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Image: Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird"
Universal Pictures
Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in "To Kill A Mockingbird," was named the No. 1 movie hero by the American Film Institute.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/5/2007 12:44:59 PM ET 2007-10-05T16:44:59

The tagline for George Clooney’s new legal thriller “Michael Clayton” — “The truth can be adjusted” — is hardly news to anyone familiar with the genre.

Allow me to cite precedent.

In “The Verdict,” when Frank Gavin (Paul Newman) is offered a settlement in a Catholic hospital medical malpractice case that left a young girl in a coma, he says, saddened and catching on, “And no one will ever know the truth?” To which Bishop Brophy responds, “What is the truth?”

In “Primal Fear,” when a reporter asks top Chicago attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere), “So where are you with truth?,” Vail looks up from washing his face, slightly annoyed. “Truth?” he says. “How do you mean?”

And in “A Civil Action,” plaintiff’s attorney Jan Schlichtmann (John Travolta) convinces himself that refusing a $20 million settlement makes sense by saying of the jury, “They’ll see the truth.” To which the corporate defense attorney, Jerome Facher (Robert Duvall), responds, “The truth? I thought we were talking about a court of law.”

Facher’s response is actually the least cynical, and the most accurate, of the bunch. A court of law isn’t interested in truth so much as facts. It’s not interested in justice so much as closure. It wants dispassion, not passion. Hollywood wants the opposite of each of these things and gets it. That’s the irony of the tagline. Hollywood is forever tut-tutting about the malleability of courtroom truth when — in movies about lawyers — it always adjusts the truth to include the kinds of things so often missing from life: namely, drama and justice.

What the movies get wrong
My day job, which certain MSNBC readers are forever telling me not to quit, is editor of eight “Super Lawyers” publications around the country, and I wondered what some of these lawyers thought of the Hollywood version of their profession.

Begin with rules of evidence. “I always catch myself saying ‘That's hearsay,’ ‘Object to that,’ ‘That never happens,’ before I have to just stop and say, ‘It's a movie,’” says Jennifer McClellan, corporate attorney for Verizon and a state representative in Virginia. “Also, trials are very rarely as exciting as they seem in the movies.”

Image: Paul Newman in "The Verdict"
20th Century Fox
In “The Verdict,” Frank Gavin (Paul Newman) is offered a settlement in a medical malpractice case that left a young girl in a coma, he says, saddened and catching on, “And no one will ever know the truth?”
Plaintiff’s attorney Robert Habush, for whom Wisconsin’s “Trial Lawyer of the Year Award” is named, agrees. “Most trials,” he says, “are 90 percent boring,10 percent exciting, rather than 100 percent exciting.”

First Amendment attorney Floyd Abrams adds: “With the exception of Jimmy Stewart in a favorite of mine, ‘Anatomy of a Murder,’ you never see a lawyer reading a book, writing a brief or thinking about anything. Put another way, they never show lawyers working.”

This is also what bothers Employment & Labor lawyer Elaine Bredehoft of Virginia. “When I am preparing for a trial,” she says, “I have no life. I don't go out to dinner, I don't have morning firm meetings, I don't meet opposing counsel for drinks. I am working... The movies don’t get that and have lawyers in a myriad of social settings.”

What the movies get right
But the news ain’t all bad.

“What they get right,” says Karen Mathis, immediate past president of the American Bar Association, “is what the legal system looks like, what courtrooms look like, what a lawyer does and what juries do.” To her, this is no small matter. “Any time in an open society that people have access to understanding the legal system — however imperfect that portrayal might be — is a good thing. Do you think they let people in Burma understand their legal system?

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Slideshow: George Clooney For Bredehoft, the most significant thing the movies get right, oddly enough, are all of those cantankerous, biased judges. “You will see the judge (in the movie) make rulings that are not expected or reflect that judge's views or attitude,” she says. “That happens in real life all the time. Lawyers analyze cases by who their judge is … I have had juries turn against the Court and in my favor because they thought the Court was behaving inappropriately in favoring the other side.”

So do real-life lawyers ever identify with the versions of themselves they see on the screen? Habush points to Joe Miller (Denzel Washington) in “Philadelphia” because, he says, like Miller, “throughout my career I have taken cases other attorneys turned away from.”

Abrams remains impressed with Frank Gavin (Paul Newman) in “The Verdict.” “While we don't exactly have a lot in common,” he says, “(I don't show up at funerals and hand my card out, don't have a pronounced drinking problem, and certainly can't quite compare with Newman's looks and persona), I found his dedication to his clients, his extraordinarily zealous advocacy and his bravery under fire in court to be worthy of the greatest admiration.”

