MPAA Rating: R // Rating:
Release Year: 1982 // Director: Sidney Lumet
Every once in a while, a film comes along that is not like the others. This is such a film.
Paul Newman stars as Frank Galvin, a washed-up Boston lawyer whose career has been all but destroyed by a jury tampering scheme, a divorce, and his own alcoholism. He spends his days handing out his card at funeral homes and his evenings drinking and playing pinball at a local bar. His only friend is Micky Morrissey (Jack Warden), one of his former professors who is known to haul him out of the hallway in front of his office when he’s too drunk to move himself.
As a favor, Morrissey sends a young couple to Galvin with an open-and-shut malpractice case. The wife’s sister had aspirated on her vomit after receiving the incorrect anesthesia during surgery and spent the last four years in a coma. The Catholic church, which ran the hospital where the incident had occurred, is interested in settling, and Galvin’s cut will keep him in liquor until he drinks himself to death.
And Galvin may have done just that, had he not made the mistake of visiting the hospital to see the victim. Something inside him snaps, and he resolves to take the case to trial. To prove that money can’t cover up the truth, that corruption deserves to be exposed and doctors held accountable for their actions.
For a time, things seem to be going his way. He finds a doctor who is willing to testify and finally makes headway with the attractive woman who’s been playing hard-to-get at the bar. But then the doctor disappears, the “expert” witness Galvin finds to replace him on the stand turns out to be anything but, and the woman has secrets of her own.
Sidney Lumet’s directing is meticulous, David Mamet’s screenplay is exquisite, and Andrzej Bartkowiak’s cinematography is glorious. But it’s Newman’s performance that lingers, and in the end the story we get is not so much about a man taking on a system as it is about a man’s excruciating struggle with himself.
“You know, so much of the time we’re just lost,” Galvin observes as he makes his final plea to the jury. “We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true.'”
It’s a stirring moment, to be sure, but it’s only as the film winds down—with a final tête-à-tête between two characters—that we realize just how much Galvin was speaking of himself.