Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Verdict -- personal responsibility and redemption

Director: Sidney Lumet, 1982.

Courtroom dramas end with a verdict. That is the nature of legal proceedings and makes for good storytelling. For criminal cases, it answers the question of whether the defendant is found guilty or acquitted. For civil cases, it resolves justice for either the plaintiff or the defense. But in The Verdict, it is the system that is indicted and must answer. The Verdict explores personal redemption as well as societal redemption.

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is at the center of the film. A top-notch lawyer in his prime, mistakes have shattered his reputation and a divorce has destroyed his self-esteem. He is washed-out, barely surviving as an ambulance-chasing leech, eking out moments of sobriety between drinking sprees. With hardly any clients and a losing streak a mile long, he is headed for the gutter when he is handed a civil case by his retired partner. A woman lies comatose and vegetative in a Boston Catholic hospital, the result of some errors while she was in surgery. This medical malpractice suit is his ticket. An out-of-court settlement will set him up, as well as the client's sister and husband, Sally and Kevin Doneghy.

With little time for preparation due to one too many lush breaks, Galvin visits the hospital to look at his client before going to negotiate the settlement with the Bishop. But that is his undoing. Or, at least, the turning point in his decline. When the Bishop tells him, "Nothing we can do can make that woman well," Galvin replies, "And no one will know the truth." He has been impacted by the sight of a young life brought to its knees, never to experience freedom again. "What is the truth," says the Bishop, echoing the infamous words of Pilate to Jesus when Messiah stood before him two thousand years ago (Jn. 18:38). Frank breaks into a soliloquy that is as much to himself, as he stands on the brink of the abyss, as to the Bishop:
That that poor girl put her trust into the... into the hands of two men who took her life. She's in a coma. Her life is gone. She has no home, no family. She's tied to a machine. She has no friends. And the people who should care for her - her doctors... and you and me - have been bought off to look the other way. We've been paid to look the other way. I came here to take your money. I brought snapshots to show you so I could get your money. I can't do it; I can't take it. 'Cause if I take the money I'm lost. I'll just be a... rich ambulance chaser. I can't do it. I can't take it.
This is a moment of clarity, a moment of decision. And Frank makes the decision to reject the money and go to trial. He has little in the way of preparation: no legal team, no extensive list of witnesses, no support from his clients' relatives. Yet, he is doing this as much for himself as for them. He is tired of running from life, drinking himself to sleep and avoiding his reflection in the mirror. He seeks restored self-respect and personal redemption.

In deciding to fight for justice, Galvin acts apart from his clients' desires. This raises the question of ethics. What ethical responsibility does an attorney have to follow his client's wishes? A lawyer is supposed to offer counsel, and to act as advocate at trial. He represents the client but is supposed to follow the client's direction. In acting on his own Galvin moves beyond the acceptable boundaries of the attorney-client relationship. He had no right to do this, even if he felt that he was pursuing social justice.

When Doneghy finds out that his pot of gold has been taken away, replaced by the court appearance with a real risk of losing, he is furious: "You guys... you guys are all the same! The doctors at the hospital, you . . . it's always what I'm going to do for you. And then you screw up, and it's, 'Ah, we did the best that we could, I'm dreadfully sorry.' And people like us live with your mistakes the rest of our lives." Coupled with the fact that the judge trying the case is clearly corrupt, favoring the defense, this is a serious indictment of the whole system: the religious, medical and judicial systems. Lumet portrays the social context as one that tramples on the little person, the common man, leaving him bloodied and bruised, perhaps broken, with no recourse because the system itself is bankrupt, corrupt.

The prophets in the Old Testament cried out against the Israelite society in which the rich got richer at the expense of the poor because they owned the courts and judges. This injustice was prevalent and the people could only call out to God as their advocate. Ultimately, the prophets' warnings of social deconstruction and disintegration proved correct, as the system was brought down and the nation taken into exile. Social injustice will eventually be corrected, but often not in time to help those suffering in the present moment. We who see such injustice can pray to God for divine remedy at the same time as taking appropriate action ourselves. God does work through human agency, as history bears out.

Two other characters come into the story. James Mason plays the defense attorney, Ed Concannon, hired by the Catholic Church. With money, this suave and confident lawyer hires an extended team to do legal legwork. Charlotte Rampling shows up as Laura Fischer, a woman Galvin meets in a bar. She offers him the chance of romantic redemption, but there is more to her than meets the eye.

What makes The Verdict stand out is the acting and the screenplay. Newman gives one of the strongest performances of his career, and was nominated for an Oscar. Mason is more subdued but no less effective, and also earned an Oscar-nomination. And David Mamet's Oscar-nominated screenplay is the icing on the cake. His dialog seems so natural in the mouths of these actors yet is powerful enough to resonate with the audience.

At the conclusion of the trial, Galvin's world-weary summation to the jury is emotional and moving, focusing not just on the trial or on the law, but on life itself: "You know so much of the time we're just lost. We say, 'Please God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.' And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless." But then in the midst of this almost despairing monolog, he tells the jury, "But today, you are the law." He gives them permission to decide the law apart from the corruption that swirls all around.

Galvin's terse statement is so true. Despite all the corruption, in a jury trial the twelve jurists, ordinary men and women, are the law. They decide the case. They set precedent. We do not need to complain and wallow in despair. We can and must do our civic duty. Justice is bound up in all of us. If we allow the system to take the upper hand, to allow it to run roughshod over us, then we are ourselves to blame. If we believe in justice, we must act on behalf of that justice. We indict ourselves if we see social injustice and do nothing. Society is made up of the collection of individuals and each of us has rights and responsibilities. Let us not abdicate these to the corporations . . . to the system.

Despite the unexpected and unconvincing ending, The Verdict leaves us reflecting on personal responsibility and redemption. Galvin says in a rare moment of joy, "I changed my life today." His decision point came midway through the film. Ours can come anytime, even today. You can find personal redemption, second chances regardless of the state of your life, if you choose to change your life today. Jesus makes that possible. "Today is the day of salvation" (2 Cor. 6:2). Are you ready to make that decision to follow him, and accept personal responsibility?

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

No comments:

Post a Comment