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A Storied Quest for Stories

Life Lessons Learned Along the Way: A Storied Quest for Stories


By Thomas W. Werner

We continue our series of personal, impactful stories that have shaped how we practice law.

“Law is a lot more than words you put in a book, or judges or lawyers or sheriffs you hire to carry it out. It’s everything people ever have found out about justice and what’s right and wrong. It’s the very conscience of humanity.” So said Gil Carter in the 1943 classic The Ox-Bow Incident. Based on the Walter Van Tilburg Clark novel, the movie centers around Carter, expertly played by Henry Fonda, who joins a posse formed to catch the perpetrators of the murder of a local rancher. When the posse finds three men in possession of the murdered man’s cattle, they debate whether to return the men to town for trial, or instead to effectuate their brand of lethal justice on the spot. As the tension builds, Carter advocates hard on behalf of the three men, including in his speeches the above quote, arguing that the law must be followed – a sentiment that Henry Fonda echoed 14 years later as Juror #8 in 12 Angry Men.

Three years ago, I didn’t know the above quote or the brilliant movie from which it came. Since then, I’ve become blessed to get to know The Ox-Bow Incident and hundreds of other classic movies because during the past three years, I have engaged in a quest to see each and every one of the now 591 movies that has ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.

The Academy Awards, better known, of course, as the Oscars, have been presented annually by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1929. Over the course of those 95 ceremonies, the Academy has nominated 591 movies for Best Picture. As of today, I’ve seen 581 of those 591 movies, leaving me with 8 left to see. Although it doesn’t appear to at first glance, that math (591 – 581 = 8) checks out. Given the various difficulties in film preservation over the years – especially during the earliest years of movie history – it is remarkable that only two of the 591 all-time Best Picture nominees are currently unavailable: 1928’s The Patriot, of which no known copies exist, and 1934’s The White Parade, the only surviving print of which lives in storage at the UCLA Film Archive.

Of the 581 of the available 589 all-time Best Picture nominees that I’ve watched, some have been easier to find than others. The burden of my three-year quest has been eased somewhat by the availability of many of these movies on streaming services like Amazon Prime, Netflix, HBO-MAX, YouTube, and Watch TCM, offered by Turner Classic Movies, a fantastic organization long-dedicated to the preservation of movie history. Even with the availability of these various streaming services, the bulk of my quest has consisted of tracking down copies of hundreds of movies that are not available for streaming, but which have been released on DVD or other now-dead physical video formats. Some of these movies have been easy to track down, while others have presented challenges. For example, while every garage sale I’ve gone to seems to have a DVD or VHS copy of more recent classics like 1997’s Titanic or 1994’s The Shawshank Redemption, physical copies of unstreamable movies like 1931’s Trader Horn, 1933’s State Fair, and 1934’s Viva Villa! have been far more elusive.

What does this years-long quest say about me, and how does it reflect on my capacity as an attorney? For one, it shows passion. I have a passion for movies. And when I say I have a passion for movies, I mean that I have a passion for all manner of movies. My tastes range broadly, from recent blockbusters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino to 1980s action and cop movies (the best era, bar none, for such classics), to comedies starring Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Will Ferrell and many other Saturday Night Live alums, to quieter romantic comedies and period pieces. In any given sitting, I might watch Ghostbusters, follow it up with Four Weddings and a Funeral, and cap the session off with Pulp Fiction. On another day, I might watch the entirety of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones series – or at least the good movies in those series, anyway.

But for the past three years, most of my movie-watching sessions have centered around my Oscar quest, which brings me to the second notable facet of my quest: it demonstrates my passion not only for movies, but for lifelong learning. So many of the 591 all-time Best Picture nominees have made me think. Some center on topics of law, crime and punishment like The Ox-Bow Incident and many other nominees (for example, Dead End (1937), I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1933), The Informer (1935), and In the Name of the Father (1993)). Others have shown me the horrors of war and its aftermath from a U.S. perspective (Coming Home (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), Born on the Fourth of July (1989)), or from an international perspective (Grand Illusion (1938), All Quiet on the Western Front (1930/2022), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)). Still others have highlighted the difficulties borne by those with disabilities (Johnny Belinda (1948), CODA (2021), My Left Foot (1989)), while others have discussed the unfair challenges imposed on whole groups of people based on their race (The Defiant Ones (1958), Sayonara (1957), Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), Blackkklansman (2018), Judas and the Black Messiah (2020)).

And then there are those Best Picture nominees that reflect a third aspect of my legal career, an aspect that I find particularly important: the ability to tell a really good story, no matter the topic. Whether the topic be political intrigue like Z (1969) or The Favourite (2018), family drama like The Little Foxes (1941) or The Heiress (1949), con artistry like Elmer Gantry (1960) or Nightmare Alley (2021), crime like Double Indemnity (1944), Hell or High Water (2016), or A Place in the Sun (1951), or, really, any topic, what I value most in a movie is the same thing that I value most in trying a case: the art of storytelling.

Much like my passion for handling my numerous cases, tracking down and watching these 591 movies over the past three years has been one of the most rewarding quests in which I’ve ever engaged. As is true with my legal practice, I’m grateful that I’m not yet done, in that I have eight of these movies left to watch, eight movies that could very well inspire me as much as The Ox-Bow Incident did, or more. And as is true with my legal practice, I’m grateful that I’ll never be truly done with this quest, for just like each year brings a new slate of fascinating cases to handle, each with its own story for me to tell, each year also brings an entirely new slate of Best Picture nominees for me to explore. With 2022 yielding instant classics like The Banshees of Inisherin and Everything Everywhere All at Once, I have little doubt that I will continue to be inspired by Best Picture nominees for the rest of my life.

In our second article this month, Jesse Roth provides insight into recent clarifications to the Title VII undue hardship standard.