Hollywood’s Hero-Lawyer movies are a distinct group of American feature films. Typically, they each depict a lawyer who unwittingly finds himself at the heart of a moral drama involving a client and/or a community in distress, gross injustice, the rule of law and powerful, obstructive forces that must be overcome. Alone with nothing at his side but his professional legal skills, courage and integrity (and sometimes a good friend and a good woman), the lawyer reluctantly comes to the rescue, often at great personal sacrifice. In the process, he must balance individuality and social commitment, and loyalty to friends, to the law, to the spirit of the law, to the legal community, to justice and to himself.
This article argues that Hollywood’s hero-lawyer is the symbolic “champion of equal liberty” as well as a liminal character on the frontier-edge of society. The article claims that the hero-lawyer’s frontier-based liminality is inseparable from the moral-legal principle of equal liberty that he personifies. The article considers the ways in which Hollywood’s hero-lawyer’s liminality is linked with the character’s role as champion of equal liberty. The article follows the nuances of the hero-lawyer’s liminality and moral heroism in fifteen films, focusing on the classic cinematic formulations of these points and tracing their variations in contemporary film.
Presenting the classic Hollywood hero-lawyer films, the article demonstrates how contemporary cinematic hero-lawyers (such as Michael Clayton, from 2007), are modeled on their classic predecessors. Yet, in contradistinction to their mythological forerunners, they seem to encounter growing difficulty when coming to the rescue out of the liminal space on the outskirts of society. Contemporary hero-lawyer films present a world in which personal identity is acquired through membership in and identification with a professional elite group such as a corporation or a big law firm. The social world, according to these films, is no longer made up of individuals and their relationships with society, but of closed elite groups that supply their members with their social needs. In return, these elite groups exact their members’ absolute adherence and loyalty. Further, despite their liminal personas, the new hero-lawyers often lack a frontier. They are trapped on the edge of an “inside” with no recourse to an “outside”. A Sartrean no-exit hell, if you like. This predicament undercuts the classic construction of the “liminaly situated champion of equal liberty,” questioning both the significance of equal liberty and the meaning of liminality.