Firm, The (1993): Pollack’s Oscar Nominated Thriller Starring Tom Cruise

It was one of Hitchcock’s well-known maxims that a thriller is as good as its villain. The Master of Suspense proves again that he was a shrewd filmmaker when his philosophy is tested against two new thrillers, Sydney Pollack’s The Firm and Wolfgang Petersen’s In the Line of Fire.

Both movies are mainstream entertainment–the kind of polished works that Hollywood justifyingly takes pride in making. And both thrillers are star vehicles: Tom Cruise in The Firm and Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. Yet, the Eastwood film is superior-and more engaging too. Why

In The Firm, Tom Cruise is cast as Mitch McDeere, a young, bright, Harvard Law school graduate, married to Abby (Jeanne Tripplehorn), his beautiful and supportive wife. As the story begins, McDeere is in being interviewed for a position. He somehow opts for a smaller, Memphis based, firm, “Bendini, Lambert & Locke,” which specializes in tax laws, but offers him the best financial rewards (high income, convertible, tuition paid).

At first, the firm presents itself as one big family, organizing picnics and parties for its employees and their spouses. Soon, however, McDeere finds out that his office is actually a front for the Mafia and an office nobody can leave. The firm’s dissatisfied lawyers have all died in mysterious “accidents.”

There are at least three major problems with The Firm, which explains why, despite good dialogue by some of the industry’s top screenwriters, it is not as satisfying as it should have been. The main problem, I’m afraid, is Tom Cruise–both the character he plays and his acting. McDeere is just a variation on the role Cruise played in his last simplistically patriotic vehicle, A Few Good Men.

It is basically a role that Cruise has been playing his entire career, one that defines his screen persona and, I think, accounts for his durable popularity (among teenagers). As in the shallow but flashy Top Gun, Cruise plays a hero who needs to prove and redeem himself. In Top Gun, his father-pilot died in action; in A Few Good Men, his dead father was a brilliant lawyer. And in the new movie, he is ashamed of his background: his criminal brother, magnificently played by David Strathairn, is in jail.

Cruise’s performance is cool and detached, just as the whole movie. McDeere is a simple, almost mechanic conception, a character lacking any shading or nuance. Which leads me to the film’s second problem: The Firm is too plot-driven. The last hour of the film is all action; Pollack and his writers cram too many events, rushing from one meaningless incident to another.

Finally, the villain in The Firm is too abstract and almost inhuman. You may find it incredible that the entire staff is corrupt, but that’s the premise (without it there’s no movie). The picture is also infused with a cynical viewpoint. Its subtext implies that every lawyer, even those who are initially honest and decent, can be bought at the right price.

The Firm is a variant of the conspiracy film that was very popular in the 1970s, during the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal; Pollack himself made Three Days of the Condor, one of the cycle’s better ones.

The chief reason to see The Firm, as far as I’m concerned, is Gene Hackman’s startling and touching performance as Avery Tolar, McDeere’s disenchanted mentor. Hackman is probably the best star-actor in American film today. After winning an Oscar for his last film, as the nasty sheriff in Eastwood’s Unforgiven, he scores another high.

Oscar Alert

Oscar Nominations: 2

Supporting Actress: Holly Hunter

Score: Dave Grusin


Oscar Context:

The winners in those categories were Anna Paquin for “The Piano,” and composer John Williams for Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which swept most of the awards in 1993.