The Star Chamber (1983)

What do honest people do when the criminal justice system is broken? Let’s take the example of George Zimmerman. A paranoid, racist vigilante targets an innocent 17-year-old boy, murders him in cold blood, and, because of the “stand your ground” laws written by ALEC and the National Rifle Association, walks away scot-free. What if there were a secret society of judges, lawyers, and police officers who pledged themselves to fix the broken system behind the system’s back? They would retry Zimmerman without the “stand your ground” laws, and with a district attorney who wouldn’t take a dive for political reasons. If they find him guilty, they would pass sentence, hire a hit man to take him out with a nice clean bullet to the head when he least expects it.

The Star Chamber, a Reagan-era film by Peter Hyams, a director best known for conspiracy thrillers like Capricorn One, approaches the problem from the far right, but the concept is the same. Michael Douglas plays Judge Steven Hardin, an idealistic young jurist who is forced by the liberal police procedures set up by the Warren Court to let the most heinous criminals off on technicalities. We’re not talking petty theft or drug possession. A man described as a “slim Chicano in his 20s” murders five old ladies for their welfare cheques. But since the main piece of evidence against him is a revolver the police took out of his “private garbage can” the prosecution’s case falls apart, and Hardin dismisses the charges.

It gets worse. An eleven-year-old boy is tortured, raped, then murdered by a gang of pornographers specializing in pedophile snuff porn. Two police officers notice a van driving a bit too slow through a bad neighborhood. They take down the license plate numbers and call it in. There are outstanding warrants for traffic violations. Inside the van are two men named Arthur Cooms and Lawrence Monk, Joe Regalbuto from Murphy Brown and veteran character actor Don Calfa. They’re nervous, jumpy, suspicious. Let’s just say they look like the kind of “scary white criminals from central casting racist filmmaker use when they don’t want to be openly racist.” The two police officers know they’re guilty of something but don’t have a warrant to search the van. They decide to pretend they smell marijuana. Inside is the bloody sneaker belonging to the murdered little boy.

To appreciate The Star Chamber does, of course, require you to suspend your disbelief. You have to be willing to accept that two suspicious characters, be they kiddie pornographers or just pot dealers, would drive around aimlessly in a white van with a bloody child’s sneaker in the back seat. You also have to believe that in the age of Daryl Gates there was so many budget cuts in the Los Angeles Police Force that they wouldn’t have enough clerical staff to process traffic tickets. Arthur Cooms and Lawrence Monk swear they paid the tickets that generated the bench warrants. They did. Perhaps that’s within the realm of possibility. What seems a bit outlandish is that a conservative young jurist like Steven Hardin wouldn’t have enough power or judicial discretion to keep Cooms and Monk in jail after their defense lawyer moves to dismiss the charges. In any event, Hardin does dismiss the charges. Cooms and Monk go free, and Hardin, quite understandably, begins to have doubts about his chosen profession.

Enter Judge Benjamin Caulfield, played by Hal Holbrook, an actor who specialized in the 1970s and 1980s in playing WASP villains in three piece suits. Caulfield, Hardin’s former law professor at Harvard and a superior court judge, lectures his former student. He’s aware of how the worst criminals get off on technicalities. But he doesn’t whine about it. He takes action. Hardin is intrigued. He demands to know what Caulfield means. Caulfield explains. Like a CIA recruiter at Yale tapping an undergraduate for membership in Skull and Bones, he introduces Hardin to the Star Chamber. In the 16th and 17th centuries, until it was abolished by Oliver Cromwell in 1641, a special body of jurists served the British Crown. According to Wikipedia, “it was made up of Privy Councilors, as well as common-law judges and supplemented the activities of the common-law and equity courts in both civil and criminal matters. The court was set up to ensure the fair enforcement of laws against prominent people, those so powerful that ordinary courts would never convict them of their crimes.”

Soon Hardin is sitting in on their meetings, retrying criminals let off on technicalities, hiring hit men to finish the job the state was too squeamish to carry out. Then Peter Hyams pulls a fast one. He reverses course ideologically. Cooms and Monk are innocent.

The last third of The Star Chamber takes off its Charles Bronson mask, and becomes a formulaic 1970s liberal conspiracy thriller. We are no longer in the world of Dirty Harry or Death Wish, but All the President’s Men and the Parallax View. Steven Hardin may have joined the Star Chamber willingly, but now that he realizes the hit man can’t be recalled, he’s determined to save Cooms and Monk, to bring down Caulfield, who we now recognize as the film’s real villain. In other words, Peter Hyams gets to have his cake and eat it too, to stage his right wing revenge fantasy and then, at the last minute, blame the audience. We’ve been had. We’ve let the director manipulate our blood lust and longing for vigilante justice. Judicial procedure, he wags his finger and lectures us, is still necessary to prevent the unjust execution of two innocent men.

But not so fast.

The Star Chamber is a bit like a  post Law and Order police procedural. The police are always upstanding servants of the law dedicated to protecting the Constitution. There’s no sign of the “war on drugs.” Defense lawyers are always bulldogs with endless time and resources. They never fall asleep during the trial. Prosecutors are always young woman in their late 20s, determined and idealistic but bullied and out of their depth. Criminals are always unrepentant child murderers, rapists, or sexual serial killers, never young black men being railroaded for marijuana possession or low level dealing. Even after it “turns liberal” the Star Chamber keeps its right wing framing.  Overtly at least, The Star Chamber pretends to be liberal, but, like the best propaganda, it’s more concerned about getting you to accept its assumptions than winning the argument outright.

The Star Chamber is not a very good movie. It’s a mediocre Reagan Era cop thriller. The ending is as lame as all the critics say it is. Nevertheless, I recommend people watch it. The left has to learn from the right and the campaign of “law and order”  propaganda it waged in Hollywood in the 1970s and 1980s. We need to learn from Dirty Harry and Death Wish. Let’s start making films like The Star Chamber from the other side of the political spectrum. A left wing “star chamber?” It’s an intriguing idea. Let some filmmaker stage a drama where the too big to fail banks ruin the economy and get away with their crimes. A secret society of left wing vigilantes holds undercover trials and carries out sentences. Jamie Dimon? Bang. Dick Cheney? Bang. George Zimmerman? Bang.  I’d buy a ticket.

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