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Playing with fire: Law, ethics and film

by Steve Greenfield and Guy Osborn, Centre for the Study of Law, Society and Popular Culture, University of Westminster (March 1998)

[Editor's note: The following commentary reveals some plot details of the film The Devil’s Advocate.  Readers who have not seen the film may want to bookmark this site and return to read this commentary after they have seen the film.]

The disdain that contemporary American society seems to reserve for the legal profession (whilst at the same time embracing the potential benefits litigation can bring) is epitomised by the fashion of anti-lawyer jokes. This love/hate relationship has not however been reflected within legal films which have generally adopted a perspective of lawyers as right thinking and often conscience driven. This is classically represented in older films such as To Kill a Mockingbird, but is also evidenced in more recent examples such as Suspect and In the Name of the Father. Notwithstanding the penchant for these rose tinted representations, a more ‘realistic’ portrayal has emerged within some films such as Philadelphia which demonstrated that lawyers were not beyond cynical prejudice, indeed it even managed to incorporate one of the "jokes" referred to above. Even within the ‘realism’ of Philadelphia we still see a transformation with Denzel Washington’s character confronting his homophobia during the film and becoming a better person for it; perhaps the most extreme example of this transformation is Regarding Henry where it requires a bullet wound to the head to for the lawyer to move from selfishness to compassion, or perhaps more accurately from being tinged with ‘evil’ to embracing the ‘good’.

This mixture of the conscience driven lawyer coupled with the greedy power hungry figure is neatly combined in the recently released The Devil’s Advocate (Taylor Hackford, 1997). The film draws upon a litany of sources from Dante’s Inferno to Milton’s Paradise Lost (Al Pacino’s role is tellingly as lawyer John Milton), the film has more recent echoes in Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities and in its broadest sense The Witches of Eastwick. The film in particular raises a number of interesting issues regarding the moral dilemmas facing the individual lawyer within the legal system, the place of ethics within the legal pantheon and the wider dimension of the relationship between law, lawyers and society. Interestingly The Devil’s Advocate taps into a line of film making that does sees the law and the ‘lawgiver’ as somewhat deified, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln for example eloquently tapped into the myth of Abraham Lincoln and further canonised the character within it, even Henry Fonda initially baulked at playing such a role as he felt it would be tantamount to playing god! The Devil’s Advocate inverts this theme and shows the law as a representation of the ‘dark side’, as a vehicle of evil rather than good.

The representation of the lawyer as the devil is not an entirely new one—perhaps most recently Jesus of Montreal showed a cameo of the lawyer offering a Faustian pact to the quasi Jesus figure. The Devil’s Advocate begins with Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) defending a client he concludes to be guilty in a Florida courtroom, after a minor crisis of confidence he retires to the bathroom before resolving to carry on with his defence regardless—he is after all undefeated in all his trials and his vanity is more important that what might be deemed ‘right’. He naturally wins the case and is soon head hunted by a powerful New York firm commanded by the irrepressible John Milton (Al Pacino) and relocates with his wife to Manhattan. It is clear that Lomax is good at what he does, but unnaturally so with an unerring ability to make the right decisions. Lomax’s career blossoms, winning a number of well constructed court cases, whilst his relationship with his wife begins to fall apart. Milton offers him the chance to drop the important case he is handling in order to help his wife who by now is descending rapidly into a (Milton induced) mental illness but again Lomax’s vanity wins out. His wife later commits suicide in a psychiatric unit after she alleges that Milton raped her and it is revealed that Milton is in fact Lomax’s father. The film reaches its denouement when Lomax goes to confront his father in his penthouse lair. His father offers Lomax anything he wants in return for him agreeing to father the Antichrist and Lomax begins to negotiate, his slick lawyers penchant seemingly working overtime. In reply to his question of why the law was chosen for his satanic ‘front’, Milton replies that the law is ‘the new priesthood’ and ‘the ultimate backstage pass’; that law is the embodiment of evil. Seeing his strong bargaining position, that while the satanic Milton can offer anything he needs Lomax, Lomax rejects his Faustian pact and chooses to kill himself; thus in one shot of film and with one shot of purloined revolver choosing the path of redemption and rejecting Satan’s offer to ‘walk with me’.

Aside from a piece of undoubtedly rivetting entertainment there are some pertinent points concerning the portrayal of both the lawyers and the legal process which perhaps demonstrate the emergence of a new trend. As we have outlined elsewhere in the past, legal films utilise a series of binary themes, be they pitting good against evil, man against woman, black against white or legal procedure against justice. These binary themes echo the adversarial notion of the common law system and the juxtaposition of opposites in need of resolution. There are a number of films that pursue this divide by looking at what a lawyer might be prepared to do in order to achieve what the lawyer perceives to be ‘right’ or ‘just’—is the lawyer prepared to go beyond the law to achieve justice? For example, in Cape Fear the defence attorney takes the decision to not reveal details of the witness’s prior sexual history—had he done so his client would have received a lesser sentence. The lawyer takes the decision to withhold evidence as in his opinion this would achieve a more just result. Cape Fear reveals stark ambiguities in how we approach such a problem and raises important questions of duty and ethics. These are even more marked in the remake when the client (Robert de Niro) teaches himself the law and ‘tries’ his former lawyer (Nick Nolte) on a boat.

A similar issue is pursued in A Few Good Men where the debate is one of to whom is the ultimate duty owed and where does ‘the law’ fit into the equation? The soldiers facing court martial display their ultimate affiliation firmly—first and foremost their duty is to their marine corps; god and country are secondary to the bond between their comrades and this is the fulcrum of the film: are orders to be obeyed at all costs and where does the buck stop? Similarly the lawyer (Tom Cruise) defending the two marines in A Few Good Men has to consider whether he should go beyond the legal and ethical codes under which he is bound and accuse a witness on the stand of committing a crime for which the two marines are accused. He of course does and justice is done—but how is the law served by this? Whilst Cher in Suspect accepts the help of the juror with impunity to achieve the result she wants, it leaves the viewer somewhat uneasy. Although we are informed and aware that the accused here is in fact not guilty does this mean that we should permit flagrant breaches of due process and scant regard for the rule of law? Should lawyers play god?

The film The Devil’s Advocate encompasses this notion of the unbridled "power" of lawyers, certainly when influenced by supernatural forces, but it more importantly accepts a critical view of the day to day conduct of lawyers. Manipulative, unconcerned with ethical practices, power hungry and most importantly vain, the portrayal is throughout unflattering. Long gone is the dewy eyed representation of the champion of the poor and underdog, lawyers it seems are now fair game for a long overdue critical examination. Thus the terrain has imperceptibly shifted into a cinematic acceptance of lawyers as a destructive selfish influence, after all Satan is the chief partner looking to pass the control of the practice over to his two offspring to create the ultimate in legal hegemony. The continual theme throughout is one of the law and lawyers as forces of disorder hence the satanic interest in legal practice, the vices of vanity and avarice are awash. This is the crucial point—the vast majority of previous depictions had a background of justice with lawyers fighting for what was right and good, the acquittal in the face of overwhelming odds. Here the position is reversed with the capacity for evil dominating the backdrop, no longer is law a positive force, although yet again the lawyer with a conscience comes to the fore and saves the day.

Click here for commentaryWebitor Rob Waring comments on The Devil's Advocate.

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The Devil’s Advocate studio web site includes many quotations from Dante's Inferno and a link to an online copy of the Rules of Professional Conduct.

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