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The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time: Presumed Innocent

Yes, Harrison Ford. We get it. You’re brooding and alone.

For this week’s edition of The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time, I decided to check out #11 on the ABA’s Top 25…

Presumed Innocent
1990 dir. Alan J. Pakuta

“Presumed Innocent,” starring Harrison Ford, is about a lawyer accused of a killing a coworker with whom he was having an affair. It falls into the familiar Clear My Name category of lawyer movies, in which an intrepid defense team has to prove their man’s innocence by some shadowy conspiracy. In other words, it’s “The Fugitive” with more lawyers.

The added twist is that the defendant, Rusty Sabich, is himself a prosecutor at the district attorney’s office. As he intones in a clunky voiceover that bookends the movie, he “is part of the business of accusing, judging and punishing.” So “Presumed Innocent” is also about a role reversal and fall from grace, a la “Minority Report” and “Logan’s Run.”

In those movies, when they themselves become targets, the protagonists have to question the institutions they used to serve. That happens to a certain extent in “Presumed Innocent,” too. A major theme in the film is that people aren’t completely innocent or guilty, despite the clean-cut categories of our court system. Everyone in the movie is morally compromised. The defendant insists he’s not a murderer, but he never denies being a philanderer. The prosecutors claim they want to put away a killer, but they’re enmeshed in dirty politics. The judge might be a crook, and even the victim, who appears in flashbacks, is guilty: she’s played as a striving and manipulative femme fatale who had it coming (the gender politics clearly belong to 1990 and not 2016). In other words, the movie suggests that we’re presumed innocent as a matter of criminal procedure, but none of us really is.

The problem is that “Presumed Innocent” doesn’t really explore this theme in depth. Instead, it’s a workmanlike thriller that mostly sticks to developing its whodunit plot. The writing and direction are professional and competent but not flashy. The same can be said of Harrison Ford, who manages to downplay his natural charm and swagger.

The filmmakers seem to be going for a kind of gritty realism, and they do a good job making the story – despite its sensationalistic premise – feel reasonably grounded. That said, based on my experience watching other fictional lawyer movies, I’d say that a few liberties were taken in terms of legal accuracy. There are almost no cops in the movie and no one ever searches the main suspects house for a murder weapon. Meanwhile, the grand conspiracy proves to be a clunky plot device with little connection to any relation to real-world corruption. This is a case that’s clearly being tried in the court of Hollywood Law.

So, “Presumed Innocent” is an entertaining procedural that touches on one of the lawyer movie’s most fertile themes, the gap between legal process and justice. But it will probably end up somewhere in the middle of the pack when it comes time to enumerate The Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time.