MF 344 : Summer movie series: The Paper Chase (1973)
Updated: Jul 9, 2021
This week, I cover The Paper Chase (1973) about the first year of law school. More at www.bemovingforward.com.
Note: the summer movie series will air on Fridays.
School's out (so it's a perfect time to watch this)
I'm glad I went to law school when I did. The late 1990s were a time when the legal profession was just starting to catch up with technology. Laptops were starting to make an appearance in the classroom and being "wired for broadband" was becoming a library norm.
I have no idea what it's like to be a law student in 2021, in the age of social media. However, I got a small glimpse earlier this week. I fell into a YouTube rabbit hole as I'm prone to do and stumbled onto a vlog of a first-year law student. I watched some of the videos that documented her journey, starting from before her first day to finishing the spring semester and surviving final exams. It was fascinating to see that while a lot has changed, some things are still universal no matter when you went to law school. That's when it occurred to me, which movie I should cover on this week's episode.
Prior to going to law school, I had heard from friends and family friends that there were two fictional sources that were essential consuming for any future lawyer. The first was Scott Turow's novel, One L, based on his own experiences as a law student at Harvard. The second was the film, The Paper Chase, also about the first year experience at Harvard Law, and based on the novel by John Jay Osbourne. Oddly, everyone who recommended these sources admonished me to read (or watch, in the case of the later) them after my first semester. The prevailing wisdom at the time was that if you consumed them before matriculating you might change your mind and be scared off from the profession before your first class.
I ended up watching The Paper Chase after my first semester. I came home for a long winter's nap and felt like a hundred pound of books and thousands of pages of treatises were lifted off my head. I was human again. I rented the movie from Blockbuster and watched it. The movie eerily gave me bouts of deja vu as I witnessed these hapless characters, recent college grads, suffer their way through their first year at Harvard Law School. While the overblown 1970s hairdoos and bell bottoms were not relatable, the experience of sitting in a contracts class, terrified you would be called on by a stoic, poker faced professor was all too familiar. The late night cram sessions, the freakout moments in the library, the clickiness of study groups, the sniping, and bouts of triumph, stress, terror, relief, law jokes, and more stress were all notes that I had just played in my first recital.
Since that first viewing many moons ago, The Paper Chase has become one of my classic cinema gotos, a reminder of days past. I'm not sure if it's still recommended to this generation's law students as a "must watch" movie, especially now that there are more recent films and shows that cover the law school experience. However, I still think it's worth a watch to remind us that some things never change and to spotlight the many things that have changed, mostly for the better.
The Paper Chase follows a group of law students during their first year at Harvard Law. It's a legal drama that has no courtroom but plenty of high stakes, stress, tension and conflict. Lots of conflict. The movie is made up of an ensemble cast of characters that convincingly portray several archetypes you often find in your first year:
James Hart (played by Timothy Bottoms) is a bright, good natured midwesterner who comes to law school in the hopes of doing great things.
Thomas Anderson (played by Edward Herrman) is a brilliant, albeit calculating bookworm, prone to viewing his classmates as statistics.
Franklin Ford III (played by Graham Beckel) is a legacy character, following in the footsteps of several generations of his family that have graduated from Harvard Law.
Kevin Brooks (played by James Naughton) is a newlywed who happens to be gifted with a photographic memory but struggles with synthesizing vast amounts of information.
Willis Bell (played by Craig Richard Nelson) is a know-it-all property law scholar whose father is a successful attorney.
I came across many students who fit these archetypes during my first year along with combinations of traits. I also came across personality types that defy description altogether.
Rounding out the cast, Lindsay Wagner plays Susan Fields who becomes romantically involved with Hart. She's not a law student but is revealed to have a connection to the law school that causes Hart a lot of anxiety and agitation. The highlight to watch for is the late great John Houseman who gives a stellar performance as the legendary professor, Charles Kingsfield. Houseman's performance is a case study in poker face inducing terror and every minute he's on screen, you can't help but be riveted. Notably, this was Houseman's first on-screen role and he would go on to win the Academy Award for best supporting actor and reprise the character in a television series adaptation and a sitcom episode.
In a nutshell, The Paper Chase is a fun drama with bits of humor that showcases some of the eccentric personalities you will find in law school. It's also a fascinating look at an insular microcosm that few can understand unless they experience it for themselves. The first year is often considered the hardest for law students. Yet, it's also one that many look back on with fondness (that's how twisted lawyers are) as time passes. While it may not be a useful primer for what the law school life is like in 2021, it's nonetheless an entertaining film with solid performances; accented by beautiful cinematography from the legendary Gordon Willis ("The Godfather"). It's worth a watch for anyone who is going to law school, about to enroll this fall (no need to wait in my opinion, it won't sting as badly as reputed), and for those who are simply curious about what goes on within those hallowed halls. Moreover, the film serves as a useful retrospective, being a product of its time. The lack of prominent female or minority characters parallels how slow both the legal and entertainment professions were to change. If The Paper Chase were made or remade today, no doubt the study group would be much more diverse and certainly tech savvy. However, they might not be so different from their 1973 counterparts in how they react to the odd, terrifying, at times triumphant, other times soul crushing, first year of law school.
Stellar ensemble cast. You buy into their performances as law students and in the case of John Houseman, he completely buries himself in the role of a tenured law professor.
Gorgeous cinematography by Gordon Willis, best known for his work on The Godfather.
Story and performances capture the stress of being a first-year law student.
The romantic leads, Timothy Bottoms ("James Hart") and Lindsay Wagner ("Susan Fields") don't have very good chemistry. The relationship is mostly a chore though it could be argued this is an accurate portrayal of the chaos and dysfunction that law school will put on any new dating relationship.
Some of the minor characters, including ”Miss Farranti” (Blair Brown) are interesting and should have had more development and screen time.
The movie focuses too narrowly on one class. It would have been interesting to see some of the others to get a broader view of the first-year law student experience.
**** (out of five)
Where you can watch The Paper Chase (1973)
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Read the novel
The Paper Chase by John Jay Osbourne (*** 1/2)
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