First Monday Legal Fiction: John Adams Part I

Last year at this time I wrote about how I always watch some of the HBO John Adams miniseries around the Fourth of July. That tradition holds true. The part that I want to highlight this time around however, is not the section that covers Independence Day, or the Declaration, or anything about Philadelphia and 1776. Instead, I want to rewind almost all of the way, to talk about one of the more overlooked aspects of our second President.

The fact that he was a criminal defense attorney.

When you take a step back and look at that, you realize that it’s almost unthinkable today. These days, politics bastardizes and vilifies everything about a candidate’s history, magnifying things way out of proportion and distorting a record beyond recognition. To even dream that a lawyer who spent a good part of his career defending accused criminals, the most hated among us, is just beyond reach. But John Adams, in those days, could do it.

The reason illuminates why this should not in any way actually be a problem, for a candidate now or in the future, and how badly we’ve failed to appreciate the role of defense lawyers as a society.

As a recap, the series begins with the Boston Massacre, in which a cadre of British troops stationed in that city during the colonial era, opened fire on a rioting mob of civilians, killing one. The soldiers claimed they had good reason to fear for their lives, but in a somewhat odd turn of events which would not happen today, the local authorities charged them with murder, arrested and incarcerated them, ultimately putting them all on trial. John Adams defended them–and secured an acquittal.

Even today, the Boston Massacre comes down to us as one of the many supposedly intolerable actions by the Crown that brought on the Revolution, along with the Stamp Act and taxes on tea, among other things. It’s still thought of as a British crime. Imagine then, how hated those soldiers must have been in Boston at the time, already a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment. They were DESPISED.

Yet, even under the peculiar circumstances, the Common Law system guaranteed their absolute right to a fair trial, and recognized that such a right was only meaningful with access to effective legal counsel. Those principles remains as sacrosanct today. A defendant may be vile, he may be awful, he may even be downright evil, but in our system, everyone has the right to their day in court, and a lawyer by their side.

What goes hand in hand with that, of course, is that no man or woman acting in that capacity is in any way endorsing the potentially horrible conduct of the client they represent. They are protecting a sacred right that belongs to every individual to have a fair shake when the government accuses them of an offense. John Adams was doing his duty to not only his clients, but to the system as a whole.

Yet today, it is all too common for political opponents to sully their adversaries by appealing to the lowest common denominator and playing to the ignorance of their base. In some cases, that has meant trying to demonize a lawyer who has done just such a duty as Adams and countless others have, myself included. This should not work. The immediate rejoinder should be–no lawyer should be judged by their client’s actions. They should be applauded for honoring the rights of everyone by representing anyone, no matter how bad. That should also be widely and completely understood by all.

But sadly, it is not. So today, while a former prosecutor can win over legions of voters by shouting from the mountain top about how many criminals they convicted, it’s unlikely that a lawyer who defended a bunch of the most hated and vilified accused killers in the country could ever hope to parlay that into a political career, much less one rising to the highest levels. That’s a shame. Both roles are equally important to the effective functioning of a judicial system, and people should know that.

It wasn’t always this way, and John Adams reminds us that our country, and our legal system was founded on higher principles, ideals that we should still be striving to meet today.

First Monday Legal Fiction: The Lincoln Lawyer

I’ve been hitting the small screen pretty hard so far this year, so as summer movie season arrives, it feels like the time to turn back to the theater. For this month’s installment, I’m looking at an attorney-as-hero film I like quite a bit, the Matthew McConaughey adaptation of Michael Connelly’s “The Lincoln Lawyer.”

I wasn’t at all sure this one would land with me. I had not read the book, and the previews for the film made it seem like there was something ultra-cool or edgy about this concept that the main character practices law out of his fancy car.

As it turns out, even though that device forms the basis of the title and comes up occasionally during the narrative, it ends up being just window dressing for a very tight, well written and fairly accurate legal thriller.

The hook here is that the lawyer, who mostly gets paid in cash as he motors around LA, takes on a nightmare case–not only are the allegations awful, he comes to realize that his client really did do it, yet for various reasons he has to fight to get him acquitted anyway.

To give away anything more would spoil the fun.

What struck me about this film, and what I love about the realism is that McConaughey’s character upholds his oath and his ethical duties. Despite what most would assume about a roving defense lawyer — crooked as they come, many would think — this character genuinely plays by the rules, for the most part. When it comes to getting to the “right” outcome at the end of the day, he has to find a way to do it within his duties, not by tossing them out the window.

As I’ve written in this space before, that has always been my impression of the vast majority of my fellow criminal defense attorneys, and this film does a solid job of portraying that accurately.

Film Friday: Hamburger Hill

For the final entry in this month’s Memorial Day series, I’m remembering a film that was slightly overlooked in its day, but which fits perfectly into this theme: 1987’s Hamburger Hill.

Arriving one year after Platoon, perhaps THE seminal Vietnam War film of the 80s–maybe of all time–Hamburger Hill took a much more narrow focus. That maybe made it a little less apt for broad discussions about the meaning of the war or the bigger context of Vietnam as a whole. But it’s actually perfect for what I’m doing here, looking at films that do as much as cinema can to bring an audience some sense of what the sacrifice of men in combat really means.

