I’ll regularly review movies on my Omnivorous Cinephile blog. This one, though, is a bit different.
In 2003, Fox released the film Runaway Jury. Based on a John Grisham novel, the movie featured an excellent cast, including John Cusack, Rachel Weisz, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Bruce Davison, Bruce McGill, and Jeremy Priven, along with a coterie of easily-recognizable supporting actors.
Grisham had been a sensation in the publishing field since “The Firm” in 1991. That book sold over 7 million copies, and with his subsequent bestsellers he’s racked up over 275 million books sold. Hollywood had a major hit with Sidney Pollack’s adaptation of The Firm, and that was followed by excellent box office for both The Pelican Brief and The Client. The profitability fell off with subsequent movies such as A Time to Kill, The Rainmaker, and The Chamber. The adaptation of Runaway Jury was the last movie to attempt to recapture the magic Grisham spark of The Firm.
The story had major trouble in its journey to the screen from when it hit bookshelves in 1996. Fox bought the film rights and tried to set up a production, but multiple directors and actors attached to the film ended up dropping out. Joel Schumacher was supposed to direct, as he had The Client and A Time to Kill, and Edward Norton, Sean Connery, and Gwyneth Paltrow were to star, but that fell through. Other actors who were cast included Will Smith, Jennifer Connelly, and Naomi Watts, and both Mike Newell (Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) and Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, Children of Men) were given the director’s chair. But it never came together.
And then reality caught up with the novel. The story dealt with a tobacco lawsuit that finally found the tobacco companies liable for their cancer-causing product. But then two years after it came out, the four main tobacco companies reached the master settlement with 46 state attorneys general (the other four states had already reached settlements by then). So the central case in the story was now moot.
There was, however, another target on the horizon. Following the Tobacco settlement, lawyers turned their attention to gun manufacturers as the next major litigation battlefield. So Runaway Jury changed to deal with the aftermath of a mass shooting at a brokerage firm in New Orleans. In 1999, a day trader went on a shooting rampage at two such firms in Atlanta, killing 9 and injuring 12, after killing his wife and two other family members earlier in the day. So the movie had a new story.
Gary Fleder was brought in to direct and produce. He’d done the movie version of James Paterson’s novel Kiss The Girls and had also directed episodes of both “Homicide: Life On The Streets” and “The Shield.” Four screenwriters were credited with the script in the end, and principle photography began in the early fall of 2002 at several locations in New Orleans. In October 2003, Runaway Jury made its debut in theaters. But any hope that lightning would strike again was dashed in its first week. The $60 million dollar film made just $11 million, on its way to a USA gross of $49 million. That was the end of the adaptations of Grisham legal thrillers for the big screen. (One of his non-genre stories, “Skipping Christmas,” was later the basis for Christmas with the Kranks.)
It’s too bad, since it was a decent legal thriller, and it contains a special scene of Hoffman and Hackman arguing over the law in a courthouse bathroom. It wasn’t in the original script, but was added after a crewmember discovered the fact that the two actors, who were longtime friends and former roommates, had never done a scene together in their long careers. (When they were classmates at the Pasadena Playhouse, they were voted the actors “least likely to succeed.”)
The threat of lawsuits has for decades been the way manufacturers were reined in when their greed put the public at risk. You have the major decisions such as the cigarette master settlement and the asbestos settlement, and by the turn of the millennium gun manufacturers were taking heat rather than packing it. Smith and Wesson agreed to a federal settlement of multiple lawsuits in 2000, and HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo (now governor of New York) said that if the other manufacturers didn’t comply with regulation to their industry, they’d suffer “death by a thousand cuts” from lawsuits.
But the manufacturers and their lobbyists in the NRA moved to change the narrative. They had the “Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act” put forward in Congress. It was approved by both houses and signed into law on October 26th, 2005 by George W. Bush. In effect, it prevents the gun companies from being held liable for how their product is used. There are a couple of exceptions in the bill for flagrant negligence, but in the years since the PLCAA came into effect there have only been three lawsuits that made it to court, while many others have been dismissed. (Of the three, one jury found for the defendant, one for the plaintiff, and one was settled before a verdict.)
There had been legislative action pushed by the NRA before, including the Dickey Amendment of 1996 that cut off any federal funding for the CDC to investigate gun violence. After the PLCAA, the gun lobby went on a tear of legislation, promoting their wish list of eliminating any restrictions on guns. Rather than do it federally, they concentrated on states, pushing conceal-carry, open carry, stand your ground, and other laws aiming to give the Second Amendment the broadest lack of restrictions possible. The NRA’s political action has been compared to a protection racket: they’ll keep funding politicians who do what they say and support their positions, but if a politician does something they don’t like then they’ll cut off the funding and mobilize their members to vote against the representative. The head of the NRA in Florida, where much of the state legislation was first rolled out, is often referred to as the actual governor of Florida. The NRA has also hamstrung the agency that has jurisdiction over guns, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. They advocated against the nominated directors of the ATF as well as had the agency’s funding cut. Currently the ATF is smaller than the Broward County PD in Florida, and the number of agents it has is less than the number of police in Washington, DC.
But as I write this, the March For Our Lives is winding down. The murder of 17 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland (FL) on Valentine’s Day this year has proved to be a watershed moment of history. There was talk after the Sandy Hook massacre that it would be the moment that finally broke the NRA’s power, but that didn’t happen. Rather than advocating against the NRA, parents of children sought to cocoon them from their fears. With the Pulse Nightclub, the Orlando LGBTQ community was attacked, but they were not a cohesive group that could work together to organize opposition. The same with the victims in Las Vegas. But with Parkland you have a cohesive group – most of the students have been together for their entire academic lives – and they were old enough to present their positions thoughtfully and cogently. You also can’t underestimate the effect of social media. The students have been using it for years; it’s their playing field. (One of them Instagrammed hiding during the attack so people could experience what the students went through, including hearing the gunshots outside the room where they hunkered down.)
In the aftermath of past shootings, the NRA has effectively controlled the dialog – thoughts and prayers, lip service to change, and then strangle any actual action on the problem. But this time the students called BS on all of that. And it’s already had an impact, even if they are baby-steps. Florida enacted its first gun control legislation in 20 years, and thanks to a provision in the recent omnibus spending bill the CDC can now study gun violence. More telling is that politicians with A ratings by the NRA are now trying to cast themselves as gun control advocates. But that’s not enough for the Parkland students who want comprehensive gun legislation. Those A ratings by the NRA are becoming scarlet letters for many politicians.
Spoiler Alert: I’m about to talk about the end of Runaway Jury so if you haven’t seen the movie, stop here.
In a way, today’s rally is a vindication of Runaway Jury. At the end of the movie, there’s a scene between Hackman, who plays a jury consultant brought in to pack the jury to the benefit of the gun manufacturer on trial, and John Cusack, one of the jurors who, we learn towards the end of the film, lost his girlfriend years earlier in a school shooting. Since that event, Cusack’s character has pursued gun lawsuits with the assistance of Rachel Weiss, his girlfriend’s sister. The jury has come back with a huge award for the plaintiff. Hackman can’t understand how Cusack swung the jury to vote his way. Cusack responds, “I didn’t swing anything. I just stopped you from stealing the thing. We let ’em vote their hearts. That means you lose.”
Right now, in this country, there are a lot of people listening to their hearts. And they’ll be voting in November.