‘The Firm’ at 30: The Best “Lawyer Film” of the 1990s
John Grisham‘s novel “The Firm” was a massive hit in 1991, cementing the Grisham formula — one crusading young lawyer vs. various flavors of bad guys — that that author would repeatedly return to throughout the 1990s and beyond.
Just two years after the novel’s debut, a movie adaptation arrived in theaters, featuring a big movie star performance from Tom Cruise and a cast filled with the best character actors who were working in the 1990s.
Many other Grisham novels would be adapted in the ensuing years, and another, The Pelican Brief, resulted in a movie just six months later. But The Firm, which arrived in June of 1993 — 30 years ago this week — was not only the best Grisham adaptation, but the best lawyer movie of the entire decade. And like a lot of other great lawyer movies, like Michael Clayton, it’s set entirely outside courtrooms. (And there’s a connection — Sydney Pollack, who directed The Firm, played the senior partner in Michael Clayton.)
This isn’t to say that legal strategy isn’t important to the film, in fact, it’s absolutely crucial to the ending, which was changed from the book and made way better. (The screenplay is credited to playwright David Rabe, legendary screenwriter Robert Towne and frequent Pollack collaborator David Rayfiel.)
Cruise plays Mitch McDeere, a quintessential Grisham hero: He’s a superstar young lawyer, who was at the top of his class at Harvard Law School. Subject to a bidding war upon his graduation, he spurns the advances of big-city white shoe law firms and surprisingly chooses to work at Bendini, Lambert, and Locke, an obscure firm based in Memphis that specializes in helping rich clients exploit tax loopholes.
They’ve agreed to pay Mitch, a man who grew up with modest means, a ton of money, buy him a house and car, and also pay off his student loans. Working there means lots of trips to the Cayman Islands, because it’s a tax haven, and also so associates can get blackmailed, or killed in suspicious diving accidents.
It soon turns out the firm is a front for the Morolto brothers of the Chicago mafia and also represents various other criminals and thieves. This explains why they can pay so much, and also why lawyers who have tried to leave the firm in the past have wound up dead. Mitch and his wife Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn) soon find themselves caught between the firm and the zealous FBI (in the person of agent Ed Harris), gaining some help from a private eye (Gary Busey) and his secretary (Holly Hunter).
The firm is just filled to the brim with great actors, with Gene Hackman giving one of his best performances as Avery, Mitch’s mentor, a character filled with equal parts malevolence and guilt. Hal Holbrook plays the senior partner, while Wilford Brimley was cast wildly against type as the firm’s menacing, murderous head of security.
Once again, this is a lawyer movie that never shows the inside of a courtroom. It’s more interested in the internal dynamics of law firms, and the secrets they keep. Sure, in real life law firms don’t typically have people killed. But internal feuds, and shady actions on behalf of even shadier clients, have been known to happen.
And Mitch’s brilliance as a lawyer isn’t just told, it’s shown — with the ending, in which he manages to outsmart everyone by telling the Moroltos (Paul Sorvino and Joe Viterelli) that the firm has been defrauding them and that his representation of them is protected by the attorney-client privilege. This means he can’t talk to the FBI about them:
There were many other Grisham adaptations throughout the ’90s, including 1996’s A Time to Kill, which was more of a traditional legal drama, about a trial. The straight adaptations would peter out, but the film remained influential; 1997’s The Devil’s Advocate was essentially the same movie as The Firm, except it substituted Satan for the mob. And in 2008’s The Informant!, as Matt Damon finds himself caught between an evil company and the FBI, he states out loud “Didn’t these people see The Firm? Or read the book? It’s all there. Everything they did to me, they did to Tom Cruise.”
CULTURE (counter, pop, and otherwise) and the people who shape it.