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From the Executive Director’s Desk: Top Five Journalism, Law & Sports Movies

By George Freeman

Since most of us are isolated and looking for activities at home, movies have taken on a large role in filling vacant time. So I thought I would devote my column giving you some leisure-time advice and list my top five movies in the last 50 years in journalism, law and (given my obsession) sports.

At the outset, a disclaimer: I am not a movie afficiando. Indeed, I prefer watching a ballgame on tv to going to the cinema. And I feel, unlike the vast consensus, that a good tv show is as good as the average movie. That is, in the legal sphere, LA Law, with its great ensemble law firm cast, and Boston Legal, with its quirky dialogue between partners James Spader and William Shatner, are as good as anything you'll see in the movies. And journalistically speaking, Lou Grant, with Ed Asner as the gruff but kindhearted editor, his publisher Mrs. Pynchon, playing the Kay Graham role, and its cast of intrepid reporters and photographers, and the more recent The Newsroom, written by Aaron Sorkin and starring Jeff Bridges as the liberal news anchor, certainly match up with most movies of the genre. (Sorkin, a friend of the MLRC, who both was featured at a past Annual Dinner and spoke about the Sony hack at our Entertainment Law Conference in 2016, wrote the screenplay for two of the movies on the below lists.) In any event, I'm entitled to my opinion. So here goes:

TOP 5 JOURNALISM MOVIES

1. All the President's Men - This is first by a mile. It combines history, the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Nixon, an insight into the relentless reporting and the editing process at the Washington Post, and terrific acting by Robert Redford as Bob Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein, and an Oscar-winning performance by Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee. Robards' Bradlee is a supporter, monitor, spokesman and decider, but also a skeptic and doubter, well aware of the consequences of his boys' work. Woodward and Bernstein's interviews of Deep Throat (in a dark garage) and names of the past, such as Hugh Sloan and Donald Segretti, as well as lower government workers and CREEP volunteers, are both dramatic and object lessons for rookie reporters.

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#1. Woodward and Bernstein (Redford and Hoffman) in the newsroom en route to taking down the President

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Absence of Malice - How can you not rate highly a movie with such a perfect libel law title? Or one which is based on the relationship between Paul Newman as the duplicitous source and Sally Field as the inquisitive reporter? Or a great scene towards the end when an Assistant Attorney General, played by a delightful Wilford Brimley, locks all the principals in the scandal into a conference room and says we're goin' to stay here until I have someone's ass in my attache case (or, at least, that's how I remember it). For media lawyers, there also is a poignant scene when the paper's unctuous lawyer vets Field's article, changes a "the" to an "a", and declares that will protect the paper from actual malice. I never thought it made sense, it certainly didn't make us look good, but it showed us in action anyhow. I used to assign the movie to my First Amendment classes, and then on the exam ask students to discuss at least two ethical issues raised by the film (except the obvious a reporter shouldn't sleep with her source).

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#2. Inquisitive reporter Sally Field and duplicitous source Paul Newman get together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Spotlight - As All the President's Men, this too is a realistic and accurate portrayal of how diligent reporters doggedly work on an investigative story, here exposing the crimes in the Roman Catholic priest sex abuse scandal in Boston. The Boston Globe's reporters are shown doing the grunt work, finding and sensitively questioning all sorts of witnesses and tracking down documents, sealed and otherwise. Indeed, our member Jon Albano is portrayed arguing and winning an access motion in state court. Liev Schreiber looks and sounds exactly like editor Marty Baron, who quarterbacks the investigation and gets taken to task by the parochial Bostonians for being an outsider. I should mention that we showed excerpts of Spotlight at our Annual Dinner the week the film was released, and long before it won the Oscar for Best Picture. The fact that I vetted many of the stories in the film played no role in my listing.

4. Broadcast News - A somewhat satirical and critical look at the dilemmas of television news broadcasting. Talented and energetic news producer Holly Hunter has to choose both romantically, but more importantly professionally, between two candidates to become evening news anchor: a good friend and solid reporter and writer Albert Brooks, who is capable of sweating through his shirt on air; and a handsome, likeable, smooth-talking and telegenic but vapid and raw newsman William Hurt. The model for the Hunter role was Susan Zirinsky, now President of CBS News, who was on our Annual Dinner program last November. In my draft questions for that night's moderator, I asked which one Z would have chosen; unfortunately that question never was put to her.

5. The Post - Any movie featuring our victory in the Pentagon Papers case has to make this list, but, as you can imagine, it goes to the bottom because of its fundamental and titular failing. It is called The Post and features The Washington Post, even though it was The New York Times which first found, vetted and, after internal struggles, decided to publish the Papers and was the first to be sued and then took the lead in litigating the case. The faux pas was probably because Spielberg got the incomparable Meryl Streep to play Kay Graham, thereby adding an angle of the growth of a woman publisher which the all-male Times didn't have; also the fact that the Post did in 48 hours what the Times took three months to go through probably was better suited for Hollywood. Another weakness is that Tom Hanks comes nowhere close to Jason Robards, see #1 above, in playing Ben Bradlee. And that's not even to mention that the press lawyers appear absolutely terrible and cowardly in arguing against publication. Nonetheless, the movie is a great depiction of the issues, conflicts and tension in the case, and you can't help but feel heartwarmed at news of the SCOTUS victory and the sounds and sights of the presses running with the continuation of the Papers after the ruling.