This movie focuses on one group of grunts, in one spot, for one battle. It’s not a sweeping indictment of the war or a even a commentary on it. It doesn’t have to be, because the story stands on its own. By taking the viewers along with a bunch of regular men, struggling over and over and over to take one single hill, dealing with the loss of life and limb that comes with it, the movie really brings home the horror of war.

It’s all well and good around this time of year to talk about how the honored dead “gave everything” or “sacrificed so much” or any other nice sounding but slightly empty platitude. When you see it happen, when you get to know some otherwise anonymous men who endure such horror and bloodshed, ostensibly in the service of a bigger cause, but in the moment just to take one piece of turf in one damn corner of much bigger conflict, you get just the briefest, fleeting sense of how terrible the whole endeavor really is.

That’s what we should be thinking of on Memorial Day, honoring the sacrifice of the men and women who gave their lives in all of America’s armed conflicts, by understanding in some tiny way what they really did. Because it was f-ing horrific and we owe them more than we can ever put into words.

Film Friday: The Thin Red Line

For this week’s entry in the Memorial Day series, I’m looking at Terrence Malik’s 1998 World War II epic the Thin Red Line, which follows the Guadalcanal campaign in the Pacific Theater. This is also somewhat personal for me, as I had several relatives who fought in this theater. My grandfather was a minesweeper on a Navy boat in the Pacific and several of my great-uncles served in infantry units during the island hopping campaigns. My uncle Ernie’s Marine troop transport was hit on a landing, and he was presumed dead for a time, until he turned up in an Army field hospital. Fortunately, every one of them came home. That was not the case for most.

This movie is on my list for one scene above all the rest. A scene that, for me, always hit home the true madness and brutality that war means, and how “sacrifice” can sometimes feel so hollow.

Here’s the scene: the men are faced with a hill defended by a single Japanese machine gun nest. They need to take it, but the hill is so big and covered in wild tropical grass, they can’t even tell where the nest is. Their orders are clear though–they need to take the hill, and that means they need to clear the nest. So how do they do that?

Well, if they send the whole platoon up the slope at once, they’ll all get butchered and they might not even take the machine gunner out. Instead, the commander does something that would be unthinkable in normal life, but is horrifically normal in wartime: he picks one man and sends him up the hill.

That man is walking toward certain death.

Sure enough, the grunt is slaughtered. But still, it’s not enough. They now have an idea where the gunner’s nest is, but not a solid fix. The answer–send another man to his death. One more guy gets picked. Another guy who has parents at home, who maybe left behind a sweetheart, and people who loved him. He’ll never see them again, having marched right into the line of fire with no chance of success.

You get the picture, I assume. Eventually, of course, enough of these guys are murdered for the commanders to get a solid idea of where the gunner is, and to take him out. So each man who walked into the line of fire, cut down like an animal, contributed to saving many more lives. But in the moment, their deaths feel so utterly shocking.

I think when we sit back on Memorial Day and reflect on the sacrifice of men in combat, we like to idealize it in some kind of heroic narrative. We imagine each dead soldier lost his life protecting his buddy, or holding back an onslaught while his friends escaped. Something like what the movies typically show us. The reality is probably much more like what the Thin Red Line gives us however. A death may indeed serve a larger purpose. It may save lives, but the way it happens can be so cold and brutal that even seeing it represented on screen is almost too hard to watch.

Never mind living through it.

Film Friday: The Lost Battalion

As I was thinking about which movies did the best job in showing the true meaning of sacrifice in wartime, I recalled this film from about 20 years ago — but I didn’t know where to find it. I had seen it back then, and it really connected with me, but I couldn’t remember ever seeing it mentioned anywhere else, or even hearing of it shown at any other point. So i did some checking.

Turns out, this was a made for TV movie, done by A&E back in the day. Its pedigree is fantastic however. Directed by Russell Mulcahy and featuring Rick Schroeder, it recounts the story of the 77th Infantry Division, which was cut off and surrounded by German forces in the Argonne Forest in 1918.

One scene that particularly stuck with me involves a captured American that the Germans are attempting to use as a negotiator to arrange a surrender.  A German officer who speaks fluent English, having lived in America for several years, tries to convince the lieutenant that there is no hope, to which the American responds, “What you’re up against, Major, is a bunch of Mick, Dago, Polack and Jew-boy gangsters from New York city: They’ll never surrender.”

Much like the better known Australian epic Gallipoli, this film shows the utter horror of trench warfare, of the men being called to “go over the top” by a whistle, sent into a killing field of machine gun fire from which most would never return. The story is one of success–reinforcements eventually bolstered the battalion who received great acclaim for holding their position against terrible odds–but in so doing the cost was tremendous. Even the men that survived would never–could never–forget the horrors they’d lived through in those dark days.

What they gave us can never be repaid. Something worth remembering this month.

Film Friday: Gettysburg

This month for Film Friday, I want to take a few weeks to look at something we often overlook at this time of year–the true meaning of sacrifice by those who have fallen in combat.

