FilmWatch Weekly: May it please the court

A film critic-turned-law-student looks at two new movies tackling legal matters

This week’s column necessarily begins with a personal aside. When it became clear to me in 2016, after years of writing about movies for The Oregonian (God rest its soul), that Portland’s daily newspaper was not willing to invest in regular local film criticism and movie reviews, I began to ponder other career paths. After the Events of November that year, I decided to see if attending law school was an option at my advanced age. It turns out that it was, and, long story short, I have recently concluded my 1L year at Lewis & Clark Law School.

That doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned my lifelong love of cinema, or my desire to help worthy works of art stand out amid the onslaught of mediocre mainstream moviemaking. Hence my efforts in this space, feeble as they may be. All this backstory is prelude to the fact that, less than two weeks after finishing spring semester exams, I find myself confronting a pair of films directly concerning the legal world, both fact-based and both opening the same weekend in Portland. Each has an agenda, to be sure, and each focuses on the Supreme Court, but other than that they couldn’t be more different in tone, quality, and entertainment value.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been an immensely powerful liberal and feminist voice for decades, but it’s only relatively recently, as the Court has shifted ever rightward, that she has become a pop culture icon. The documentary “RBG,” currently playing at Cinema 21 and the Hollywood Theatre, wants to capitalize on Ginsburg’s increased mainstream visibility to explore and explain the history she helped to make even before being nominated to the Supreme Court by Bill Clinton. The movie uses that 1993 confirmation hearing as a starting point, returning to it several times to illustrate Ginsburg’s legal philosophy as well as her life story. (It’s amusing and a little dispiriting how many Senators who were on the Judiciary Committee back then are still part of the national political scene, from Joe Biden to Orrin Hatch. It’s also amazing to realize that one of the most radical justices on the Court was approved 96-3. Such was the bygone era of relative bipartisanship.)

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in “RBG” by Betsy West and Julie Cohen/Photo by Claudia Raschke

Before she was bestowed (some might say burdened by) the appellation “The Notorious RBG,” Ginsburg was a trail blazer, one of nine women in her class of 500 at Harvard Law School. She finished law school at Columbia, having moved there with her devoted husband so he could pursue his career. Working for the ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project, she chipped away at institutionalized gender discrimination throughout the 1960s, arguing before the Supreme Court for the first time in 1973.

Ginsburg’s biography is fairly well-known from there, but fascinating nonetheless. “RBG” benefits from personal touches, including interviews with her children and a recounting of her unexpected (to say the least) friendship with conservative lion Justice Antonin Scalia, which was based on their shared adoration for opera. (Marty Ginsburg, Ruth’s eternally supportive husband and a model for how to be a male feminist, died in 2010.) Director Julie Cohen and Betsy West also mention the justified controversy around Ginsburg’s public statements during the 2016 Presidential campaign, a rare misstep for a woman normally so composed and deliberate in her speech and actions. Generally, though, this is a thoroughly admiring portrait of someone who, regardless of one’s political persuasion, is thoroughly admirable. At 85, she allows Cohen and West to film her working out as well as cracking up at Kate MacKinnon’s impersonation of her on “Saturday Night Live.”

At times, “RBG” plays like the sort of tribute that might play during someone’s retirement party. With any luck at all, that celebration is still several years off for Ginsburg, but when the occasion presents itself, this recognition of her legacy will be even more apt.

One of the required classes for first-year law students is Property, and one of the key modern Supreme Court cases in the area is Kelo v. City of New London (2005). This controversial 5-4 decision, in which Ginsburg joined the majority opinion, greatly expanded the reach of local governments in exercising eminent domain, the Constitutionally-approved process by which government can take private property from its owners. The city of New London, Connecticut, through a development commission, sought to seize the homes of several residents who were unwilling to sell in order to demolish them and make way for a corporate development by Pfizer, whose coffers were then flush with Viagra money. Traditionally, governments could use eminent domain to seize private property only for purposes serving the public good, such as highways, hospitals, and the like. In Kelo, the Court held that economic development of an ostensibly blighted neighborhood was sufficient justification for a governmental taking (provided, of course, that property owners were provided just compensation).

Catherine Keener on the steps of “The Little Pink House”

Sorry, that last sentence is a bit of a spoiler. If you know nothing about this case before watching “Little Pink House,” currently playing at the Regal Fox Tower, the movie will be an incredible downer. Despite being a flat-out piece of legal propaganda, with almost zero dramatic depth or tension, it did however manage to lure some legitimate talent. Oscar nominee Catherine Keener plays Susette Kelo, the middle-aged paramedic who became the de facto leader of the opposition to the Pfizer development. Jeanne Tripplehorn plays the corporate dragon lady who engineers the whole sordid deal. It also features—nerd alert!—a reunion of two Cylons from “Battlestar Galactica”: Aaron Douglas (aka Chief Galen Tyrol) as the unnamed, cartoonishly corrupt Governor of Connecticut, and Callum Keith Rennie (aka Leobon Conoy) as Kelo’s ruggedly handsome boyfriend.

But “Little Pink House” should be held in contempt of cinema. The Kelo decision outraged libertarians and liberals almost in equal measure, so it’s not as if there’s a simple political slant to the storytelling. Even more annoying, the story functions almost exclusively as a means to aggrandize the reputation of the Institute for Justice. This libertarian-leaning legal organization represented Kelo pro bono, just like the ACLU does for its clients. No harm there, but when that same Institute produces and distributes a dramatization of its efforts, and includes as a (composite?) character a crusading attorney from the Institute of Justice who rides into town to (attempt to) save the day, even the most gullible viewer may suspect an ulterior agenda.

The same one-dimensional approach dominates every character and every scene, robbing “Little Pink House” of anything beyond academic interest. In Property class, we sometimes had to watch short narrative videos made by the textbook company that illustrated a particular issue. These educational shorts made no attempt to hide their cheesiness. In that regard, they at least had more self-consciousness than this professionally made feature film.

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