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Law Practice,
Entertainment & Sports,

Sep. 13, 2021

Real to Reel

How fortunate we are to have Professors Paul Bergman and Michael Asimow again offering invaluable insights into the movies we love to watch and critique in their new book, “Real to Reel, Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies” (Vandeplas Publishing, May 2021).

2nd Appellate District, Division 6

Arthur Gilbert

Presiding Justice, 2nd District Court of Appeal, Division 6

UC Berkeley School of Law, 1963

Arthur's previous columns are available on


Lawyers, judges, cardiac surgeons... well, just about everyone takes a vacation. Even columnists take a day off now and then. Over the past three and a half decades, I may have missed a column or two. Who knows? You expect me to remember that far back?

This column is like taking a column day off because I wrote it a few months ago, but not as a column. Instead, it is an introduction to the new book "Real to Reel, Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies" (Vandeplas Publishing, May 2021) authored by the eminent Professors Michael Asimow, Dean's Executive Professor of Law, Santa Clara Law School, and Professor of Law Emeritus, UCLA School of Law; and Paul Bergman, Professor of Law Emeritus, UCLA School of Law. Their previous book "Reel Justice" received rave reviews. I guarantee the raves will continue with "Real to Reel: Truth and & Trickery in Courtroom Movies." Here is the introduction:

Some of my doctor friends refuse to watch medical dramas on television. A cardiac surgeon I know said he would like to take a scalpel to the scripts. "The gross misinformation on medical television shows gives the public a faulty view of the medical profession and makes my work far more difficult than it already is." I suggested that most people watch these shows for entertainment, and many do not regard them as an accurate view of his profession. I asked if nervous patients wheeled into surgery ever asked a question that reflected the influence of a scene they had seen on a television show or a movie. His answer was, "You would be surprised."

His comment awakened a memory that had lain dormant in the far reaches of my memory. I recalled that many years ago our family had watched a television series, in black and white of course, Dr. Kildare, starring Richard Chamberlain. Chamberlain had trained with the Royal Shakespeare Company, not the Mayo Clinic. At the time, while Dr. Kildare was the show that everyone discussed at the water cooler, I was with my mother in line at a supermarket. Behind us was Dr. Kildare, I mean Richard Chamberlain. He was next to us, but we were not autograph hounds and left the famous actor. A couple approached him and asked for medical advice. Poor guy. You know the line, "I am not a doctor." He still gave them an autograph, but did not take their pulse.

I was determined not to be influenced by my friend's uncharitable view of "medical dramas." But I realized that I felt the same way about some of the movies and television dramas I had seen over the years dealing with the law. My decades spent as a lawyer and judge no doubt contributed to my yelling at the television screen when I saw lawyers interrupting one another before an insouciant judge. Decorum inhibited me from doing the same in a movie theater. I heard Justice Holmes whispering in my ear, "Don't yell [bullshit] in a crowded theater."

Trials are conducive to portrayal in movies. A trial, by its nature, is theater. The courtroom is in fact a "set" one would find in a movie or on the stage. While it rankles me to characterize courtroom lawyers as "actors," like actors, they utter lines, and do so in a certain order. The movie director has a more creative role than the judge in the courtroom, but both control the proceedings and decide what can and cannot be said.

But what movies and theater compress into a few hours may happen over months, years, even centuries. Wordsworth remarked that "poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility." But the poetry that is produced is designed to elicit and even magnify the emotion. Artful compression allows us to feel intensely the drama, the significant and emotional power that underlies the actual event. There is painstaking care in artful movie making that makes important points in highlighting the drama.

Both real trials and those portrayed in movies take time and involve what some may view as drudgery. I prefer to view this kind of drudgery as "hard work." This is the drudgery the lawyer and artist accepts and may even enjoy. Obviously, more time goes into a trial than what occurs in the courtroom. There are endless hours with the client, the research and the investigation. A good script may even bring the drama of research to the audience. Prior to the Internet we saw the lawyer or associate surrounded by open law books in the office law library late at night, Styrofoam cup half-filled with coffee on the large library conference table. His shirt is unbuttoned, his tie askew, or, more recently, her shoes are off, she is bleary-eyed at a computer screen and shouting, "Yes, I found the case that is the winner for us!"

I was disabused of notions I had about the practice of law on film and in real life during my first day in law school. The formidable Dean Prosser walked back and forth before our first-year class assembled in the tiered amphitheater classroom and spoke these encouraging words: "Look to the left, look to the right, one of those persons will not be here at the end of the semester." I looked to the left and looked to the right... and almost fainted. I was sitting on the aisle. It was later when I saw "The Paper Chase" that I realized underlying my terror at finals and the bar exam was real-life drama.

After I passed the bar and became a deputy city attorney in Los Angeles, I tried criminal misdemeanor offenses. Some elderly folk, probably people my age now, came regularly to the court to watch the trials. We called them "court watchers." One court watcher was John, a dignified gentleman who was a holdover tenant in one of the abandoned apartments about to be razed for condominiums near what became the site for Disney Hall several decades later. John and I became friends and I asked him whether he was bored watching endless drunk driving, petty theft and other misdemeanor cases. John told me he loved the "drama of the courtroom" no matter what the trial. He liked guessing how the jury would decide a case or how the judges would rule on motions. He even offered friendly critiques of my courtroom performance. Note the word "performance." I received better advice from John than from some of the trial advocacy courses I attended.

How fortunate we are to have Bergman and Asimow again offering invaluable insights into the movies we love to watch and critique. Bergman and Asimow induce me to once again watch movies I have seen and can now appreciate with a more discerning eye. No longer will I complain when watching Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men" stick a knife into the jury room table. That he is defacing government property is beside the point. To quote a phrase from the past, Bergman and Asimow remind us that "Movies Are Better Than Ever."


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