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Civil Law


Maggie is caught in the classic father-daughter Electra ... When she refused to dance with him earlier in the film we were upset! Now, everybody s happy! – PowerPoint PPT presentation

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Title: Civil Law

(No Transcript)
Civil Law
  • David v. Goliath films depicting civil disputes
    often show the small-time, solo-practitioner
    attorney taking on the big corporate law firm.
  • We see big firms practice greedy, unethical, even
    illegal behavior and drag out cases to bleed
    their cash-strapped opponents who often work on a
    contingency-fee basis (they only get paid if they
  • Discovery during the pre-trial phase of a case,
    both sides are supposed to exchange all the
    information each has on the case. While this is
    meant to encourage settlement, it also leads to
    lengthy delays. Lengthy discovery is often
    difficult for plaintiffs attorneys who work on
    contingency fees and enrich defendants attorneys
    who bill by the hour. Hence defendants attorneys
    routinely submit a blizzard of documents in hopes
    of overwhelming their opponents who may endlessly
    search in vain for the proverbial needle in a

Wither Workaholics?
  • On one level, the film is a critique of excessive
    work and single-minded focus on career and is
    therefore critical of the corporate,
    get-ahead-at-all-costs, work ethic of the New
    Right political regime.
  • Jeds excessive devotion causes hurt to those
    closest to him such as his wife Estelle and his
    daughter Maggie as well as his friend Tagalini.
  • Maggies desire to climb the corporate ladder and
    make partner leads her into an unhealthy
    relationship with a co-worker and make poor
    career choices in the end.
  • In this sense, Jed and Maggie are not the
    opposites they seem to be at first blush (liberal
    v. conservative plaintiff v. defendant big firm
    v. small). The are exactly the same in their
    focus on career at the expense of everything else.

  • What should Maggie have done when she discovered
    that Michael destroyed Pavels report?
  • She could tell her clients about the consequences
    of destroying evidence and urge them to supply
    another report to opposing counsel, consistent
    the discovery requirements.
  • She could urge her clients to settle the case
    immediately to avoid a big loss at trial.
  • She could tell the judge what happened.
  • She could report the actions of her superiors to
    the state bar associations ethics committee.
  • She could take herself off the case.
  • She could leave the firm.
  • In the end, she chooses to betray her clients by
    telling opposing counsel what she knows and
    undertakes a legal strategy that harms her
    clients and her firm.
  • In the process, she betrays client loyalty and
    will probably be disbarred for violating legal

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as Maggie Ward
  • She is a new San Francisco corporate attorney
    climbing the ladder to a coveted partnership.
  • In order to get there, she believes that she has
    to exhibit phallic power and dominance. To show
    sympathy for victims and concern for family would
    be to exhibit weak, liberal, female traits.
  • As a result, she is miserable and makes bad
    personal and professional decisions.
  • Of course her superiors know that she will
    overcompensate for this and they assign her the
    job of defending the automobile corporation
    against injury claims.
  • She formally opposes her father in a class action
    lawsuit and is ordered by her unethical male
    superior and lover, Michael, to play ball in
    order to win the case, which he knows she will
  • Maggies main concern, however is her father and
    in a classic feminist position, she conflates the
    public and private behavior of her father
    Youre a user, Dad. You used Tagalini a
    corporate whistleblower. You used all those
    women, and you used Mom.
  • She also conflates the public and private by
    sleeping with her boss, Michael.
  • Nick (Lawrence Fishburne), at attorney in Jeds
    firm has her completely figured out Your
    biggest aspiration is to be his mirror
    imageexactly the opposite of what he is. And the
    problem is, you dont know what he is. That makes
    being you impossible.
  • Maggie is caught in the classic father-daughter
    Electra (Oedipal) complex of female sexual
    development She kills her mother so that she can
    replace her in a relationship with the father.
  • But which father will she choose? The image or
    the mirror-image?
  • She MUST choose, however, in order to find
    herself as a daughter, woman, and lawyer. Why?
    Because the feminist position leaves her
    unsatisfied (indeed its excessive and fueled by
    her own insecurities), is antithetical to the
    corporate environment she works in, and is
    inconsistent with her fathers mainstream liberal

Female Attorney Protagonists
  • Like many of her predecessors in the female
    attorney films before Class Action, such as
    Jagged Edge, Suspect, Music Box, and The Big
    Easy, Maggie is caught within a web of deception
    constructed by the male characters surrounding
  • Maggie is being used not only by Quinn but also
    by her lover Michael, several other male
    associates, and later Jed, though this time in
    the name of justice.

Father 1 Gene Hackman as Jedediah Ward
  • Former activist lawyer in the 1960s and 1970s
    from the Peoples Republic of Berkeley, he
    represents victims and their families seriously
    injured or killed in car accidents involving a
    defective model.
  • He is the good father of corporate attorney
    Maggie Ward.
  • However, his focus on career and fame led to
    affairs and the ultimate failure of his marriage
    and family life. Maggie resents him for the
    affairs and thinks he is still at it at the party
    when she thinks she sees him hitting on a young
    associate. As in Adams Rib, the associate is a
    lesbian and therefore the scene only serves to
    clarify the relationship between the main
  • Jed plays the role as mediator (father) for
    Maggies agency (daughter) in personal,
    professional, and ethical terms.
  • He represents the mainstream liberalism of Bill
    Clinton and other Democrats attempting to operate
    in the New Right (conservative) political regime.