Honorable Mention: Good Night and Good Luck - A serious and positive black-and-white depiction of Edward R. Murrow's CBS broadcasts bravely exposing Sen. Joseph McCarthy Communist witch-hunts. George Clooney plays Murrow's producer and friend Fred Friendly who go up against the more cautious and risk averse CBS honchos. As with a number of movies on the above list, it is stunningly appropriate at a time when the President calls the media "the enemy of the people."

TOP 5 LEGAL MOVIES

1. My Cousin Vinny - First by 20 lengths, no doubt about it. The only would-be competition are movies well over the 50-year-old boundary – To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men and Judgment at Nuremberg.

A brilliantly entertaining film, about an unsuccessful but colorful Brooklyn lawyer defending two "youths" in a murder trial in Alabama court, it has some priceless lines, and can as well can be shown in a trial practice class. Defense attorney Joe Pesci's examination of his fiancée Marissa Tomei and her testimony about mint-green Buick Skylark convertibles and positraction (whatever that is) won her an Oscar, and are classic (as is Judge Fred Gwynne's ruling that she is a hostile witness when Pesci explains they are engaged). And Pesci's cross-examinations of the local southern townspeople, impeaching one on account of the timing of his boiling grits and another by a courtroom demonstration of her failing eyesight are delightful. Legal education is also gained when Pesci smugly comes back to their room bragging that he schmoozed the prosecutor into giving him documents; Tomei's response: You're entitled to them; it's friggin discovery.

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#1. Marissa Tomei is congratulated on her testimony by her hostile examiner and fiancée Joe Pesci, while Judge Fred Gwynne looks on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. A Few Good Men - Everything in this movie builds to the climatic court-martial courtroom scene where young JAG defense attorney Tom Cruise cross-examines crusty and smug colonel Jack Nicholson. Nicholson is superb – and eerriy reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart and his strawberries in The Caine Mutiny - far more dramatic, but without the comic humor of Tomei in #1. The film is about a court-martial at Gitmo against two low-ranking marines carrying out the brass' orders, but the deeper Nicholson goes on – at Cruise's prodding - about the need for military discipline saving lives – "You can't handle the truth," he barks at Cruise - the more he gets himself into trouble.

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#2. Jack Nicholson testifying, leading to his confession. “You can’t handle the truth,” he barks at cross-examiner Tom Cruise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Kramer v. Kramer - Far from media law, this a story of a New York couple's divorce, starring a very young Meryl Streep and Dustin Hoffman, both of whom won Oscars for their performances (as did the movie for Best Picture). Hoffman deals with fatherhood alone when Streep leaves him, but the drama builds when Streep returns and demands custody of their son. Needless to say, the ensuing litigation turns ugly and harmful to all. The riveting court hearing scenes will make even hardened lawyers cringe and cry.

4. A Civil Action/Erin Brockovich - I list these two together because they are essentially the same. Young, poor lawyer or paralegal discovers pollution harming community, energizes and coalesces the poor victims, and ultimately files a class action against the big, bad polluters defended by older, more powerful lawyers who stave the plaintiffs off with every legal (and illegal) countermove and resource available. They do have different outcomes, however. I like A Civil Action better mainly because of some great settlement negotiations scenes – which would have many of us thinking: been there, done that. On the other hand, Erin is played by Julia Roberts in one of her more interesting (and Oscar winning) roles.

5. The Paper Chase - With this column's audience, how not list a movie which speaks so keenly to all of us. We were all 1L's once, and most of us suffered through or secretly were enamored by someone akin to the pretentious and intimidating Prof. Kingsfield (played by John Houseman, who won an Oscar for the role). All the moments we survived come rushing back: the nervousness of opening day, the fear of being called on in a large impersonal class by a super-demanding teacher (especially when we hadn't read the case being discussed), the mysteries of the Socratic method, the personal interplays of study group, the cramming for exams and the trauma of exam period; I could go on.

Honorable Mentions: The Insider / The People vs. Larry Flynt - These two could as well be in the Journalism category, but I put them here because, although not the central theme of the movies, they both feature claims with First Amendment defenses as their critical issue. The Insider is about producer Lowell Bergman's (played by Al Pacino) and Mike Wallace's pursuit of former tobacco co. employee Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) to spill the beans as to his ex-employer's knowledge of the dangers of smoking. At the last moment, however, CBS spikes the 60 Minutes broadcast because of the fear of a tortious interference with contract suit (against CBS for inducing breach of Wigand's severance contract with the company) which might derail a planned merger and blow up golden parachute deals for some top execs, including the GC. I remember the actual news story about this breaking during the annual PLI Conference, and how many of us were dubious as to the vitality of a tortious interference claim (which, unlike most newsgathering claims, allows public policy and First Amendment defenses).