Christopher Knapp, legal consultant on ABC’s “Dirty Sexy Money,” also cites Gavin — but for almost the opposite reasons. “Paul Newman's character,” he says, “had internalized the disillusionment that many lawyers feel when they realize that winning and losing a case depends a helluva lot more on the facts you are given than on your brilliance as an attorney.”

Along with Newman’s realistic portrait, however, “The Verdict” still gives us a whopper of a fantasy. During the trial, crucial evidence is introduced favorable to Gavin’s case; then it’s ruled inadmissible and the jury is instructed to ignore it. Gavin has no case. So what does he do? During his final summation, he implies that the jury shouldn’t ignore the inadmissible evidence. “Today,” he tells them, “you are the law. Not some book, not some lawyers, not a marble statue or the trappings of the court.” And he wins.

“The term for that is ‘jury nullification,’” says Knapp. “That speech by Newman was totally unrealistic, 100 percent improper and wonderfully dramatic.  Exactly the ways in which Hollywood is always wrong about the legal profession.”

The Greatest American Hero
And then there’s Atticus.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say he or she became a lawyer because of Atticus Finch (Gregory Peck) in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I’d have enough for a good dinner. Or a bad lawyer.

There are other classic movie lawyers, of course. Spencer Tracy was all benevolent wisdom in both “Adam’s Rib” and “Inherit the Wind” (not to mention as Judge Haywood in “Judgment at Nuremberg”), while Charles Laughton, tossing back surreptitious drinks and bellowing “Objection!” to the prosecution’s use of the term “murderer” (it implied gender), shined in “Witness for the Prosecution.” And who wouldn’t want simple, upper-peninsula lawyer Jimmy Stewart to defend them in “Anatomy of a Murder”?

But Atticus stands like a calm, dignified titan over them all. A few years ago, the American Film Institute compiled a list of the greatest heroes and villains in movie history, and Atticus was ranked the No. 1 hero. Think about that for a moment. In our most popular story-telling form over the last 100 years, our greatest hero is ... a lawyer.

Ah, but was he a good lawyer?

Jon March, an Employment Litigation attorney in Michigan, also acts at the Grand Rapids Civic Theater, and in 2005 he got to play Atticus Finch on stage. The role affected him greatly.

“I have to say, though,” he mentioned in the 2006 issue of “Michigan Super Lawyers” magazine, “that Atticus was not much of a cross-examiner. He asked a lot of open-ended questions. And Mayella Ewell handed his lunch to him on a plate when he thinks he’s going to get her to admit what really happened. She delivers this powerful speech that begins, ‘All you fine gentlemen with your fancy airs...’ Atticus had to stand there and take it. His question violated all the rules of cross-examination.

“But Atticus had other redeeming features,” March added.

A.A. (After Atticus)
Indeed. You probably couldn’t even create an Atticus today. The novel came out in 1960 and the movie in 1962 — a time when lawyers were viewed with greater respect. Think of the cinematic lawyers since then. You have alcoholics (“The Verdict”), egotists (“Primal Fear”) and opportunists (“A Civil Action”). You have a slick negotiator wary of the courtroom (“A Few Good Men”). You have a fumbling kid out of law school who can’t argue his case effectively (“The Rainmaker”). You have a frazzled lawyer who gives up his own client during opening statements (“…And Justice for All”). And you have Joe Pesci (“My Cousin Vinny”).

And now you have a morally compromised, embattled “fixer” with a gambling problem (“Michael Clayton”).

And these are the heroes, people. I haven’t even mentioned the lawyers they go up against — the superefficient corporate attorneys played with relish by the likes of James Mason and Robert Duvall and Jon Voigt, or the true scumbags, like Sean Penn’s David Kleinfeld in “Carlito’s Way”: lawyers, you know, willing to commit murder.

Yet despite this change in our cultural perception of lawyers, the basic storyline for these movies remains exactly as it was 70 years ago in “Young Mr. Lincoln” and 45 years ago in “To Kill a Mockingbird”: A lawyer defends the innocent against powerful bastards. That’s pretty much all there is to it. The main difference is that back then the lawyer-hero came sanctified and fully formed. In more modern interpretations, the lawyer has to overcome something (alcoholism, opportunism, a legendary father) to awaken his inner Atticus. After that, the movie pretty much plays out like before.

In modern courtroom dramas, in other words, the person we’re most interested in finding innocent isn’t the defendant; it’s the lawyer.

If Erik Lundegaard were on trial for his life, he’d take Sir Wilfrid Robarts over Atticus Finch any day of the week. He can be reached at: elundegaard@comcast.net

© 2013 msnbc.com.  Reprints

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