One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 18
By Laurence Lerman
This week, I was prompted—I’ll even go so far as to say inspired—to break my tradition of clickbaitingly compiling film surveys and/or Top Ten lists and pay respectful homage to the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her passing at the age of 87 on September 18 and its aftermath have generated more than enough material for one to read on countless other pages, so my attempt to modestly contribute to that canon will come in the form of an abbreviated look at the Supreme Court as recently presented in contemporary American cinema.
The lady herself can be best seen in the 2018 CNN-produced documentary RBG. Directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, it was a surprise hit, ringing up some $14 million at the domestic box office, followed by a high-profile rollout on television several months later—nearly two years before Justice Ginsburg’s passing. The well-researched chronicle of her exceptional life, career and legacy was followed several months later by the 2018 Hollywood bio-pic On the Basis of Sex, directed by Mimi Leder and starring Felicity Jones. Tracing the future-Justice Ginsburg’s life from her early experiences at Harvard Law School, through raising a family with her lawyer husband Martin Ginsburg (Armie Hammer) and taking on cases at the beginning of her historic career, the film is relatively conventional as it tells her remarkable story. And while the capable Ms. Jones has some fine moments, her attempts at tackling the judge's notorious Jewish Brooklynite accent are only serviceable, at best.
The most memorable part of On the Basis of Sex—and the only one to include the Supreme Court—might be the final scene, where the real-life Justice Ginsburg is seen ascending the building’s imposing marble steps.
While no narrative films focusing solely on the Supreme Court come to mind, there are a number of features that offer fictionalized depictions of real-life cases that made it there. Milos Forman’s The People vs. Larry Flynt (1997), covering Hustler Magazine v. Jerry Falwell in the Seventies; Jeff Nichols’ Loving (2016) on the 1967 Loving v. Virginia interracial marriage case; and two Steven Spielberg films—the 2015 Cold War espionage drama Bridge of Spies on Abel v. United States and 1997’s Amistad, set in 1841, wherein the Court upheld the liberation of kidnapped native Africans brought to the U.S. after slave importation had been prohibited—are the finest of these. Amistad’s extended final sequence plays out in a handsome recreation of the Old Supreme Court Chamber, the large room on the ground floor of the North Wing of the United States Capital that served as the courtroom for the Supreme Court until it was provided with its own building in 1935, the 146th year of its existence.
A couple of fictionalized genre pics—Alan Pakula’s 1993 John Grisham adaptation The Pelican Brief starring Julia Roberts and the awful 2002 Steven Seagal vehicle Half Past Dead—revolve around the assassination and kidnapping of Supreme Court justices, while Ronald Neame’s 1981’s First Monday in October offers a lighter and less dangerous take on a justice’s day-to-day life. Based on Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee’s 1978 Broadway play about the first woman appointed on the Supreme Court, Jill Clayburgh takes on the leading-lady duties opposite Walter Matthau in this middling comedy-drama, which was released six weeks after Sandra Day O’Connor’s Supreme Court confirmation. That’s definitely a healthier example of life imitating art than the 1979 China Syndrome/Three Mile Island confluence. And then there’s Mike Judge’s 2006 dystopian satire Idiocracy, where the Supreme Court of the future has been replaced with the Extreme Court, and judges sentence the convicted to “rehabilitation” death matches.
By far the most positive take on the Supreme Court and the one that relates closest to the nation’s current situation—the opening up of a seat following the death of a justice—can be found in a 2004 episode of TV’s serial-styled political drama The West Wing. Created by Aaron Sorkin, it chronicles the workings of a fantastically Democratic federal government, the kind he was feverishly wishing for at the dawn of the new century.
In the Season Five installment “The Supremes,” Martin Sheen’s President Jed Bartlet must replace a recently deceased conservative justice, realizing that an attempt to install a liberal one will probably hit a stone wall with the Republican Senate. His team then devises a slick, potentially winning maneuver involving convincing the aging liberal chief justice to retire and then replacing two justices with both a renowned liberal judge (Glenn Close) and a bright conservative judge (William Fichtner), thus keeping the court in balance. The key here is that the two potential nominees have a mutual respect for each other and for their country’s judicial process.
Written by Deborah Cahn the year after Aaron Sorkin left the show, “The Supremes” offers an unabashedly Utopian Sorkinian view that intellectual and philosophical reasoning by both sides can make for deeper connection and that their challenging of each other will yield a stronger return for all. Therein lies the importance of controlled, honorable, give-and-take debate, with the conservative judge at one point offering that ‘the court was at its best when [the justices] were fighting.” Any similarities to the strong friendship between Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia is probably only a coincidence...
Again, The West Wing postulates a Democratic president with a Republican Senate, which isn’t the case right now. But that could change very, very soon.
Aaron Sorkin, meanwhile, is heading back to court with the release of The Trial of the Chicago 7 in a couple of weeks. Sorkin’s long-in-the-works second feature as a writer/director following 2017’s Molly’s Game is about the months-long proceedings in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois regarding seven defendants charged with raising a ruckus at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The movie has received great buzz as we move closer to its release date—and Election Day, which promises to raise a whole new kind of ruckus.
That’s the thing about ruckuses—sometimes they just have to be raised. Don’t they?
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.