This week, in belated honor of this past Saturday’s Women’s March, I decided to watch a juggernaut on the ABA Top 25, one of the most celebrated legal movies in recent memory…
2000 dir. Steven Soderbergh
If Atticus Finch is the Great Dad of the lawyer movie genre, Erin Brockovich is its Super Mom. She’s a tireless, un-thanked single working mother, and she doesn’t mind reminding you what that involves: constant financial stress, babysitter woes, society’s collective disrespect, etc. When the film opens, Erin’s second marriage has just fallen apart and she’s looking for work. On her way back from an unsuccessful interview, the universe adds injury to insult by sending a speeding ER doctor through a red light to t-bone her car. Erin needs a lawyer.
The attorney who takes her case is Ed, played as a kindly, decent man by Albert Kinney. Little does he know, he is taking on not just a client but a future employee and all-around muckraker. After losing her personal injury case, Erin demands a job at Ed’s office. Even though her wardrobe choices raise some eyebrows, she soon shows herself to be a harder worker than anyone else. By accident, a case then falls on her desk that grabs her interest: it turns out that PG&E has been poisoning a small town’s water supply and lying to cover up the malfeasance.
“Erin Brockovich” is another case of David trying to take Goliath to court, a la “,” “The Verdict” and “The Rainmaker.” A big corporation has done wrong and knows it, but it will take some legal heroics to get it to pay up. In these movies, there’s a stark distinction between the good lawyers’ humanity and the bad lawyers’ lack thereof. And humanity turns out to be the secret to success. The way to beat Goliath, these movies tell us, is to meet with the small town folks who’ve been wronged – to share coffee with them, learn their names and the names of their family members, to become part of their community.
This is a slightly different kind of legal acumen than is usually on display in lawyer movies. Without giving away spoilers, “Erin Brockovich” isn’t about what happens at trial. It’s about what happens behind the scenes. Really, it’s not so much a legal movie as a paralegal movie. Erin has never been to law school, but she she’s the one doing the real work on the case – the unseen . And she does so above all out of empathy. She identifies with the families she meets. She really, really cares. And it gives her an edge over the better-groomed corporate types she goes up against.
“Erin Brockovich” is so intent on making sure you know that Erin cares that it sometimes gets a little corny. But that’s okay. There are great moments, especially when Erin is hanging out with her family, that feel genuine and true to life. Meanwhile, every Steven Soderbergh movie is beautiful to look at and this one is no exception, and Julia Roberts gives a magnetic and powerful central performance.
In the end, the legal showdown that “Erin Brockovich” dramatizes is a rousing one. Sure, Goliath usually wins. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for what’s right. And it certainly doesn’t mean you should let Goliath look down on you.