The Courtroom Drama Part II

I was thinking more about John Patterson's criticism of the courtroom drama.  In particular I was thinking about the third act problem that he identified in his article.  He called it a crime against cinema and I do think he has a point.  You might call it a cinematic crime to lessen the issue but here it is.

In a good movie, action drives the story.  I don't mean action in terms of shooting guns or wrecking cars, I mean action in terms of the decisions that characters make.  One active decision leads the character to the next beat of the story.  For example, a character decides to 'leave home to save the princess'.  He makes a decision that leads to more action on his part.  It doesn't matter what he says in the dialogue, he is showing us his character by making decisions that lead to actions.  The actions are where the story is told, especially in film.  As a visual medium we watch our protagonist move from one decision to another, each one moving us closer to the resolution of the story.

The third act of the courtroom drama takes away the active decisions of the protagonist and the visual narrative stops.  A courtroom drama ends up cutting from one lawyer to another to a reaction shot to a judges gavel to the agitated crowd and back again.  The film story becomes a play.  The thrust of the drama is now in legal arguments.  There is no more action to be taken and we sit and contemplate and hope our hero wins.

What usually saves the third act is the new information that comes to light.  A witness that we couldn't find, a legal precedent, or evidence that has been missed.  The audience is still compelled to find out the truth.  In a lot of ways they become a part of the jury even though they have been heavily biased by the writer who to root for.

So it's true that the third act of a legal thriller commits the cinematic crime of abandoning visual story telling.  Yet, if you've done a good job of building a compelling story and more importantly, compelling characters, the audience will forgive and will be drawn into the climax of the picture.

As a post script, I couldn't help but think of another excellent courtroom drama - JFK.

The Courtroom Drama

Today I read the article deriding the courtroom drama where the author John Patterson says that courtroom dramas are a 'crime against cinema'.  He says:

The arrival of handsome-super-lawyer flick The Lincoln Lawyer reminds me of an old bugbear: we need to crack down on courtroom movies and legal thrillers, and especially courtroom-showdown climaxes in otherwise non-legal movies. Getting the law involved just kills a movie stone dead every time.

In that last category alone there are dozens of movies that simply throw in the storytelling towel in the last act and allow their narratives to become enmeshed in the courtroom Sargasso of legal back-and-forth, declamatory utterances by the attorneys and whatever character-acting old geezer is today manning the bench. Films as diverse as Eureka, They Drive By Night and White Squall were all roaring along nicely until they screeched to a halt in courtrooms 20 minutes before their actual running-times expired.

I've often said that court room dramas and sports films are successful because they have a built in drama - one side must oppose the others and there is always a winner.  In drama we try to find conflict and opposing goals and both of these genres of storytelling have this naturally.  We know the Superbowl is going to produce a winner and a loser.  We know that OJ is going to be found guilty or innocent and the glory will go to the winner.

Both genres also produce a tough problem for the writer.  How do you combat the cliche that comes with the genre?  This is what Patterson is reacting to.  Since we already know that there will be a winner and a loser in the black and white game of court, how do you keep it fresh?  How do you write a Judge that isn't a prickly antagonist?  The genre is very tired and I'm not sure that fixing the plot or structure is what's needed.  What the writer needs to do is involve the audience in the characters.  It is not important what the outcome of the drama is (we know the underdog will win) but the journey of the characters in that drama.  I remember when Titanic came out I was skeptical of the film as I knew how it was going to end.  The trick is to get the audience to care about your characters.  Titanic worked for audiences as they didn't know how it was going to end for Jack.  More important than that, Cameron make the audience care what was going to happen to Jack.

The great Orson Welles opened two films with the death of the protagonists - Citizen Kane and Othello. In the case of Othello, this was Welles invention for the Shakespeare play.  He shows you how the film will end and then backtracks to make you care about the characters and go on their journey with them.  The audience may say 'how did you get there?' but they know where the story ends before it begins.  This is what the sport film and court drama have to deal with.  We know the outcome but we don't know how we get there exactly.  What is the twist in the story?  What does the protagonist go through to get there.  What is their individual need?

