The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: Reversal of Fortune

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There are so many great lawyer movies. Which ones are the best? That’s what I’m trying to find out. This week, I watched #18…

Reversal of Fortune
1990 dir. Barbet Schroeder

Like many other lawyer movies I’ve seen recently, “Reversal of Fortune” has as its central protagonist a brilliant and principled defense attorney. This time, it’s Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard professor and appellate lawyer for one Clause von Bulow, a socialite convicted of trying to murder his wealthy wife.

Defense attorneys make for natural heroes. They stick up for the powerless, like Pacino in “…And Justice for All.” They stand for mercy in “Compulsion” and reason in “Inherit the Wind.” In “Reversal of Fortune,” Dershowitz fits the heroic mold. At first, he agrees to take von Claus’ case in order to bankroll his pro bono work and to defend the principle that everyone, no matter how creepy or unsympathetic, deserves a robust defense. Over the course of the film, though, he starts to believe his man is innocent.

At times, the film goes a little too far in trying to lionize Dershowitz. The scenes of him playing basketball with his law students, for example, feel contrived, desperate to make the character seem cool. Maybe this had something to do with the fact that the real life Alan Dershowitz wrote the book the movie is based on. Still, despite the excesses, the movie does an admirable job making drama out of the practice of law, which, after all, mostly involves reading.

“Reversal of Fortune” feels like two films in one. The first is the story of how Dershowitz prepared for a bizarre and high profile case. The second, which plays out as a series of flashbacks, is the story of what really happened in that case, and it turns out to be the more interesting of the two.

Von Bulow (played by Jeremy Irons, who won an Oscar for the role) had been leading a stuffy aristocratic life with his depressed wife Sunny (Glenn Close) when she fell into a brief coma sometime around Christmas. A year later, she fell into another coma, this time permanently. The maid and Sunny’s son believed that von Bulow had poisoned her with an insulin injection. With the help of a private prosecutor, von Bulow was sentenced to 30 years in prison but maintained his innocence throughout, claiming that Sunny had tried to kill herself. To appeal the verdict, von Bulow hires Dershowitz or, as his girlfriend calls him, “the Jew.”

At one point, von Bulow tells Dershowitz and his acolytes, “I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve.” This is a hell of an understatement. He is impenetrable: is he a murderer or a fool? You can’t make up your mind, and Irons never tips his hand.

As we hear von Bulow’s side of things, we get to see into the Old Money lives of the von Bulows, and this is where the film is most compelling. Their world is funny, in its haughtiness and rigidity, but it’s mostly just sad, a la “Grey Gardens.”

Overall, I’d recommend “Reversal of Fortune” to all you LSAT students, even though I didn’t love it as a lawyer movie, per se. It uses a legal framework to tease out a whodunit, and along the way gives us as a sad, strange family portrait.

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