Now that courtroom drama has more or less vanished as a cinematic genre, it can be quite startling to look back upon all the forms it took throughout the 1990s, as well as all the major directors that put their distinctive spin upon it. Even within the canon of John Grisham adaptations there are a vast array of different approaches and notable directors – Francis Ford Coppola, Sydney Pollack, James Foley, Joel Schumacher – while the courtroom drama apocrypha is richer and more eccentric still. One of the most forgotten of these marginal genre exercises is Michael Apted’s Class Action, which takes place in San Francisco and, as the title might suggest, revolves around a class action based on the Ford Pinto case, in which a group of people band together to hold a major automobile company accountable for a 1985 model station wagon that blows up on impact. The catch is that the two lead attorneys are father and daughter, with Jedediah Tucker Ward (Gene Hackman) representing the plaintiffs and Maggie Ward (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) representing the automobile company. As might be expected, Jedediah and Mary have a fractious family background, and the case brings their different adversarial styles and legal philosophies to the fore, as we continually shift between Jed’s makeshift, homely chambers and Maggie’s steely, austere corporate law firm, and between Jed’s flamboyant, theatrical mode of address and Maggie’s more muted, clipped and self-consciously “professional” legal style.
Beyond a certain point, that oscillation is bound to be comic, and for all the dramatic content there is something inextricably cosy and lived-in about Class Action that often makes it feel like a telemovie, or at least the kind of movie that would eventually find its natural home on Friday night television. Against that cosiness, it’s clear from the very outset that the futuristic, postmodern space of Maggie’s law firm is an anomalous, criminal presence, even or especially because it is is fitted with a few residually traditional fixtures that only serve to contour its science-fiction coordinates more starkly and strikingly. As in Blade Runner, postmodern architecture is equated with a kind of Neo-Mesoamerican style, although in this case the effect is considerably different insofar as we only ever see this structure from the inside, with Maggie’s own offices appearing to be in the very apex of a glass pyramid that tops what is presumably one of the highest buildings on the San Francisco skyline. I looked this building up online, but couldn’t find any filming location, so I can only assume that it is a set, and yet that somehow makes it more evocative, if only because so much postmodern architecture at the time was keen to take on the same hyperreal pastiche as a film set. Hypotheses of what space might be as much as fully conceived spaces in themselves, postmodern buildings arguably accrued more reality when represented as a set than when shot “on location,” and that’s very much the case here, in an eccentric designation of San Francisco as the very locus of Californian postmodernism.
By the same token Maggie’s law firm often seems to be deliberately constructed along the principles of a film set, abstracting itself from the city around it in order to sequester its privilege in a notional zone that is utterly removed from and even indifferent to the litigation taking place below. From the very first scene, then, there’s a sense in which the “cinematic” has become a category that has been co-opted in the name of corporate architecture – we appear to be looking at a set of a corporate workplace that is itself modelled directly on a set – which is perhaps why Apted is so keen to increasingly eschew tasteful cinematic cues in favour of the more melodramatic, daytime mode of telemovie aesthetics. While we never see the exterior of this building, it also feels as if that’s how the law firm has intended it, since the lack of any establishing shots just render the palatial expanses of the top floor even more sublime and disorienting to the casual observer. Insofar as we do glimpse the outside of this structure, it’s only indirectly, by way of all the experimental car prototypes that grace the walls of the automobile company. With each new design sketch and display model that is added to Apted’s mise-en-scenes, the carapaces of these futuristic cars gradually approximate the carapace of Maggie’s workplace, suggesting some deep and elusive complicity between the law firm and its client, but also imbuing the sheer fact of occupying these corporate spaces with a volatile and visceral potential – the potential of being in a car that just might blow up at any moment.
As that fascination with sleek postmodern surfaces might suggest, Class Action initially seems to be deeply sceptical about fourth-wave feminism, since if the corporation is classified as a “cinematic” space than it is equally classified as a “feminine” space, to the point where the two categories come to feel like much the same thing, as Hackman pulls back from his characteristic understatement to adopt a hokier and more theatrical register that renders Mastrantonio much more “cinematic” in her style and delivery by contrast. As with so many other workplace dramas made during this period, the moment at which women break the glass ceiling also appears to be the moment at which corporate values have gone too far, just as it is the very moment at which corporate values become available to women that the mercenary potential of the corporation becomes available to men as an object of scrutiny and critique. In that sense, Maggie feels like a bit of a prototype for the 90s “ceiling-breaker” – professional, attractive, but fundamentally concerned about her likeability index, as well as anxious about whether she has slept her way to the top without knowing it, since she also happens to be in a relationship with her immediate supervisor, played by Colin Friels in one of the slimy corporate roles he did so well in the early 1990s.
