In the opening minutes of the 1993 movie “The Firm,” an in-demand Harvard Law School graduate named Mitch McDeere takes meetings with one legal firm after another, each offering him a different vision for his future. Does he want to be a judge someday? Would he like to have a lighter workload so he can start a family? Does the California lifestyle sound appealing? How about Wall Street?
Mitch (played with no small amount of “Top Gun” swagger by Tom Cruise) ends up choosing the under-the-radar firm Bendini, Lambert & Locke, in Memphis. He’s impressed by its down-home charm and likes that it is off the beaten path. New York? D.C.? That’s been done. Time to give Tennessee a try.
In a way, Mitch was a lot like America as a whole, circa 1993, when the “New South” was on the rise. I was living in my hometown, Nashville, Tenn., at the time, and I had just graduated from the University of Georgia. I was tracking all the little victories for my region — just as I was counting all the division titles for my beloved Atlanta Braves.
In 1993, the country had just put the former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton in the White House, with the former Tennessee senator Al Gore as his vice president. The Atlanta hip-hop acts TLC, Kriss Kross and Arrested Development were all over the Billboard charts. The sitcom “Designing Women,” set in Georgia, was a staple in the Nielsen Top 10. And masses of readers were buying the legal thrillers written by the Mississippi lawyer John Grisham.
The summer of 1993 was a particularly good time for Grisham. His fourth book, “The Client,” was still sitting high on the New York Times best-seller list, three months after reaching No. 1. And on the Wednesday before the Fourth of July, the movie adaptation of Grisham’s “The Firm” opened in multiplexes across the country, on its way to becoming the summer’s third biggest domestic box-office earner, right behind “Jurassic Park” and “The Fugitive.”
These days, it’s hard to imagine that a legal thriller — even one led by a reliable draw like Cruise — could become a summer blockbuster. “The Firm” wasn’t a surprise hit, either. Paramount expected it to be a smash; that’s why it had the coveted holiday weekend release. That’s what a phenomenon Grisham was at the time.
“The Firm” wasn’t Grisham’s first novel. But it was the first to break big, and the film remains the best cinematic adaptation of a Grisham novel. Four other adaptations also hit the big screen during Clinton’s first term: “The Pelican Brief,” also released in 1993; “The Client,” from 1994; and “A Time to Kill” and “The Chamber,” both from 1996. Three of those — “The Firm,” “The Pelican Brief” and “A Time to Kill” — opened in the top spot at the domestic box office. Set mostly in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, all five examine to some degree what had and hadn’t changed in the south since the Jim Crow days.
The movie versions of Grisham’s stories take their lead from the author’s obvious outrage at the South’s persistent racial and class divisions. His heroes tend to be young men who grew up poor and had to work multiple jobs to put themselves through law school. Their sympathies lie with the underdogs — most famously in “A Time to Kill,” in which a struggling lawyer defends a black man for killing the racists who raped and murdered his 10-year-old daughter. The political and judicial systems depicted in Grisham novels and films were biased against people of color and anyone who struggled to pay the bills.
Judging by his books (and their movie adaptations), Grisham — like Clinton and Gore — seemed to believe in a newer, more middle-of-the-road kind of Southern leadership, which balanced progressive attitudes about social justice with more regressive ideas about reducing crime and maintaining order. The most telling moment in any Grisham movie comes in “A Time to Kill,” when a scrappy attorney played by Matthew McConaughey sits in a soul food restaurant and explains to a crusading liberal played by Sandra Bullock that while he leans left, he’s “not a card-carrying A.C.L.U. radical.” Among other things, he believes homicide can be justified.
I’ve lived my whole life in the South: born in Atlanta, raised in Nashville, moved to Central Arkansas in 1999. I’ve seen common character in southern politicians and social activists. They’re a lot like SEC football coaches: stubbornly self-assured, charmingly folksy and beholden to the demands of their wealthy boosters. The good ol’ boy network connects to powerful people on both the left and the right; and sometimes the obligations to donors supersedes ideals.
Grisham himself served in the Mississippi House of Representatives — as a Democrat — from 1984 to 1990. He gave up politics shortly before “The Firm” was published in 1991, and the law not long after. Grisham’s disillusionment with those professions suffuses both his books and their movie adaptations. It is evident in “The Pelican Brief,” in which a presidential administration is complicit in a scheme to stack the Supreme Court with justices who will let a well-heeled donor drill for oil in protected Louisiana marshlands. It’s obvious, too, in “The Client,” in which the F.B.I. and an ambitious United States attorney callously try to destroy the life of the preteen witness of a capital crime.
“The Firm” is about the temptations of power and the appeal of southern living. Mitch is seduced by the sense of old-fashioned brotherhood he finds at Bendini, Lambert & Locke. His new employers pay him more money than anyone else is offering — in a city with a relatively low cost of living. He is drawn to a place where folks serve barbecued ribs at formal meetings, and where he gets to show off what a down-to-earth, soulful dude he is by doing back flips down Beale Street alongside a young black street performer.
So, sure … it takes Mitch a while to realize that he is actually working for crooks who launder money for the mob and have whistle-blowers killed.
As a group, the films form an enlightening snapshot of Clinton-era America, documenting what ordinary citizens were worried about at the time — including the corporate pillaging of the environment (“The Pelican Brief”) and the threat of insurgent armed militias (“A Time to Kill”) — while also asking whether dedicated young professionals from below the Mason-Dixon line could save the day.
“The Firm” is more about the finer points of tax law and the perniciousness of organized crime than it is about the particular ways the wealthy exploited political divisions and stymied the working class in the early 1990s. But “The Firm” does represent the purest expression of the common Grisham character arc, wherein well-meaning men or women with troubled pasts turn to the law for redemption. Invariably, they are disappointed to find they have to rely on truth bending and dirty tricks to make the system work the way it should.
Intentionally or not, “The Firm” today doesn’t look only like the story of a frustrated idealist. It’s more a cautionary tale, aimed at anyone who strides optimistically into a new era — with new leaders — expecting big changes. All too often, the same old favor-trading and compromises prevail.”
That’s why “The Firm” still resonates: In addition to recalling a bygone era, when a mature mid-budget mystery movie could anchor a Hollywood studio’s summer schedule, it remains astute about the way it feels when hope gives way to exhaustion. The movie begins with exuberant back flips down Beale Street. But in the end, the hero can only pore over paperwork, looking desperately for loopholes.