Director: James Bridges
Writer: James Bridges; The Paper Chase by John Jay Osborn, Jr.
Cinematographer: Gordon Willis
Producer: Rodrick Paul and Robert C. Thompson
by Jon Cvack
Shot by the Prince of Darkness, Gordon Willis, The Paper Chase involves first year student James Hart (Timothy Bottoms) who walks into his first class with the formidable and genius Professor W. Kingsfield Jr. (John Houseman), who has taught past senators, supreme court justices, and world famous attorneys. In terms of screen professors, Kingsfield is far from admirable or charming, but one of the most fascinating. These last few years I’ve developed a great interest in institutions like Harvard Law (or their Business or Med schools). Up there with Stanford, Oxford, and others I find it exciting that people so young are immediately positioned in the upper echelons of great power and influence. Looking up the demographics, wondering how old these characters are, I learned that the average age of Havard Law students is 24, and this number has gone up from decades past. To witness such a seemingly impossible task that is studying at arguably the greatest law school on Earth (though looks like Yale as overtaken it recently) is the perfect focus for a story. This film really dives into how the sausage made and it’s a thrill to watch.
Kingsfield enters the room with his seating chart of the hundred or so students in class, each with a picture and a name. He demands to know the facts of the various case they’ve been studying. Participating is a part of the grade and no one can risk cowering in the corner. After a few crash and burn at the task, it leaves only a few ambitious to answer. One of this students is Mr. James Hart, who joins up with a few other students to form a study group, in which each person takes up a different piece of law (contracts, criminal, etc.) and provides a study guide. A fifth generation from the group, Frank Ford (Graham Beckett), whose great-great-great-grandfather went to Harvard before the United States existed, defines the level of competition and types of students admitted.
Mr. Hart and Frank soon become best friends, doing their best to hold together their study group, while keeping their grades up . The group starts out with Kevin Brooks (James Naughton), Thomas Anderson (Edward Hermann), Willis Belli (Craig Richard Nelson), and another guy O’Connor who ditches out fairly fast. Thomas you’ll know from The Lost Boys (1987) as the mom’s boyfriend, serving as the cool and collectively and insufferably pretentious student who smokes a pipe. Wills Belli is even worse, as the haughty and condescending student who threatens to refuse to turn his reports because the others would be so inferior to his own; he plans to publish his outline and doesn’t feel it’s worth giving away for free.
Finally is Kevin Brooks, who’s got an actual photographic memory, but little in the ways of analytic skills - which law obviously requires. While it leaves you wondering how he passed the LSAT logic questions (which if you don’t know what these are, try some outlet; they’re fun until you realize how difficult they are), we get to witness a character confront what he considers an absolute failure. It’s all the more complex in that he has a wife, whose father has provided them a great apartment (beyond the married dorms); clearly has a mind that could succeed at so many other things - and probably has - and yet finds life meaningless upon confronting his failure to become a Harvard Law graduate.
It’s between the lines that you find the other layer of depth in that all of these students were the best for their entire lives. They are fully aware that they need to be the best in school to achieve the great things that lie beyond - whether a lucrative job or politics. Being in film there is an equal degree of competition, but the endeavor is communal and collaborative that it never becomes lonely. What we see at Harvard Law is every student out for themselves, helping each other as they can, but all competing to be the best, whose very requirement is being alone and studying.
A common element for those who pursue politics is a need for adulation, often based on difficult childhoods. It’s something that David Axelrod has mentioned on his podcast a bunch of times, and the more I biographies I read about politics the more I see it. In the simplest sense, it’s receiving praise for what appears to be a selfless activity, which is only accomplished by being enough of a narcissist to believe you can do such great and noble things (and I don’t necessarily mean this pejoratively). As with any lofty aspirations, whether to be an aspiring musician, athlete, or Harvard Law Graduate - you will defend the endeavor by either saying it’s either for other people, or for yourself. Or maybe it’s just something you have to do. It all requires practice, discipline, and - I think most importantly - natural talent.
Watching these students engage one another in a form of mental, or even superficial, combat was exciting to see. Knowing that there can be only so many in the 99% they know what’s most important is their own, individual study.
Which leads us to Mr. Hart’s strange relationship with Kingsfield’s daughter Susan Field (Lindsay Wagner), who was engaged to a lawyer who graduated from Harvard Law and couldn’t handle the grind so dumped her to go backpacking through Europe. Susan and Mr. Hart have sex, then Mr. Hart gets stressed out with school, then they break up, then they get back together, then he gets stressed again, and sometime during this he finds a secret room with old files from the professors, and for a second I thought that some elaborate cheating scheme was about to take place, but it was just about reading Kingsfield’s old thoughts on Law while a student. Mr. Hart volunteers to help Kingsfield with some research and fails, and Kingsfield is an asshole, and one day Mr. Hart tells him this, either before or after he breaks up with Susan, but Kingsfield doesn’t really care (though it is his funniest moment). It was as ridiculous as it sounds and never even went anywhere. In the end, Mr. Hart simply studies hard and gets a good grade on the exam. He then ends up back with the girl again.
I guess the point was demonstrating how life and people get in the way of certain dreams or goals, but the story’s complete lack of a steady plot left me frustrated. It culminated in some weird sequence where Frank and Mr. Hart go to a hotel to study, and piss off the management because there’s paper all over the room and they’re talking about murder law. It’s kind of funny, but by this point it had become all too dependent on “…and then.” It felt as though the story was suppose to focus on a student struggling with his first year of law, discovering it just wouldn’t be long enough. I wasn’t excited for the few seconds I thought he was going to cheat, but at least this could have tested the ethics of each character more; perhaps showing why they want to be lawyers and how their minds work. In the end, it just felt like they were sucking in information and facts, simply to puke them out before clearing room for the next class. There could have been more.
Nevertheless, the movie is as gorgeous as you’d expect from Gordon Willis, with some absolutely haunting imagery, worth checking out for that alone.
BELOW: Just learned it spawned The Paper Chase television series; including an opening credit song just as you'd expect from the 70s
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