Mistrial: A Review of “The Verdict”

The Verdict PosterIn his marvellous, wise book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, movie script guru Robert McKee tells us, “The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs or changes that inner nature, for better or worse, over the course of the telling.” McKee goes on to cite The Verdict as an example of such fine story writing.

Frank Galvin (Paul Newman, outstanding) is a lawyer by profession but as the film opens we learn that he is a drunk and an ambulance-chaser by avocation. He has handled few cases in recent years and those he has managed to scare up he has lost. He now resorts to handing out his cards at funeral services pretending to be a friend of the deceased. Galvin hits his lowest point when he is thrown out of a funeral home; he gets drunk and trashes his office.

It is at this point that his only friend and supporter (the always compelling Jack Warden) offers him a case that is going to restore his reputation and make him rich: a young woman was put into a vegetative state by two doctors in a Catholic hospital who incorrectly administered the anaesthetic in the operating room. The case is ripe for a large out-of-court settlement with the archdiocese and the doctors. Galvin stands to make an easy fortune.

Against all expectations and advice, our protagonist decides to reject the offered settlement and take the case to court. He finds himself more than outclassed, however, by the high-powered and ruthless law firm hired by the defendants; his star witness leaves town, another potential witness refuses to testify, and when the case finally comes to court, the judge is clearly antipathetic to Galvin’s cause. In the end, however, Galvin manages to find a witness who can give credible testimony to the plaintiff’s claim of negligence, only to see it disallowed on a technicality. Galvin delivers an impassioned if brief summation and the case goes to the jury, which decides in favour of the plaintiff and asks the judge if it is possible to award more than was demanded in the suit.

The Verdict certainly fits the McKee model of a well structured film. Galvin does indeed change over the course of trying this case: in the face of powerful – perhaps we should say overwhelming – opposition, he is increasingly motivated, strong, courageous, and passionate. By the end of the movie we believe that his reputation will be restored, he will go easy on the booze, and he will get – and win – lots of high-profile cases.

And the story is compelling. As the tension is ratcheted up each time Galvin meets an new obstacle and our hopes for his redemption are disappointed once again, we both gain greater sympathy for this protagonist and become more invested in the outcome.

But a story must be believable in every detail in order for the audience to leave the theatre satisfied that their money has been well spent. And I do feel that a certain lack of credibility weakens what could have been a powerful film.

First, we do not really know why Frank Galvin decides to take this case to court rather than settling for what turns out to be an offer of $210,000 (a great deal of money in 1982, the year The Verdict was released). Does he feel sorry for the victim and his family? Does he believe they need justice? (They actually just want the money.) Does he think winning this case will restore his career or redeem his lost soul? All of these possible motivations are hinted at but in the end we just aren’t sure. If a real-life Frank Galvin told us he really didn’t know why he took this case to court, we’d be okay with that because he won the case. But this is the movies, Folks, so we need more.

Second, the judge was far too much of a caricature, too cozy with the big-shot defense lawyer (well played by James Mason), and too antagonistic to Galvin to be believable.

And finally, the verdict itself: while the jury clearly knew that negligence had caused the virtual death of the plaintiff, there was no allowable evidence to conclusively prove that negligence had occurred; the verdict would certainly have been overturned in an appeal.

The screenplay for The Verdict was written by the eminent playwright and screenwriter David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross, Wag the Dog, The Winslow Boy) and the film was directed by the great Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network). Aaron Sorkin was only twenty-one when The Verdict was made, so he might not have been experienced enough to lend a hand on this film but The Verdict surely could have used a dose of Sorkin’s trademark realism.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y9NRXG-pycc

 

Image Credit

“The Verdict Poster.” Wikipedia

 

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