'The Verdict' Shows One Attorney's Quest For a Chance at Justice
by Natalie Lucas
Reviewed by Natalie Lucas
legal movie has to be good if it opens with an attorney starting his day at a bar, before going to a funeral home to drum-up some business. "The Verdict," directed by Sydney Lumet and nominated for five Academy Awards, presents a classic tale of attorney redemption.
Set in Boston in the early 1980s, the leading character Frank Galvin, played by Paul Newman, is a downcast ambulance chaser. His career was ruined when, at a prior law firm, a partner set him up to take the fall for jury tampering. He now spends his days in a Boston bar playing pinball and checking the obituaries for potential new clients.
Galvin’s lawyer friend finds him in a destroyed office, and reminds Galvin that a case that he threw Galvin’s way will go to court in 10 days. The case involves alleged medical malpractice by prominent Boston doctors in a Catholic hospital whose patient ended up comatose and is surviving only through life support. Thinking the case will be a quick settlement, Galvin moves forward. But when he visits the patient in the hospital, he begins to believe he can achieve a greater justice for her if he doesn’t give in to a settlement.
From the start, Galvin does all the things a trial attorney shouldn’t do. He turns down a substantial settlement offer without advising his client. He fails to subpoena his star doctor witness who decides, perhaps due to the defense counsel’s persuasion, to take a Caribbean vacation at the time of trial. He prepares his case for trial in the bar, while seducing a woman he meets there. He is late to an initial court conference due to his pinball addiction, and then he threatens to report the judge to the judicial conduct commission. All the while, the defendant doctors are being prepared for trial by a substantial legal team in a white shoe Boston firm.
Although much of "The Verdict" does not comport with reality, (Galvin runs to the judge’s house in the middle of the night to ask for a continuance) the morality of the film rings true. In a world filled with private settlements, one sometimes forgets the privilege of being able to take a case through a public trial process. Even though the movie is a traditional "David versus Goliath" theme, the characters make the film unique and original. Galvin is far from perfect, and one cannot help but get frustrated by his lack of preparation and drinking on the job. Viewers cannot, however, doubt his belief that the trial court system exists to give people a chance at justice.
The movie takes viewers back some 30 years, to a time when pre-trial research consisted of remembering a few key case names, and lawyers played cards in the courthouse basement between dockets.
Many believe the Oscar for Best Actor was undeservedly given to Ben Kingsley for "Gandhi," instead of Newman for his turn in "The Verdict." The movie is also highlighted by excellent supporting actors, including Jack Warden as Galvin’s friend Mickey Morrissey, James Mason as the noble but devious opposing counsel Ed Concannon, Milo O’Shea as the judge who tries his best to make Galvin lose the case, and Charlotte Rampling as Galvin’s love interest. Of course, one cannot miss Galvin’s famous summation at the end, which concludes not only his case, but his own story of redemption.