Much of the Flynt movie is about the attacks on him for pornographic publishing and some of the early criminal cases against him and his constitutional defenses. But the movie then retells Falwell v. Hustler, where Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson) gets sued for libel and infliction of emotional distress for publishing a parody ad suggesting Falwell first had sex with his mother in an outhouse. The climax comes in the Supreme Court oral argument in the case, which focused on the IIED issue and which is portrayed at some length.

TOP 5 SPORTS MOVIES

As promised, because I assume some of you who know me would expect a sports list, here's my top 5 sports movies:

1. Bull Durham - Just as in the above two categories, a runaway winner for first place. A great depiction of baseball, minor league ball to be sure, from young ballplayers to crusty coaches and from a comic mascot to "baseball Annies." But in addition to the national pastime, there's a great romantic triangle among the sexy, flirtatious and philosophical baseball groupie Susan Sarandon and two players she decides between, the tall, lean, charismatic rookie pitcher with a blazing but wild fastball and a pea brain, Tim Robbins (who in real life lived with Sarandon for 20 years after the movie), and the weary veteran, wise catcher who's been around and who's on the team to help mature the young pitcher, Kevin Costner. Great scenes include Robbins shaking off Costner's choice of pitches , and the annoyed catcher therefore tipping the batter as to the coming pitch which he promptly smacks for a long home run; for us press junkies, Costner training the birdbrained Robbins as to how to act at a reporter's interview; and Robbins warding off Sarandon's desire for sex after a long road trip because of the superstition that you don't change things when he and the team are on a winning streak.

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#1. At batting cage, baseball groupie Susan Sarandon flirts and gives hitting advice to catcher Crash Davis, played by Kevin Costner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Miracle - It's been 40 years (and a few months) since probably the greatest upset in sports history: the U.S. Olympic Hockey team's 4-3 victory over Russia on its way to a gold medal in 1980. Even though we know the outcome, the movie still is exciting as we see the amateur team mesh through tryouts and exhausting practices, a week before the Games get routed by the professional Russians, who had won the last four Olympics, and then play the exciting games at Lake Placid. Kurt Russell is terrific as Herb Brooks, the draconian and gruff coach who maneuvers his boys into a once-in-a-lifetime performance. "This is your night", he barks in his pre-game pep talk (a game which, incidentally, was not broadcast on live tv). "Do you believe in miracles?...Yes."

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#2. Olympic Hockey team coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell) celebrating at the buzzer of his teams miraculous 4-3 upset over Russia en route to a gold medal at Lake Placid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Moneyball - Brad Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the Oakland A's General Manager who uses detailed analytics to evaluate ballplayers, a huge change from old-time "baseball men" who are shown believing that the looks of a player's girlfriend could clue the team as to the player's leadership abilities and value. As a lawyer who believes in empirical facts and a young kid who studied baseball statistics endlessly, I had long been enamored by Beane's approach, which over the next decade was picked up by all the clubs, foremost the dreaded Red Sox. The movie follows the success of the no-name A's players as they embark on a record winning streak.

4. A League of Their Own - A wonderful film about the women's baseball league which was formed in the Midwest while the men were away fighting in World War II. The movie focuses on the relationship between two competitive but loving sisters, a pitcher and more talented catcher (Geena Davis), who are recruited by a nasty scout (Jon Lovitz, who steals his scenes) to play for the Rockford Peaches. And the film also features Tom Hanks as the team's grumpy manager who utters a quote ranked #29 by AFI in film history and is still in our vernacular today: "There's no crying in baseball."

5. Cool Runnings - Sure, it's a cheesy, heartwarming Disney production, but I can't leave this classic comedy off my list. The tale of the newly formed Jamaican Bobsled team qualifying for and then competing in the Calgary Olympics.

Honorable Mention: Remember the Titans is a bit cliched, but is still the moving (and true) story of a Black high school football coach taking over the reins of a team in a White southern town. A touching tale of racial relationships among players, coaches, parents and the community 50 years ago.

Little Big League is the most underrated sports movie, rarely on anyone's top 50 list. It is a great kid's film, the story about a 12-year old who is bequeathed ownership of the Minnesota Twins in his grandfather's will, and then decides he can stop the team's slump if he becomes its manager. It's a sophisticated baseball movie as the kid comes up with managerial strategies, and also contains fun scenes as he handles his wizened and cynical players.

Eight Men Out, beautifully directed by John Sayles, is the well-performed story of how eight Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series. (In full disclosure, my college classmate and friend wrote the musical score for the flick.)

No Way: Field of Dreams: Not on my list is Field of Dreams, which I find sappy and almost ununderstandable. To come full circle though, a major league game was scheduled for this August in an Iowa cornfield - an idea clearly borne from the movie. Of course, it is unlikely to take place because of the cancellation of most or all of the baseball season.

And even worse is Slap Shot, a movie which aggrandizes brawling in hockey. Hockey fighting takes away from a beautiful game, has demonstrably led to concussions and death, and should be banned, not glorified.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not the MLRC. We welcome responses at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ; they may be printed in next month's MediaLawLetter.

 
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