, organized crime figures know what our politicians haven’t figured out: no emails, no texts, no Instagrams. And here’s one of my eye-rollers: DNA evidence that comes back in 24 hours. At the same time, panelists agreed that a story that strictly followed what happens in an investigation or in the courtroom would be unreadable (and cited this article).

They said witness testimony is often presented as too black-or-white. Either a witness is a truth-teller or a liar, when, in real life, witnesses do a bit of both. What’s more, they may not be intentionally lying, they may misinterpret something, they may misremember or simply forget.

Topic Pivot: CIA Fun

For what goes wrong (and right) with spycraft in the movies, see this entertaining video with Jonna Mendez from Wired. It’s a followup to her previous film of CIA tips on developing an effective disguise.

Tomorrow: Tidbits that might make good plot points

Photo: “Bewigged man.” by gappa01 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0