The legal genre is a long-standing and very popular staple of American film and television. No season of television goes by without the networks introducing at least one law show. At one time, we witnessed a seemingly endless parade of film adaptations of John Grisham’s novels and although the legal thriller has turned into a trickle in recent years, the studios continue to release them every once in awhile. I don’t care for most legal TV shows and movies because they always follow the same boring narrative formula. What’s more, as an attorney, I have a growing impatience for the huge inaccuracies and exaggerations that I see in almost every legal TV show and movie. I certainly understand the need for taking creative liberty in crafting a good legal thriller because I can guarantee you that the longevity enjoyed by the legal genre would have been very short-lived if writers accurately described what goes on in a courtroom. Sometimes, however, real life ends up being far more interesting than whatever a writer can come up with. Films like ERIN BROCKOVICH, A CIVIL ACTION, PHILADELPHIA, IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE, and THE INSIDER are all examples of amazing true-life legal movies that have been nothing short of inspirational. I count CONVICTION among those films and for any jaded person who thinks lawyers are an unnecessary waste of evil space on this planet, this is a movie not to be missed.

CONVICTION stars Hilary Swank, who plays Betty Ann Waters, a high school dropout and single mom of two who enrolls in law school while working full time as a bartender/waitress. Why does she submit herself to the agonizing torture of law school? Back in 1980, in a small town in Massachusetts, a woman was murdered inside her house. A police officer (Melissa Leo) suspected Betty Ann’s loser brother, Kenny (Sam Rockwell), to be the killer. Despite the lack of evidence against Kenny, enough evidence was gathered and manipulated to convict him to life in prison. Unconvinced that her brother killed anyone and unable to afford a lawyer, Betty Ann embarks upon a determined endeavor to obtain her GED, a college degree, and then her law degree for the sole purpose of representing her brother and getting him out of prison. Undaunted, Betty Ann accomplishes all of this despite losing her husband, alienating her kids, and almost failing out of law school. After law school, she discovers The Innocence Project, which is run by the famous OJ Simpson lawyer and DNA expert, Barry Scheck (Peter Gallagher). Through the use of DNA, the organization helps those who were wrongfully convicted for a crime to beat their conviction. With the help of Scheck and her best friend from law school, Abra (Minnie Driver), Betty Ann successfully proves that her brother did not murder a woman.

Some have criticized this film as feeling a little too ‘Lifetime Movie’ and I can appreciate that, but I don’t know if I necessarily agree. I suspect the label comes from the fact that the movie is about a strong woman who goes on a personal crusade against all odds. If that’s truly the case, then it’s an unfair and chauvinist criticism that has no bearing on the quality of the film. For one, I’m a sucker for David and Goliath tales, which most of the legal films listed above are about. These are modern day, real-life versions of MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON. They resonate with me and probably most people because they’re about the little man that we can all identify with who takes on the giant, faceless entity (corporation or government) that we usually feel helpless against. With CONVICTION, Betty Ann takes on the criminal justice system and corrupt and self-interested bureaucrats against seemingly insurmountable odds. Its not so much that you want to see her brother get out as you want Betty Ann to prove everyone wrong and persevere through what normally would give most people second thoughts.

I guess it’s fair to say that I’m more inclined to like (good) legal movies due to my profession. A good legal story is personally motivational, inspirational, and a reminder that differences can be made in people’s lives. CONVICTION was especially enjoyable because you rarely get to see the torture that is law school, the sacrifices some have to make to get through law school, and the agonizing anticipation that comes with waiting for your bar results. I wish the film spent a little more time examining Betty Ann’s daily life as she juggled school, kids, and work. I wanted to see the struggles she went through to get her GED and college degree, which we don’t see at all. Its understandable that the focus of the film would be on Betty Ann’s investigation into her brother’s case, but I think there would be greater satisfaction in seeing her eventual success if we saw more of what she had to endure to get to that end.

Hilary Swank has made a career of playing strong, independent female roles and for that, I commend her for not allowing herself to be pigeonholed in the damsel in distress/loving wife/caring mom roles that most actresses end up doing their whole careers. Swank has defined her career and although her films are not always met with financial or critical success, she has distinguished herself among her peers and she is always an entertaining actress to watch. Swank takes a fearless approach to playing Betty Ann in the sense that she’s not afraid to show both the good and bad aspects of her character. Betty Ann’s unwavering belief that her brother is innocent borders on stupid, blind faith, which at times made me annoyed with her character. I found it hard to believe that even for someone like her who was so attached to her brother, she would simply ignore all the evidence and testimony against him and just assume he was innocent. The film never even shows her asking him whether he did it or not, which again I found surprising in light of an early scene where we see Kenny severely beat up a man in a bar for making a rude remark. At the same time, you have to admire the laser-focused determination this woman has toward getting her brother out. Swank has a naïve, overly exuberant look that makes her perfect for characters like Betty Ann, who always remains strong and positive throughout the film.

Sam Rockwell is one of the most interesting and talented actors to emerge in recent years. He’s similar to Hilary Swank in the sense that he doesn’t usually play conventional roles. The actor continually strives to challenge himself in unique parts that never fail to stand out and make a big impression on the audience even if the rest of the film is bad. Compared to his past work, I felt Rockwell’s Kenny character was one of the actor’s lesser roles. Its not that it was a bad performance or that the character wasn’t interesting, but it wasn’t a very memorable performance, especially when compared to the stronger offerings by Hilary Swank, Minnie Driver, and Juliette Lewis. Of course, Rockwell is playing a real person so he’s limited in what he can do with the character. Nevertheless, I was overall underwhelmed by his performance.

The most surprising performances in the movie came from Minnie Driver and Juliette Lewis, who plays Roseanna Perry, a trailer trash alcoholic who testified against Kenny to put him behind bars. Neither actress has a whole lot of screen time, but they shine every time you see them, most notably in one scene where Betty Ann is trying to persuade Roseanna Perry to fess up to lying on the witness stand. I’m not familiar with the minimum requirements of screen time for someone to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, but if Lewis meets it, she most definitely deserves a nomination.

CONVICTION is an involving film that deserves much wider attention than it has been receiving from audiences (its considered a flop). Yeah, a few elements do come off as melodramatic and TV-movie-ish, but that’s easily overcome by the strength of the story and the performances from the actors. If its still playing at a local theater near you, I urge you to go check it out. If you’re interested in finding more about The Innocence Project, click on the link I have provided below. SIDENOTE: Some of you may be surprised to know that the director, Tony Goldwyn, was the bad guy who was responsible for killing Patrick Swayze’s character in GHOST. So there.