I will depart from John Patterson on this.  There are great courtroom dramas and the genre is difficult to be original in but with good characters a good film is produced.  I love 'Witness for the Prosecution'.  I love it because I like love 'Sir Wilfred' played with zest by Charles Laughton.  I love 'To Kill a Mockingbird' because I love Atticus, Scout and Jem.  I love 'The Verdict' and Paul Newman's search for redemption.  I agree with Patterson's choices of great courtroom dramas - Anatomy of a Murder and Paths of Glory, both films with great protagonists.  I like 'A Few Good Men' and 'Compulsion' but I don't love them.

One film I keep going back to is Pakula's 'Presumed Innocent'.  The story's twist is that the prosecution becomes the defence.  A good turn of plot but carried by a flawed protagonist who has cheated on his wife with the victim of the murder.  The characters carry film and the film is populated with top notch actors - Ford, Brian Dennehy, Raul Julia and John Spencer.  The Judge role is of the cliched type but works fine with a little bit of street atitude and a good performance by Paul Winfield.

I will also stand in defence of 'The Rainmaker'.  I don't know why this film gets beaten up so often.  It's a great ensemble piece starring Danny Devito, Matt Damon, Mickey Rourke, Dean Stockwell, Roy Scheider, Danny Glover, Jon Voight and the beautiful Virginia Madsen.  If the criticism of this film is 'it's not the Godfather' then it's not criticism.  I really enjoy 'The Rainmaker' as a great character piece.  I think the Matt Damon/Clare Danes relationship is pushing the melodramatic but as a courtroom thriller the film is excellent.  It's got a great score and a plethora of unique characters.   What more can you ask for?  Oh right, 'The Godfather' and 'Apocalypse Now'.

If I might sidetrack for a moment, I remember watching a tv review of Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway' and the reviewer said that the film was good but 'no Annie Hall'.  What the fuck is that?  I guess this is why we call it a review and not proper criticism.  'Bullets Over Broadway' was an excellent comedy and 'The Rainmaker' is a good courtroom drama.  We don't need to hang an albatross over the neck of great filmmakers to say that their work always needs to be universal and spectacular.  'Touch of Evil' is no Citizen Kane.  'Burn Before Reading' is no Fargo.  'A Prairie Home Companion' is no Nashville.  'Witness for the Prosecution' is no Some Like it Hot.  But their all fine films.

A good film is a good film.  Courtroom dramas have a legacy and they also have a lot of cliche.  Often it's hard to pull away from the plot conventions but the trick is in the characters.  Make it compelling and make original characters.  It can rise above the convention.  The third act is usually a verbal argument where the two sides verbally joust and the unexpected twists of plot are revealed.  It is the crutch of the genre.  Great characters will make it worth it and should forgive the mechanics of the plot.

For the sports movie?  How about another screening of 'Slap Shot'?  We miss you Paul Newman.



I discovered dropbox through Gizmodo and Lifehacker and I have to say that it's a great tool for a writer who is working on several systems.

What is dropbox?  It's a program that allows you to share a folder no matter where you are.  I've been working on some writing projects where I usually put my files on a USB key and lug them around from my desktop to my laptop.  I try to back everything up locally which is fine except sometimes you edit something locally and forget to replace the file on the usb key.  I'm sure a more organized writer would say that it isn't a problem to do this but I have been known to confuse myself as to what draft I'm working on.

Enter dropbox.  I install dropbox and get an account and I put my files in there.  I install dropbox on my mac laptop and it automatically synchronizes to the dropbox on my pc and vice versa.  Forgot my usb key?  No problem.  The only thing I need is a wifi connection and these are publicly available in the places I go to write (coffee shop or pub).  Those without free wifi don't have my business.

In full disclosure, I am no way affiliated with dropbox.  I love that it's free and it's been a great addition to my workflow.  I recommend it.