Movies for the Resistance: The Devil’s Advocate

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Keanu Reeves, Al Pacino, Charlize Theron, Jeffrey Jones, Judith Ivey, Connie Nielsen and Craig T. Nelson
Directed by: Taylor Hackford
Running time: 144 minutes
Rating: R
Year of release: 1997


The media’s been making more hay lately about the “Faustian bargain” the GOP cut with Donald Trump. Republican lawmakers ignore his excesses and make him feel like a big boy in exchange for him signing whatever they put across his desk. It hasn’t quite worked out that way, and in exchange for… well, nothing, they find themselves saddled with the grotesque ethical lapses, the misogyny and racism, the horrendous violation of every established standard of decency, and the sheer gross incompetence of it all. We’re finally seeing signs that GOP has read the fine print and grasped just how massively fucked they are. They signed a deal with a monster and became active enablers of his monstrosity.

(Before I get farther, I might add that we on the left aren’t immune from such deals either. We happily ignored Bill Clinton’s dalliances and threw a number of his victims under the bus in exchange for favorable political accomplishments. It pales before the nightmare of Trump, and we got a successful presidency out of it… but try telling that to the Paula Joneses and Monica Lewinskys left in his wake.)

The Devil’s Advocate makes a good template for this particular Faust story, in part because it, like Trump, focuses largely on vanity as the sin du jour. It’s a simple concept – a John Grisham novel with a literal instead of a figurative devil at the head of the firm – but it plays out in surprisingly potent ways. (With a few shadows of Macbeth thrown in here and there.) Critics called it out for its melodramatic tone, but the theatrics are far more feature than bug, and the participants seem just aware enough of the overheated material to wink without upending the whole apple cart. (Al Pacino made an art form out of it.)

And it does know the price you pay when you dance to that fiddle. Indeed, one of its most potent pleasures comes from watching slick Florida lawyer Kevin Lomax (Keanu Reeves) slowly understand just how deeply he’s caught, and what’s expected of him when he is. That look, and those of others in the unbelievably corrupt firm he joins, can be seen in snippets of Trump’s various underlings and enablers. It tends to emerge in two forms: barely disguised hostility, and sudden pained expressions of realization. The former can be seen anytime one of the White House flying monkeys speaks to the press. The latter shows up mostly on Congressmen and GOP faithful who thought that could benefit from this unholy mess, as well as figures from the administration itself unceremoniously dumped to the curb.

There’s no way out of course. As Mark Shields wryly observed, Trump has a way of diminishing anyone and anything he comes into contact with, leaving them smaller and coarser when he’s done. And yet getting to that point proves remarkably easy. You keep an eye on the bigger picture, you make compromises to gain leverage, you allow your ego to be stoked, and then suddenly you’re kneeling before the black altar ready to fuck your sister and herald the end of the world.

The deliciously overheated nature of the movie paints every step in delightfully sudsy terms, as Lomax slowly uncover just what he’s become a part of. It starts early – and relatively intensely – when he a child molester off. It should be horrific, especially when he overtly acknowledges that his client did it. But he and his wife (Charlize Theron) are very good at looking the other way, and somewhere in there, there’s still a principle. Everyone has a right to a legal defense, after all; even the kiddie rapists.

Then he arrives in New York, and what at first seems like an unforgivable ethical lapse turns out to be just Step A. Each new case brings him accolades and rewards… and hides larger and larger evils beneath the surface.  He deftly avoids those questions by focusing on the rhetoric: deployed with unbelievable skill and covering up increasingly vast monstrosities beneath the tiniest of fig leaves. The act itself becomes its own reward, as he becomes convinced the courtroom belongs to him alone. It’s blindingly obvious how horrid it all is. The Devil merely provides some shiny distractions to make excusing it easier. So it goes, until he’s so far gone that the very notion of changing course seems absurd.

The film loves showing us how easy it is to step into that trap, and how juicy the supposed rewards look just before they vanish in front of your eyes. We get seduced along with him, both in terms of the operatic overkill and Pacino’s irresistible tempter on the top floor. It works because of his wonderful excess, but also because Reeves remains strangely sympathetic as a not-especially-good man learning how much further he has to fall.

The parallels are obvious and none-too-subtle. You could likely apply them to any similarly corrupt situation. And the surface details make it feel especially pertinent to Trump, starting with the grandiose tone that undergirds every dramatic development. We get the complicity of the religious right too, with Kevin’s devout mother (Judith Ivey) pointedly ignoring the warning signs because reasons. But The Devil’s Advocate really echoes our current embarrassment-in-chief with its New York chutzpah: the kind of brash, empty bravado that determines the pecking order among the wealthy and powerful in Manhattan. Pacino revels in it, and you can sense New York’s famous cynicism bleeding through his performance.

And that’s where the comparison gets really interesting, because it’s clear by now that Trump is no one’s idea of a master manipulator. He’s much closer to Eddie Barzoon (Jeffrey Jones), Pacino’s hapless right-hand man consumed by suspicious glares and jangled nerves. Barzoon gave himself quite eagerly to his master, and now seethes beneath the full weight of having to pay the piper. He’s dispatched almost incidentally, accompanied by one of Pacino’s bellowing monologues that seems to sum up 45 in a nutshell.

Who or what may be pulling Trump’s strings has yet to be seen, but it’s clear that not even the office of the presidency can make a better man out of him. He too signed a deal without reading the fine print, and as he’s hit with the full weight of a job almost comically beyond his abilities, he may be starting to understand the cost. It’s a very old story, of course, but we may never outgrow it. Not as long as “God’s favorite creatures” still insist on buying the snake oil sight unseen. We’re all living through an object lesson in why that’s a bad idea. The question is, how much longer before those who can do something about it finally realize whose hand they shook in the process.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *