'Darrow' depicts legal profession at its best

June 06, 1991|By Michael Hill

Every BMW-driving, yuppified, will-I-make-partner-obsessed lawyer in America ought to be forced to sit before a TV set for a couple of hours tomorrow night.

Tune it to PBS' "American Playhouse" and let them see the potential of their once-noble profession that has become for too many of its practitioners just another way to make money.

They would be watching a fascinating, if flawed, biography of one of the country's most celebrated lawyers, Clarence Darrow. The two-hour production, "Darrow," will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 10 o'clock.

Kevin Spacey, once a bad guy in a "Wiseguy" arc, has the title role and makes Darrow look like a man who has the weight of the world on his shoulders but is managing to carry the load.

In giving his Ohio-born, Chicago-based character a flat Midwestern accent, Spacey too often sounds as if he's doing a Henry Fonda impression, particularly unfortunate since this reminds viewers of Fonda's wonderful one-man show based on Darrow's writings that ran on PBS 15 years ago.

"Darrow" opens with a view few know of this man, as a corporate lawyer for a railroad, trying a case that denied compensation to a worker injured on the job. It clearly acts on his conscience. He visits a meeting of railroad workers planning a strike and hears Eugene Debs. Darrow switches sides and becomes a champion of labor causes.

But "Darrow" does not paint its subject in saintly hues. His workaholic devotion to his newfound causes and the clear enjoyment he takes in his celebrity status in the labor world lead him to neglect his wife and son. A divorce is the inevitable eventuality.

The balance between the professional and legal side of Darrow's life is at timesawkwardly handled in this docudrama, never more so than in the lighthearted portrayal of his impetuous courtship of the young reporter who became his second wife and lifelong companion.

"Darrow" uses the device of a narration by his son from that first marriage, and it probably would have been a smoother production if the voice-over had filled in the domestic blanks and let the legal jousting dominate the drama.

After chronicling Darrow's meteoric rise up the ladder of labor law, and giving a few nods to the representation he gave the poor and downtrodden of Chicago, "Darrow" focuses on a turning point in his life as Darrow becomes ensnarled in Los Angeles' water-rights complexities, the fight that was loosely depicted in ''Chinatown'' decades later. The Los Angeles Times was bombed, 20 workers were killed, and two labor organizers from Indiana were charged.

Debs recruits Darrow for the defense, arguing that the anti-labor owner of the paper had bombed it himself so he could blame the strikers. But Darrow comes to believe that his clients are guilty and changes their plea to try to save their lives.

Doing exactly what got him into the labor arena in the first place -- following his conscience -- loses Darrow his standing among labor leaders who, it is depicted here,

would have been happy with two executed martyrs. Then, in an apparent setup, Darrow is charged with conspiring to bribe a juror. He fights that, finally leaving Los Angeles broke and demoralized.

To understand what a remarkable life Clarence Darrow led, realize that the two cases he is most famous for -- the two that were the subject of movies -- the Leopold and Loeb defense of two rich kids who killed for the thrill of it ("Compulsion") and the Scopes monkey trial ("Inherit the Wind"), did not come until this twilight of his career. This production spends a large amount of time on the Leopold and Loeb case but wisely does not give us another re-creation of the evolution debate in Tennessee.

Though "Darrow" had played around with dates a bit, it gives an eloquent evocation of the power of this man who strode across the country's stage as the United Sates was struggling to put it's constitutional ideal of individual worth into practice

Darrows power derived from his innate belief in justice and in his use of the law as an instrument that could be used to obtain much money.

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