It’s downright strange, these days, to watch a film about college where the students actually like their classes and want to do well in them — films about students all seem to be about fraternity hijinks, sports, chasing the opposite sex…in fact everything but the classes they’re taking. Now and then, you’ll find an inspiring English teacher, but they rarely touch their students with actual literature, as much as a vague “Western Tradition” or a message such as “life has meaning”. Moreover, they rarely do so in the context of class, as much as they do all kinds of extracurricular activities with students that they deem of special treatment. In this you have no riotous drunk scenes, no competitive sports, only one real scene of jinx of any kind (cold weather swimming, anyone?) but instead, a master teacher of…contract law? who will keep you spellbound.
This film is about Hart, played by Timothy Bottoms, a graduate of a Midwestern land-grant college who comes to Harvard Law School, his study group, and how he has the greatest, most passionate, drama-filled relationship in his life. I refer of course, to his tutelage under the great Professor Kingsfield, played with magisterial might by John Houseman. (He also has a girlfriend, more on that in a second.)Over the course of a school year, he goes from simple hero worship, to every stage of obsessive love, nonetheless, the two times he is called out in class, he has nothing to say, and a joint project goes unfinished.
The stage is set: an empty lecture hall, which slowly fills up with students. From the first, Kingsfield makes it plain that this is not in any way a conventional classroom: there are no lectures, as such, since you’re already supposed to know what’s in the books. (In this, he's very much like some modern classrooms, in which the lectures are taped, and the exercises done in class.) Instead, he asks questions. How would you find, in this or that case? Can you analyze what exactly is at stake? This he calls the “Socratic method”, except that you actually have to come up with complicated answers, instead of beating you down until you're forced into simply agreeing with the guy asking the questions (as Alfred Jarry pointed out that you were to do with the real Socrates) until you feel like you’re a complete idiot. (Kingsfield is also excellent at making you feel like a complete idiot with his method too, just in case you were wondering.) In his classroom, there are no final, definitive answers, merely leading questions that follow from other questions. His motto is that “You come in here with a head full of mush, you will leave here thinking like a lawyer.” Some people try to call this a “tough-love” relationship, but it’s more like “zero love”: despite Hart’s desperate attempts to make an impression, Kingsfield simply shrugs them off. Plainly put: as far as he’s concerned you’re just another name and face in a seating chart, and although it may seem that way, he neither bullies, nor plays favorites. When Hart congratulates him on being a great teacher, Kingsfield quietly asks "And your name is...?"
The Study Group encompasses a cross-section of the class (Ford, a rich kid, one married guy, a pompous windbag, a nervous rabbit, and I’m at a loss for No.5), and by the end, four of the six drop out. Much is made of the division of labor: one member each is supposed to make an outline of one of the classes, and how each of them fulfill the “contract” is a major plot point. Mostly, they’re low-key personalities, though I keep looking at Ford and wondering if a young Steve Jobs wasn't taking notes somewhere, with his longish hair, bow ties, relaxed fit everything, and an easy, I’m-one-step-ahead-of-you smile.
Which brings up Hart, himself, and Hart’s girlfriend Susan, who just happens to be the soon-to-be-divorced Spawn of Kingsfield. She’s played by “Bionic Woman” Lindsey Wagner, and at times, has trouble with her New England accent. It appears that even though they rub shoulders with Presidents and the wealthy, the price of living in the House of Kingsfield is steep: her mother is mentally ill, her soon-to-be ex-husband, a Kingsfield protegee, had a similar psychotic break and is now backpacking in Europe. She alone is immune, and keeps telling Hart not to take everything so hard: he’s pretty much born to go to law school, it’s just that he’s on the edge of losing his ability to do anything else. Indeed, other than occasional swimming, a few dates with Susan, and one weekend (spent studying for finals) in an hotel, Hart is pretty much a nonentity outside class. Only in the final scene, when he realizes this is all behind him, does he truly awaken. (Is it just coincidental that the uber-lawyer's daughter is named "Sue"?)
The language is beautiful: you actually hear someone say “Let us draw lots.” without calling attention to the fact that they’re quoting something. So is the costuming: people who talk about “looking Preppy” in various cotton and synthetic separates, lavishly emblazoned with the name of the store where you bought it, don’t know the lush and lavish use of wool fabric that was, for many years, the cornerstone of true Prep. Strangely enough to a post-Reagan eye, the overall politics shown tends towards Centrist/Liberal: Hart remarks admiringly that Kingsfield rubbed shoulders with Adlai Stevenson, but, just as tellingly, there’s little to no indication that there’s student rioting or the Vietnam war going on outside the little corner of Harvard where all this takes place. Some eye candy, if you like naked men: Timothy Bottoms and the guys are regularly shown frontally nude in group shower scenes that cut off just above their pubes, and do a lot of swimming in Speedos. Nice shots of Cambridge and a nearby supermarket: interesting how package design has changed in 40 years. A good Hollywood movie for people who don’t like Hollywood, it could almost be a good indie, it’s billed as a comedy/drama, but there are few laugh-out-loud moments, but a fond reminder of how the greatest dramas can be played out in the quietest of ways.
I’m not giving this four stars, the TV series was better (we got more Kingsfield, and a female student, for instance), and I’ve yet to read the book, which is supposed to be a little less murky. I hear this is still Required Viewing in Law School, along with “My Cousin Vinny”. I’d say check it out.