I don’t think we mean to do it. When Memorial Day rolls around, as it will in a few weeks’ time, we usually say all the right things, about duty, honor and bravery. And I think we honestly mean them. I grew up in a household with deep military ties, so this was always taken very seriously in my family. But for those of us who did not serve, or even among those who did but never faced the abject terror of our lives being at risk in a combat zone, it can be difficult to even imagine.

This is one area where art can move the needle, even just a little. Cinema is among the most immersive of art forms, in that it offers not only visuals, but sounds and music and drama in order to create a visceral sense of feeling in the audience. At its best it can do what any of the arts it draws from can only reach for–it can, for a brief instant, place a viewer in the middle of a scene.

A novel can transport your mind. A photograph or a newsreel can give you a sense of color or scale. A well acted part can evoke genuine emotion and well played music can establish mood and true feeling. All brought together, and done right, they can bring an audience as close as possible to a flavor of an experience. It’s never the same thing, but it can do enough to give a movie-goer just enough of a sense of time, place and mood to make an impact.

For the first entry in this month’s series then, I’m looking at the 1993 Civil War film Gettysburg. More than 600,000 American soldiers died in that conflict (counting both sides) so it was the single most devastating event in the history of our armed forces. I don’t want to stray into the politics of it, because in many ways we never stopped fighting that war — but that’s a topic better left to other folks who have more informed opinions than I do. Instead, what I want to focus on is how this movie puts such a spotlight on the way men face death.

There are so many ways this film tackles it. Just the Pickett’s Charge sequence alone, in which we are placed right in lockstep with the men marching across a mile of open ground, right into the heart of the opposing forces, would be enough. Or the Little Round Top scenes, a seemingly outgunned, and out manned regiment mounting a bayonet charge against an onrushing enemy.

But the best depiction, I think, comes in the form of Richard Jordan’s stunning performance. He plays Lewis A. Armisted, a Confederate general ordered to march his men right into the teeth of the enemy, a move that will almost certainly doom them all. Through him, we see the way notions of duty and honor collide with the real horror of violence and death.

The actor himself knew he was dying when he filmed the role, which lends everything about his performance an added level.

For a month when we look back to honor the men who fell in battle for this nation we love, this is a terrific film to transport us to one of those battlefields, where—just for a few moments–we get the briefest hint of what that really meant.

First Monday Legal Fiction: All Rise

For me, you can’t think of Bluff City Law, which I profiled last month, and All Rise, which premiered at almost exactly the same time. If I recall correctly, they were even on the same night. I often watched them both, back to back.

I will be honest. I have mixed feelings about this show. On the one hand, I feel like its heart is absolutely 100% in the right place. It knows that the judicial system is only as good as the people inside it, from the judge to the prosecutor and public defender to the bailiff and scheduler. It knows this, and yet it so often strays into what I can only regard as outright fantasy.

The courtroom scenes are often so absurd that they might as well be SNL skits. The show so often confuses the actual role of a judge, it feels like no one in the writer’s room has ever actually met one. There is very little respect for legal procedure or in some case, the actual law.

In fact, the show kind of “lampshaded” this halfway through last season, with a retrospective episode. The framing device was that an ethics complaint had Judge Lola in front of a panel of other judges, who then took an incredulous look back at the zany antics that had transpired up until that point in the season. It was a moment of self-awareness that actually endeared the show to me, despite its lack of realism.

And still, the show isn’t bad. I credit this to the characters being fully realized, inhabited by outstanding actors (special shout out to the especially good Jessica Camacho as the harried PD). Even then, the writers have given these characters room to grow even more as the show has gone on.

So no, an all virtual zoom trial is not a brilliant and innovative idea as the show would have us believe and Judge Lola advocated for. It actually raises all kinds of troubling questions about the rights of defendants being eroded.

But somehow All Rise manages to pull it off. Worth a watch.

Film Friday: Anchorman

To close out April’s look at my favorite comedies of all time, this film kind of serves as a perfect way to close the circle. It comes just one year after last week’s entry, 2003’s Old School and also features Will Ferrell, a Wilson brother and Vince Vaughan. The two films could not be more different of course, although they are both hysterical and both hold up exceptionally well today.

The reason 2004’s Anchorman is such a perfect bookend to this series is that id operates on multiple levels. It is at once a film about time passing, and the world changing around you, and it’s also a nostalgia trip back to the 70s. For a Gen X viewer like me, all of that hits home.

We started this trip with Airplane, the first film that made me laugh by poking fun at the pop culture world I was only then just beginning to grasp–the world of the 1970s. This film winds all the way back, goofing on people my age who were becoming entrenched in their careers at the time but who still imagined a simpler time of our childhood. This film wring laughs out of both ends of the equation, riffing on our slightly-faded and somewhat idealized memories of what that polyester and paisley world was really like as well as our fears of getting older and losing our sense of who we were and what gave us our identity.

Anchorman lets us wink at the world that produced us, while giving us a nudge into handling the world we were about to inherit–and it makes us laugh to this very day.