1973's The Paper Chase is a drama set at Harvard Law School, and despite its setting (and age), the film is relatable if you have ever:
- been in an academic pressure-cooker intense enough to make fellow students turn against you
- had a teacher who you simultaneously admired and feared.
While I never had aspirations to go to law school, I've been in both of those situations a few times (and once, both at the same time, and why yes, it did suck), and I did enjoy the one law class I took; thus, I was more engaged by The Paper Chase than I expected. (I also kept myself amused by imagining a friend of mine in the protagonist's place who has identical hair, often identical attire, a similar smile, and even had that 'stache for a time.) I have to guess that actual law students would find it scarily accurate, even if their study time is now dominated more by computers than giant stacks of identical-looking books. (Do they still even have those? Are they just props for commercials now?)
The story, based on a novel, feels autobiographical (and probably is, a bit) because we see everything from the perspective of the protagonist, a student named Hart (Timothy Bottoms). He's driven to pass the bar exam, and the film follows him as he gets involved with a young Lindsay Wagner and a tense study group including a young Edward Herrmann and the guy who played the prosecutor in the TNG episode "A Matter of Perspective" (the "I'm not the fool you take me for" episode). In a sense, though, the film is every bit as much about Hart's contract law professor, Kingsfield (John Houseman, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role).
The performances and story are mostly pretty low-key and subtle, even if on occasion we must endure some very Hollywoody scenes with jarring and cheesy early-'70s melodramatic music (by John Williams, no less!). There's something refreshing about watching a movie that doesn't spell everything out, that is willing to leave some business unresolved, and that manages to get the heart pumping without resorting to gunfights or sex.
Houseman in particular nails it. By "it" I mean the balance of being imposing and disdainful without seeming overly invested in what is, after all, just one class in a long career. Most films that try to genuinely show the college experience fail abysmally, and often it's because the actors and/or the writers don't seem to have ever been in a college classroom; they seem to think every professor is trying to win an Oscar in every class of every semester. Not that The Paper Chase centers on a "typical" class, but the class does feel plausible in a way that movies rarely manage—and at the same time is gripping in an almost Glengarry Glen Ross way, thanks to Houseman. You watch this professor and you almost don't want to blink.
There are subplots, but they all rotate around Hart's struggle to find his place in the class and manage his relationships. Only a few of these scenes are as engaging as the classroom stuff, but luckily there's a lot of the latter, so even when the film veers into boredom and/or cliché, it veers right back pretty quickly.
That said—it's very Seventies. And not in a fun, Dirty Harry, wocka-jawocka way—more in a stifling, Anne Murray, avocado-green-bus-station way. To the extent that this movie still matters in the annals of film, it's probably because its best aspects (all the academic stuff) are essentially timeless. They say the entire academic model may be starting to undergo a sea change, thanks to technology or corporate rapacity or whatever; if so, maybe in thirty years this movie will seem more like historical melodrama than mostly-realistic drama. But I bet people will still envision Houseman as the prototypical scary British professor.
Star Score: 3.5 out of 5