We desperately need a good courtroom drama.
Not the Johnny Depp-Amber Heard kind, where everyone’s a mess, and the outcome matters less than the spectacle.
But rather, an old-fashioned, high-stakes, plot-heavy movie melodrama—the kind that makes the audience see-saw back and forth, while truth hangs in an ever-changing balance. First things lean one way, then the other. A single stray fact reverses the entire narrative. Sometimes when the verdict comes in, the winner is actually a bad guy, though we only find out later, as in, say, Anatomy of a Murder.
Once a box-office staple, legal dramas of that sort—12 Angry Men, A Few Good Men, The Verdict, Suspect, and any number of films you’ve watched on TCM—were great entertainment. But, much more, they taught a recurring lesson about the dark and slippery nature of reality. Things are seldom what they first seem. Under meticulous scrutiny, the “facts” tend to wobble as testimony piles up, motives are revealed, evidence is tested.
This is something even good reporters learn the hard way–we’ve all had stories that were obvious, until suddenly they weren’t. When Hollywood executive José Menéndez and his wife Kitty were murdered, I can remember joining a colleague to write a heavily reported piece for the Los Angeles Times about contentious business connections, any one of which might have led to the killings. We never stopped to think about their sons Lyle and Erik, who turned out to have committed the crime, for reasons unrelated.
Lately, too many people—including government officials, tech executives, and media types who ought to know better—have become comfortable with easy notions about certifying, or even regulating, the truth. One foray, a Disinformation Governance Board at the Department of Homeland Security—the DGB, which sounds like evil spawn of the DMV and the KGB–would be funny if it weren’t frightening. By various reports, the board is supposed to monitor online claims about Russia, “irregular immigration,” election security and Covid.
But do we really want a government bureau fooling around with the facts?
Better we should have a couple of good courtroom dramas, to remind us how difficult the truth really is. The Oscars didn’t help much for the last few years; The Trial Of The Chicago 7 got nominated, but that was about a political circus. Among the festivals and markets, some likely titles are bound to surface—maybe they already have, though I’m still looking for a true legal thriller on the year’s release schedule. The last one I can personally recall watching is Marshall, Reginald Hudlin’s film about a rape trial in which young Thurgood Marshall, the future Supreme Court justice, made his mark.
It was a fine example of the genre. Right through the film, you weren’t quite sure if the black chauffeur or his white female employer was telling the truth about an encounter that appeared to end with her thrown from a bridge. She seemed to have the evidence all on her side. He turned out to have lied when claiming never to have had sex with the woman at all. The “not guilty” verdict was ultimately delivered by a Southern white woman, the jury foreman, who had looked poised to go the other way.
Marshall was a great lesson in the complicated nature of things. And we could use a movie like that, right now.