Father 2 Donald Moffat as Fred Quinn
  • Controlling partner of the corporate firm where
    Maggie works.
  • He is the bad father to Maggie, seducing her
    into the high-powered, prestigious, rich,
    corporate, legal world.
  • Quinn represents the New Right conservatism of
    the Reagan/Bush I-era when the film was made.
  • Moffat made a career of playing attorneys, even
    the senior partner, in films like Regarding

Cinematic Techniques
  • Mise-en-scene combines with parallel editing in
    the first third of the picture to function as a
    barometer of Jeds politically correct position,
    against which the film asks us to evaluate
    Maggie. Jed speaks of justice while Maggie
    argues the law.
  • Numerous courtroom sequences portray Maggie as
    the castrating female. With shots composed so
    that the jury often is visible, we watch as one
    elderly male juror, positioned on the far right
    of the frame, lowers his head in embarrassment
    and sympathy with Dr. Pavel when Maggie attacks
    his credibility. This shot, along with several
    others in which we see Jeds reaction from a
    distance, once again defines Maggie as a
    threatening figure.
  • Maggies imposing class-and-steel firm where
    lawyers compete for fast-track cases in
    contrasted with the warm, homey, small office of
    Jed and Nick where they democratically discuss
    the rights and safety of the people.

Maggies Choice
  • Why dont either Maggie or Jed move toward the
    mediated position represented by their martyred
    mother/wife Estelle?
  • Female lawyer films routinely set-up dichotomies
    that the female protagonists must resolve
    public/private reason/emotion law/justice.
  • This suggests a lack of empowerment as the female
    must conform to one stereotype or the other.
  • Before ultimately aligning herself with the
    proper patriarch, Maggie threatens to subvert
    justice because she is a public agent of law and
    reasonas good as any man can do.
  • Yet she never has any real choice because the
    numerous exchanges between her two fathers
    demonstrate that men ultimately wield the real
  • Only when she embraces the films liberalism does
    Maggie achieve a coherent subjectivity in service
    to her good father, the films true agent of
  • The pictures Hollywoodland, happy-ending final
    shot is telling the Oedipal/Electra embrace of
    her good father is familiar and comforting to
    both them and us. When she refused to dance with
    him earlier in the film we were upset! Now,
    everybodys happy!

Female Lawyer Films
  • There was a huge explosion of female lawyer films
    in the 1980s and 1990s. Why?
  • Hollywood films in general from this period
    illustrate a crisis of maleness and patriarchy.
    One example is the use of female protagonists in
    increasing numberseven in action pictures such
    as Aliens and Point of No Return.
  • Films involving law, and particularly women
    lawyers, provide unique opportunities to question
    patriarchy male v. female attorney with the
    law (patriarchy) in dispute.
  • Yet these films ultimately undermine the feminist
    critique of patriarchy. How?
  • The female lawyer is often positioned to deflect
    the very analysis of patriarchal power her
    existence would seem to prompt the female lawyer
    herself is put on trial so to speak, and we
    question her role as a woman and a lawyer.
  • Indeed, continually reminding us that patriarchy
    and the law are inseparable, almost all female
    lawyer films feature patriarchal figures who
    possess the potencythe genuine powerto initiate
    the female lawyer into he structure of the law,
    to deny her access, or to regulate her behavior
    as she performs within or outside the courtroom.
    These men, the films suggest, rightfully own
    the power of language and the law.

The Paradox
  • Hence the paradox the existence of a female
    lawyer is a powerful feminist critique on
    patriarchy, however her ultimate inability to
    measure up and her choice between either the
    good or bad father-figures competing to
    influence her, exposes a lack of agency and
    deeply conservative, antifeminist underpinnings.
  • Radical feminism is co-opted, watered-down, and
    replaced by a new woman or corporate feminism
    which equates liberation from patriarchy with
    enlistment in its ranksin one form or another.
  • Female lawyer films, therefore, become
    symptomatic of the very crisis they wish to

  • Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, Class Action,
    in Reel Justice (Kansas City Andrews and
    McMeel, 1996) 171, 176, 198, 233.
  • Lucia, Cynthia, Framing Female Lawyers Women on
    Trial in Film (Austin, TX University of Texas
    Press, 2005).
  • Ryan, Michael and Douglas Kellner, Camera
    Politica The Politics of Ideology of
    Contemporary Hollywood Film (Bloomington, IA
    Indiana University Press, 1988).
  • Sklar, Robert, Movie-Made America A Cultural
    History of American Movies, rev. ed. (New York,
    NY Vintage Books, 1994).
  • Tushnet, Mark, Class Action One View of Gender
    and Law in Popular Culture, John Denvir, ed.,
    Legal Reelism Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana, IL
    University of Illinois Press, 1996) 244-60.