Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reversal of Fortune -- can money buy justice?

Director: Barbet Schroeder, 1990. (R)

Did European aristocrat Claus von Bulow (Jeremy Irons) try to kill his rich American wife Sunny (Glenn Close) in Rhode Island in 1980? The tabloids were unsure, the populace had their opinions, but ultimately the American court system found him guilty of attempted murder. But did he really do it? That is the question that the movie addresses but never really answers. Instead, it recounts the story of the von Bulows, with this as a starting point.

Although Claus is the center of the film, Sunny, comatose in a hospital bed, acts as narrator. It is as if she is fully alive mentally even while unable to control her body or communicate physically. As a plot device, it works to cause us to sympathize with her character. With the use of multiple flash-backs we pick up her story interleaved with present day events.

This is more than a legal drama, since we see very little of the courtroom itself. Instead it is a character study of one of the coldest protagonists in movie history. Claus hires Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver) to handle the appeal of his conviction. In his first meeting with von Bulow he highlights his major advantage, "You do have one thing in your favor: everybody hates you." And this is so true. Von Bulow is a very unlikable fellow. With his wife and step-children he is cold and callous, indifferent, it seems, to their problems. Irons gives a stunning portrait of icy brittleness and won the Best Actor Oscar for this role.

One of the issues Reversal of Fortune highlights is the difference between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. Even after von Bulow is convicted, he is seen free at large, enjoying the trappings of wealth in his Newport mansion. The opening shot of the film pans an aerial shot across the back yards of this neighborhood. These are not yards, though, they are acres of groomed grass, with out-buildings bigger than most houses. Most Americans will never even walk inside one of these homes.

Along with the wealth comes an enhanced set of expectations. Von Bulow assumes that even if his appeal is denied, he will be allowed the liberty of time to settle his affairs. He simply cannot picture himself as a common criminal.

Which brings us to the question of justice and equality. The underlying judicial system assumes all are equal, rich and poor alike. The 14th amendment, dealing with citizenship rights, declares, "nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The rich cannot simply apply their position, power or wealth to buy themselves preferential treatment.

This is a biblical principle, too. The Old Testament has much to say about impartiality and equality. The courts must be unbisaed otherwise they will provide a mockery of justice (Lev. 19:15). While the books of Torah laid out the law, the prophets later called the nation of Israel back to the fundamental principles of impartiality. Right after Micah declares what God demands of man ("He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God" Mic. 6:8), God decries injustice ("Shall I acquit a man with dishonest scales, with a bag of false weights?" Mic. 6:11). God is a god who "works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed" (Psa. 103:6). Indeed, biblical justice goes beyond simple fairness and equality; it involves a redress of grievances on the part of the oppressed. Biblical justice includes love and mercy.

Yet, for all the rhetoric about the equality and fairness of the system, the truth is that money makes a difference. Without his wealth, von Bulow would not have been able to hire Dershowitz and his team of students and experts. Running this case from his home, Dershowitz surrounds himself with the best students and lawyers to complete the prep work needed to launch his appeal before the Rhode Island Supreme Court. An average defendant convicted would likely be bankrupt from the first trial and unable to raise this kind of legal team. Money counts, especially here.

Money doesn't buy happiness, though. That is clear both in the flashbacks to von Bulow's life with Sunny and in his present predicament. For all his wealth, he was an unhappy man. We may wish for riches, but this will not solve all our problems, and will likely bring others along with it.

Love is not dependent on money. Many people find love in their lifetimes, even with a moderate or limited income. Poverty does not preclude passion or love. In many ways, the polar extremes of poverty and wealth are best avoided. Agur, the writer of some of the proverbs in the Bible, prays that God would allow him to settle for moderation (Prov. 30:8). We might pray this, too.

As the film concludes with the appelate decision, we leave reflecting on Sunny still lying in the hospital bed with a beautiful view that her eyes never saw. In reality, she spent the last 28 years of her life in this coma, never emerging, before dying at age 76 in 2008. Life is about more than money. Did money buy justice? For Claus or Sunny? You be the judge.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

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