Blog Directory CineVerse: A good offense is the best defense

A good offense is the best defense

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Years before the O.J. Simpson "trial of the century," Claus von Bülow dominated headlines. Convicted for the attempted murder of his wife Sunny, which had left her in a coma, von Bülow makes for a fascinating character study in "Reversal of Fortune," the 1990 legal drama that depicts his forthcoming second trial for the attempted murder and his brilliant defense mounted by Alan Dershowitz. Our CineVerse group reviewed the evidence, parsed the testimony, and reached the following verdicts about this film last night:

What took you by surprise about this film?

  • For such a famous court case, very little of the story or drama occurs within an actual courtroom. Most of the plot and action involves catching us up on the back story and the sleuthing and preparation of Alan Dershowitz and his team.
  • Unlike heavy-handed legal thrillers like A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent, Witness for the Prosecution, or The Verdict, which can rely on startling twists in the courtroom, surprise witnesses, over-the-top theatrics, and subplots involving attorney protagonists grappling with personal problems, the primary conflict and tension here ride with Dershowitz and his tireless digging into the truth as well as the moral and philosophical questions he forces his young team to ponder. This picture also has a lot more laughs and lightheartedness than the aforementioned movies.
  • This film satisfies on many levels and falls within several subgenres, including courtroom drama, murder mystery, black comedy, and docudrama.
    • “The movie is at once a complex legal drama, a comedy of manners, a sordid peek into the lives of the idle rich, and — finally — a tragedy about the idle rich,“ wrote film critic Owen Gleiberman.
  • Roger Ebert posited that this movie’s strength is its focus on personalities; think about how interesting Claus and Alan are as contrasting characters, and how intriguing Sunny herself is.
  • Interestingly, the tale is narrated by the comatose wife, Sunny. The filmmakers could’ve chosen not to have voiceover narration or could have selected Dershowitz or Claus von Bülow to be the narrator. But the focus is immediately put on the consequences of a possibly criminal act and who’s responsible by having Sunny’s voice lead us through the story.
Themes at work in Reversal of Fortune
  • Appearances can be deceiving. Claus von Bülow may look the guilty part and appear privileged and selfishly motivated, but this movie suggests that it is possible he didn’t try to kill his wife. Likewise, Alan Dershowitz comes across as a nerdy, manic and verbose savant—not a stoic, handsome, enigmatic silent type in the vein of Atticus Finch; yet his intuitive skills and shrewd instincts provide a strong defense for von Bulow.
  • It’s the journey, not the destination, that can be important and satisfying. This is true of the viewer as well as Dershowitz.
    • We never ultimately learn if von Bülow is guilty or innocent, and the case is not neatly resolved by the end of the picture; likewise, Dershowitz doesn’t take the case because he’s convinced of his client’s innocence; instead, he felt it important to tackle crucial moral/legal issues that could have ramifications for later legal cases.
    • Dershowitz’s journey—his team’s investigation of the facts—constitute the heart of this movie.
  • Is it possible to achieve true justice in a flawed but necessary criminal court system? Consider that von Bülow probably wouldn’t have been acquitted if he wasn’t rich and couldn’t afford a great lawyer.
    • Skilled representation is crucial if you want to win a court case. Winning requires talented legal experts—and some luck in terms of finding loopholes, errors by the other team, and compelling witnesses eager to testify for your side.
  • This is also a film about avarice, class, and uppercrust politics.
Movies that Reversal of Fortune brings to mind
  • Jagged Edge
  • Devil’s Knot
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  • The Verdict
  • Anatomy of a Murder
  • Presumed Innocent
Other films directed by Barbet Schroeder 
  • Barfly
  • Murder by Numbers
  • Our Lady of the Assassins
  • Single White Female

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