The Legal Advocate

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NITA Movie Review: What Is Truth?

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey

rashomonIt’s been said that trials are part of a truth-seeking process. And certainly those of us involved in trial advocacy like to think that the process works and that the truth comes out in the end. But every one of us is well aware that sometimes juries and judges reach decisions that we don’t understand or that we even know are flat-out wrong. When that happens, we may ask ourselves Pontius Pilate’s question: “What is truth?” For this month’s review, I’ve chosen a film that explores that question in ground-breaking ways, a film whose name has become synonomous with the difficulty of establishing the truth. The film is Rashomon (1950), simply one of the greatest movies ever made – and a movie that every trial lawyer must watch.

As Rashomon opens, a Woodcutter and a Priest are taking shelter from the rain. They are joined by a character called the Commoner. The Woodcutter and the Priest begin talking about the recent trial of a bandit where both testified as witnesses. The bandit (brilliantly portrayed by the great Toshiro Mifune) has been accused of accosting a samurai and his wife who are traveling through the woods and of killing the samurai and sexually assaulting the wife. In flashbacks, we first see and hear the bandit’s version of the story. Then we hear the wife’s story. Then we hear the samurai’s story, through the intervention of a medium. Each story has similar elements, but each story is radically different from the others, presenting a mystery as to which – if any — is true. And as we are wrestling with these three distinct and contradictory versions of the truth, we find out that the Woodcutter has yet a fourth version, which he chose not to tell at the trial because he didn’t want to get involved. The resolution of the film is a small message of hope in the face of such confusion and cynicism.

Rashomon was directed by, Akira Kurosawa, one of the greatest directors in the history of film. Kurosawa was a genuine genius and his brilliance is obvious throughout the movie in such things as the use of light, the pacing, the use of only three simple sets. Kurosawa had his actors and crew live together during filming. Despite their pleas, he refused to tell the actors which version of the events was “actually” the truth, since determining “actual” truth was not his point.

Rashomon was a breakthrough movie for Kurosawa, the first to bring him serious recognition outside of Japan. It unexpectedly won the Golden Lion (top prize) at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 and an honorary Oscar in 1952, before there was a category for Best Foreign Film. Over the years, it has become recognized as the classic that it is and has spawned numerous other films and television programs that are either homages or direct copies, including episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Homicide: Life on the Street – and the truly awful The Outrage (1964), which stars Paul Newman as a Mexican bandit. The phrase “Rashomon effect” has entered the English language to describe the difficulty of ascertaining objective truth based on subjective evidence.

The “truth-seeking” aspect of Rashomon is one of the reasons that the film is a must for trial lawyers. But for those of us who work in the NITA world, it’s also important for what it says about the power of storytelling. In the past several years, there’s been an emphasis on storytelling and how it affects our presentation at trials. It’s a rare NITA program that doesn’t include some discussion of the importance and power of telling an effective story. Rashomon speaks to this aspect of trial advocacy, too, since it may be the greatest single example of how subjective stories, powerfully told, can influence what is perceived to be true.

Do not be deterred by the fact that Rashomon is subtitled. You’ll be immersed in its brilliance so quickly that that won’t matter a bit. And it’s a movie which rewards multiple viewings; I’ve probably watched it close to 50 times. As a trial lawyer and teacher of advocacy, every time I watch Rashomon, I’m struck by a line from the Commoner as he tries to comprehend what he’s been told: “Just think. Which of these stories do you believe?”

That’s what every trial lawyer is asking every jury to tell us – and is yet another reflection of the agony of Pilate’s question.

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NITA’s team of practicing lawyers, professors and judges from around the nation dedicates its efforts to the training and development of skilled and ethical legal advocates to improve the adversarial justice system. NITA's Goals are to:
  • Promote justice through effective and ethical advocacy.
  • Train and mentor lawyers to be competent and ethical advocates in pursuit of justice.
  • Develop and teach trial advocacy skills to support and promote the effective and fair administration of justice.
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