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The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: Denial

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Germany.

Usually, searching for The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time means sitting down on the couch, finding a movie on iTunes, and restarting my router a few times until the thing loads. This week, however, I had occasion to actually get out of the house and take a trip to my local cineplex, where a new courtroom drama is gracing screens. It’s called “Denial,” and it came out in select cities on September 30th. Here’s my review:

2016 dir. Mick Jackson

His views are steeped in paranoia and built on the denial of basic, obvious facts. He’s already revered in shadowy right-wing corners of the net, but he wants to bring his fringe theories into the mainstream. He’s litigious. When he’s criticized, he strikes back with a lawsuit. He insists he’s not a racist; he’s just a patriot with a special love for his own people, and he wants to see the culture that his parents passed on to him preserved. He’s bombastic, a showman, but the theatrics cover over a disturbed and hateful psychology. Sometimes, before bed, he likes to read the speeches of Adolf Hitler, the words of the dictator repeating in his mind like a lullaby.

I’m speaking, of course, of David Irving, British historian of the Third Reich and noted Holocaust denier. “Denial,” a new film starring Rachel Weiss, Tom Wilkinson, and Timothy Spall, tells the story of Irving’s lawsuit against Deborah Lipstadt, an expert on Holocaust denial who called Irving a liar and anti-Semite. Irving sued Lipstadt for libel in 1996, and in the British court system where the case was tried, the burden of proof goes to the defendant. So, a perverse task befell Lipstadt: to establish that Irving was, in fact, a liar, she and her lawyers had to prove in court that more than a million men, women, and children really were gassed at Auschwitz.

This makes for a strange kind of drama: the central question of the movie is whether Lipstadt’s team will be able to successfully prove what every thinking person already knows to be true. The obviousness of who’s right and who’s wrong takes some suspense out of the proceedings, but the courtroom battle in “Denial” is actually quite powerful. The movie is a procedural about the careful, methodical dismantling of a pack of lies. It’s a celebration of sanity over sophistry, reason over bullshit.

The timing of the movie’s release could not have been better. Irving bears more than a passing resemblance to a certain American presidential candidate: in his bullying manner, his infuriating obfuscations, and his remarkable indecency. Both men live in their own, twisted realities. Both seem to think it’s more offensive to call someone racist than to be racist. Both lie with impunity and demand proof for things that there is no good reason to question.

There’s simply no arguing with such people. But how can they be kept from wreaking havoc? Hillary Clinton, thank god, seems to know what Lipstadt and her lawyers knew: you don’t let them get under your skin; you box them in with facts; you let their own ugly words speak for themselves.

So, “Denial” is worth watching for people who are feeling exasperated with our current political scene. It also has a lot to offer fans of the lawyer movie genre. Much of the film’s dialogue was lifted straight from court transcripts, and the cross-examinations of Irving by barrister Richard Rampton crackle with precision and force.

That said, “Denial” is ultimately not a great film. Outside of the courtroom, it fails to flesh out its characters or conflicts in a particularly compelling way. The script, by playwright David Hare, spends a lot of time emphasizing Lipstadt’s disagreements with her lawyers about who should take the stand. These arguments are interesting, as far as legal strategy goes, but they’re not quite enough to hang a story on. Meanwhile, as Deborah Lipstadt, Rachel Weiss doesn’t have much to do other than be frustrated and occasionally go jogging with her dog.

Still, “Denial” is a great film for the moment. It’s incredibly cathartic to see a racist liar be skillfully exposed. The court system may not be a perfect arbiter of the truth, but it sure is better than cable news.