by Finchley Atticus
Changing Lanes (2002, 99 minutes)
Finchley’s Rating: 9/10
Director: Roger Michell
Lead actors: Ben Afflek, Samuel L Jackson, Toni Collette, Richard Jenkins
**Minor spoiler warning**
One hallmark of most of the American Bar Association’s 25 Greatest Legal Movies is the “climactic court scene”. Cue Jack Nicholson’s unforgettable “You can’t handle the truth!!” in A Few Good Men. We have Al Pacino’s impassioned retort to the judge “You’re out of order!!”. Who couldn’t be moved by Santa’s sack of mail delivered to the incredulous judge in Miracle on 34th Street, the key evidence ensuring Christmas would endure forever despite finicky prosecutors who should be chasing the real criminals deserving of the electric chair?
One movie that should be on the ABA’s list is Changing Lanes (2002). Yet it’s a movie with no climactic court scene. In fact, the court scenes feature early on in the movie for about only five minutes. It’s a thoughtful and sober movie that the distributors strangely marketed aimlessly towards the high octane Fast and Furious crowd expecting to cheer at the rage and vengeance on the road between two protagonists arising from a fender bender. Yet the protagonists are on New York City’s roads for maybe five minutes, with much of the anger and retribution really percolating in a Manhattan law firm and fine dining establishments. You will probably see more action in a Power Rangers movie than in Changing Lanes. Significantly though, for any lawyer in any area of legal practice, it’s an intelligent movie that focuses on raising realistic legal ethical issues that make us reflect upon our professionalism, our role as advocates and, fundamentally, our approach to legal ethics in practice.
Ben Affleck – who a decade later earned his directing stripes helming the acclaimed Argo – is Gavin Banek, a rising partner in a New York law firm. At the urging of his superiors, he rushes off to probate court to file documents relating to a multi-million dollar foundation for a recently deceased client. On his way to court, he has a fender bender with Doyle Gipson, a recovering alcoholic insurance salesman, played with intensity by Samuel L Jackson. Coincidentally, Doyle is on his way to court seeking joint custody of his two sons. Fortunately, neither Gavin nor Doyle are injured, but both are in a hurry to reach their court appointment on time, with much at stake professionally and personally. For Gavin, the filing of the documents will ensure control of the foundation remains the hands of his superiors at his law firm. For Doyle, it means a brighter future with his kids and possibly his estranged wife. Initially the protagonists are polite on the road (sorry, no swinging of punches or rude hand gestures here) and Doyle wants to “do the right thing” and exchange insurance details with Gavin. It’s here that Gavin does the wrong thing by hastily giving Doyle a blank cheque, which Doyle refuses. Gavin does not care and speeds off to court leaving Doyle in the lurch.
It’s only when Gavin reaches court on time that he realises he accidentally left the all-important power of appointment (which the judge wryly describes as having “great magical power”) with Doyle following the fender bender kerfuffle. Whoops. A lawyer’s worst nightmare and something we hope never happens. The judge gives Gavin until 5pm to find the power of appointment. To make matters worse, Doyle turns up late to the joint custody hearing, resulting in the judge granting sole custody of the children to Doyle’s wife. Double whoops.
Gavin’s attempts to be contrite and remorseful towards Doyle is the start of the escalating vengeance between the two – as Gavin really needs that power of appointment. It’s from this point that Changing Lanes goes to the next level by raising a spectrum of legal ethics issues in a nuanced and subtle manner. One realistic aspect is that Gavin and his colleagues wrestle with these legal ethical issues in the confines of a law firm rather than in the court room (really, it doesn’t often happen that your client will whisper to you in court “I’M REALLY GUILTY!”); no formal conferences with agendas to discuss ethical rules. Rather Gavin raises these ethical issues impromptu in the offices of his superiors (played by Sydney Pollack and Richard Jenkins) or his associate colleague Michelle (Toni Collette) who still maintains affections for Gavin, as they once had a brief affair. Gavin wrestles with the fact that he may have induced the elderly and now deceased Simon Dunn to sign the power of appointment for the foundation, at a time when Simon’s mental capacity was diminished and was incapable of making an informed decision. Gavin is especially affronted by his superiors’ proposal to forge Simon’s power of appointment, as they argue that’s what it means to be a partner, with one of them dismissing Gavin’s moral concerns “to hell what you think about your high school ethics class!” Actually, ethics is taught at law school level, but you get the point. To make matters more complex, one of the superiors happens to be Gavin’s father-in-law, raising the “is blood thicker than ethics?” issue.
It’s only when you analyse a movie script that you realise that most characters will spout usually one sentence at a time. Watch Changing Lanes for its powerful (and even frighteningly persuasive) mini-speeches on legal ethics and the human character. The mini-speech by Gavin’s wife Cynthia at lunch, where she understands she married a Wall Street lawyer, and is in no doubt she expects Gavin to find ways to cheat as a “Wall Street lawyer”. Savour the speech by Sydney Pollack’s Stephen Delano who can live with himself because he does “more good than harm – what other standard is there to judge by?” Well of course we have our professional conduct rules for one thing. Stephen presses the point to Gavin when he discloses that the multi-million dollar foundation was established by Simon as a tax break, and profited from people working in high pollution chemical plants in Mexico. This raises a key issue for any legal ethics class. Being an ethical lawyer does not necessarily mean we have ethical clients, and one can’t help wonder whether unethical clients unduly influence a lawyer’s ethical framework.
Changing Lanes was directed with much skill and sensitivity by Roger Michell, who earlier made a name for himself by directing Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. Maybe it’s because of the director’s British background that rainfall regularly features in the movie (there’s even rain, well sort of, featured in a key scene at Gavin’s law firm!). Yet the rainfall adds an appropriate sombre atmosphere to this highly recommended movie. Changing Lanes is a movie that deserves a place in the canon of must-see legal movies, and certainly warrants watching and debate in any legal ethics class.