Yet to frame the film as a paranoid riff on corporate femininity is perhaps to mischaracterise it a bit as well, since most of the screenplay focuses on Jed and Maggie’s rapport, which is certainly adversarial, but in the screwiest and silliest kind of way. Affectionate and antagonistic in the same breath, they finish each other’s sentences as rapidly and ironically as the most extravagant screwball couples, in what quickly becomes a fractious father-daughter romance, especially after Estelle Ward (Joanne Merlin) passes away suddenly on the steps of the courthouse after the stress of seeing her husband and daughter advocate against each other for the first time (“You know, in one fell swoop, you took away the woman I admired, the mother I loved and the father I believed in.”) As that might suggest, Class Action has a great taste for the melodramatic, the soapy, and the absurd, as both Jedediah’s “cheap sideshow tricks” and Maggie’s “corporate professionalism” gradually converge upon a heightened mode of delivery that eventually makes every utterance feel as if it is designed to appeal to a jury, no matter how private or introspective it appears to be.
Gene Hackman, in particular, works really well in this kind of intensified sentimental mode, to the point where his performance often verges on self-parody, recalling his brooding, righteous characters of the 70s but inflecting them through a more revisionist sense of the ridiculous. More specifically, Hackman’s performance often plays as a comic riff upon Gregory Peck, while the relationship between Jedediah and Maggie is surely designed to draw upon Atticus and Scout Finch, in what often feels like a parody – or perhaps a query – of To Kill A Mockingbird on the cusp of the 90s. Unlike in Harper Lee and Robert Mulligan’s original, we now have black folk actually working within the legal profession – Jed’s right hand man is Nick Holbrook, played by Laurence Fishburne – but Class Action compensates for that progressiveness by surrounding Jed with an alternative and more dependent surrogate black family whose presence draws upon Atticus’ relationship with Tom Robinson in quite a pointed and parodic way. In father-daughter dramas of this kind, it’s not uncommon for a romantic interest to be framed as a second or surrogate father, and so it is here, with Maggie’s boss Michael taking on the paternal role during most of the second act (“I heard you were having dinner with your father, figured you could use a friend”) as Jed and Maggie prepare their respective cases. Yet Class Action identifies so strongly and soapily with its premise that its unable to maintain the right amount of distance or disavowal between these two father-figures either, with the result that that they often bleed into the same person or presence. It’s only a matter of time, then, before Michael seems less like an alternative and more like a fulfilment of Jedediah’s discriminatory potential, just as Go Set A Watchman fulfilled the version of Atticus Finch we only briefly glimpsed in Mockingbird.
For all that it nails this soapy side, Class Action is just as compelling when it comes to the more procedural elements of courtroom drama, since its premise is that the two genres are really one and the same, and that courtroom drama is really just another iteration of melodrama. As Jedediah and Maggie’s adversary intensifies, then, so do all the little details that make legal procedural so enjoyable, culminating with a series of terrific research sequences in which Maggie tracks down a scientist in the countryside, pores over his research notes, and then trawls through an inner city library stack in order to try and verify his troubling insights. It’s during these sequences that James Horner’s evocative, elastic piano score comes to the fore, as the research path takes Maggie further afield even as her findings converge on a conspiracy that strikes right to the heart of the firm where she works. In both legal drama and melodrama that convergence of centrifugal and centripetal momentum is often used to evoke unspoken knowledge, and it is during these sequences that everything unspoken between Maggie and Jed is processed as well, with the result that they are more or less reconciled by the time she finally brings the conspiracy to his door.
By this point, Jed and Maggie’s mode of address has also fused, converging their very different registers on a heightened theatricality that becomes a kind of twist in itself, insofar as it prevents the audience from registering the theatrical ruse that the duo concoct to throw the case and ensure that the automobile company is held accountable. Having spent so much of the film watching Hackman and Mastrantonio “act,” I didn’t notice when their respective characters started acting in turn, leading to a wonderful ending in which the film’s forced choice between grassroots masculinity and corporate femininity devolves into a parodic and performative genre effect being enacted for the sake of deceiving Maggie’s colleagues. Accordingly, Apted pushes the preposterous legal flamboyance as far as it will go in this final sequence, as Jed calls the opposing counsel to the witness stand and concludes with a histrionic, Mockingbird-like appeal to the jurors’ hearts and minds. Amidst that final crescendo, it suddenly feels as if the film has been on Maggie’s side all along, and that its soapiness has simply served to contour the indignity of female professionalism as the real class action of the title, even if this indignity is something that is only available retrospectively and as a secondary revision of the parameters of regular courtroom drama.
As Jed and Maggie dance, and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” plays over the closing credits, then, it becomes clear Apted has managed to craft that rare thing – a warm and generous film about paternal wisdom that nevertheless falls short of being paternalistic. For all that Class Action might have appeared to start with an indictment on the false paternalism of the corporation – and an appeal to father figures weathered and burnished by the 60s – it doesn’t really end on that note. Instead, and in a strange way, it reminded me of Toni Erdmann, another film in which a father helps his daughter to demystify a corporation by rendering his own source of paternal authority ridiculous in the process. And this is undoubtedly one of Hackman’s most ridiculous performances, right down to Jedediah’s final speech to the jury, but that also makes it one of his most joyous and anarchic performances as well, proof of what this most introspective of New Hollywood veterans could achieve on the rare occasion that he was blessed with a flamboyantly extroverted and energetic role.