If you want to watch intriguing films about defense lawyers, then hunt down Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and the TV series Rumpole of the Bailey (1978-1992).
There have been a number of great movies centering on lawyers and trials, but unfortunately The Judge is not one of them. Despite the appearance of brilliant actors like Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga, it becomes largely a soap opera masquerading as a trial where a son represents his father.
Two of the reasons that motivated me to become a defense attorney were the performances of Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Spencer Tracy in Inherit the Wind (1960). Ironically, while both lost their cases, they performed their task with a profound sense of dignity and honor.
The Judge captures none of that drama or magnificence. Downey, Jr. plays an arrogant defense lawyer from Chicago who is as proud of his own self-worth as he is of his Ferrari. Thought he has not talked to any family members in over 20 years, he suddenly learns that his mother has died in their hometown in Indiana. He reluctantly agrees to go to her funeral, where he reunites with two brothers and a father (Robert Duvall) who has been a local judge for over 40 years.
As the old man goes through the trauma of his wife’s death and the fact that he has been hiding cancer treatment, he is arrested for allegedly hitting and killing a bicyclist with his car who just happens to be a hated ex-defendant in his court. Of course Downey, Jr. has to rally to the flag, but the drama falls short at nearly every turn.
Billy Bob Thornton plays the Special Prosecutor with a bit of class, but Downey, Jr.’s character doesn’t know the meaning of the word. While he courts his ex-girlfriend (Ms. Farmiga), he also ends up having an aggressive sexual encounter with a young girl who he learns later is not only her daughter, but possibly his. It’s hard to like this guy.
Quite frankly, you wanted the movie to focus primarily on Mr. Duvall’s trial, but the film strangely concentrates on a family trying to reunite. The brothers are played by Vincent D’Oriofrio and Jeremy Strong, with Mr. Strong being the only truly likeable person in the film.
While the film is alleged to have taken place in Indiana, we Hoosiers are basically portrayed as a bunch of goofs surrounded by large fields of corn and spending our free time fishing. It wasn’t that I was insulted, though fishing never has appealed to me unless I was on a boat off the Florida Keys.
In the end, if you want to see a movie that reminds all of us of what it means to be a defense attorney, then revisit To Kill a Mockingbird where Mr. Peck leaves the courtroom after his loss. His daughter, Scout, sitting in the balcony of the courtroom with the family of the defendant, is told to rise as Mr. Peck walks under them. The client’s father simply says, “Stand up, Scout, your father is passing.”