Runaway Jury

Starring:
  • Rainman
  • Royal Tenenbaum
  • John Cusack Not Being All Quirky and Stuff

 

 
Directed by Gary Fleder

"No Gene! I'm not going to do it! I'm not going to say 'Time for Wapner' in the Rainman voice, no matter how much you beg!!"

Runaway Liberals

For those familiar with the Grisham universe, not much changes in this movie other than the enemy: The Insider already glamorized the anti-tobacco campaign, and now it's time for gun makers. All the familiar Grisham elements are here: The evil, big corporation lawyers (like the type Grisham sometimes fought during his law career in Mississippi), the little guy taking on the system, the idealistic-but-conflicted "good guy" lawyers. There's not much to say of the film in a plot and style regard that hasn't been said about other Grisham adaptations like The Pelican Brief or The Firm. The story is straight-forward suspense, the characters are pretty broad, but Grisham's (and his adapters') appeal is the ability to tie these legal, moral, and ethical issues into a knot and unravel it strand-by-strand over the course of a breezy few hours. In this, the film succeeds.

 

The most striking thing about this particular adaptation is the number good and/or name actors in it, some of them doing next to nothing: Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, John Cusack, and Rachel Weisz at the top, with Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, Jeremy Piven, Nick Searcy, Stanley Anderson, Cliff Curtis, Nora Dunn, Orlando Jones, and at least a dozen other actors you might have heard of lurking in there too. This same phenomena marked a worse (but far crazier) movie last year, John Q, which gave us Denzel Washington, James Woods, Anne Heche, Ray Liotta, Eddie Griffin, Laura Harring, and a handful of other recognizable actors. What these films have in common is, at their center, a transparently liberal cause. John Q isn't a good movie, and its passion is the insane, ranting, non-sensical passion of a zealot. And though muted through much of Runaway Jury, the ending is a similar plea for the hearts of the audience, that these BIG companies have no hearts themselves--how can they live with themselves for what they do? And this is what we have to do to fight it! This has to be why so many stars attach themselves to these otherwise mediocre projects.

Yet, both of these films suggest something darker, something I'm not convinced the makers understand: Both John Q and Runaway Jury are liberal vigilante justice fantasies. John Q takes matters into his own hands, as does Juror No. 9 in Runaway Jury, which isn't a bad thing, especially for the movies--but they are both essentially unethical characters, if you count "unethical" as holding needy patients hostage or jury conspiracy as "unethical". The message is that the ends justify the means as long as we're well-meaning, as long as we're stickin' it to those bastards who deserve it. The construct is a liberal Western of sorts, and this is what conservatives who despise Hollywood should complain about: The hypocrisy of the message.

Hollywood is liberal, I don't think there's much doubt about that. The only "conservative" genre in the mainstream (at least that I can think of, anyway) is the vigilante justice film--which is probably why Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis are all Republicans. These types of movies affirm the intuitive American value of self-evident justice beyond law, and when written and played well (like the great Westerns), they tap into something distinctly and greatly American. The liberal vigilante justice film, however, smacks of hypocrisy: The law should be on the side of the righteous and the reasonable, but without reason at the soul of passion, then movies like John Q and Runaway Jury affirm the exact tactics they purport to be against. That's what should make people mad, not the fact that Hollywood movie heroes "liberally" take on Big Companies.

The problem is that Hollywood is liberal and always will be because liberalism and art are, at their centers, driven by empathy. Roger Ebert calls movies "empathy machines" because we are asked to identify with those images and faces on the screen, which is much like the "liberal" pleas for social programs and the like. This is not to say that the far left liberal viewpoint is always right because it's empathetic--it's certainly not, especially in matters that require harder hearts (like terrorism, to a certain extent), or when empathy crosses into exploitation, or blinds itself into naïveté. But movies are typically empathetic, liberal endeavors. I would love to see an NRA-funded potboiler in which the gun lobby wins over the widow whose husband was shot by a gun purchased by a released felon at an unregulated gun show, with the gun lobby lawyers heroically defending the Second Amendment, even in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Rupert Murdoch has the money, but then again, he funded the anti-Patriot Act X-Men 2. It just wouldn't work.

The idea is counter-intuitive to the essence of film, and in some respects, of deeply-held American beliefs. Chris Matthews has said that nearly every politician's favorite movie is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. We know intuitively that there's no way Senator Payne can or should win--but what happens to these Mr. Smiths when they do go to Washington? Does cynicism and "the way things are" erode their idealism? Has our American egalitarian idealism eroded into little guy's acquiescence to Big Companies? I hope not, but I do wish that liberal Hollywood would make better, non-hypocritical arguments like those found in insane, heart-tugger movies like Runaway Jury--they don't have to film Gene Hackman, the EVIL lawyer for the gun company, like he's Satan. He's not--deep in that reptilian skin beats a heart. We have to remember that. If liberals want to make their point, their movies need to remember that Senator Payne once was a Mr. Smith himself. As Smith says to the Congress,

"Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won't just see scenery; you'll see the whole parade of what Man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That's what you'd see. There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. ...Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!"

We have to have the courage to use what the system allows us, even if it damn near kills us, like Jefferson Smith's heroic filibuster. That's the soul of liberalism, a necessary naïveté. that keeps American ideals alive. We have to believe that the people still believe, not just in the right ideals, but that the system can still facilitate these ideals. Liberals cannot lose sight of that; we cannot fight like those we believe to be Jim Taylors, the political boss in Capra's film. We cannot, in Mr. Smith's words, "jungle" fight. Runaway Jury's Juror No. 9 may stick it to the man, but does it in an anti-American, anti-liberal way. It does the cause no justice, and only offers its foes more fodder.

The Pitch:
1 The Pelican Brief
Plus
 
1 Wayne LaPierre
Equals
 
2 Runaway Jury
See It For:

A cleaned-up Droz welcomes the new dean of PCU to the Pit.