Monday, September 6, 2010

THE VERDICT: A Case Study in Character

An outstanding example of excellent character development can be found in THE VERDICT (1982) screenplay by David Mamet, based on the novel by Barry Reed.

Frank Galvin, a washed up, ambulance chasing, alcoholic lawyer whose life is in shambles, is handed a medical malpractice case against a large, Catholic hospital in Boston. He is expected to take the Archdiocese’s offer and settle the case out of court. But the more he learns about the case, his long dormant idealism and desire for justice are reawakened. He decides to go up against the church and one of the most powerful and connected lawyers in the city – an opponent who will stop at nothing to defeat him.

Galvin graduated second in his class at Boston University law school and became a partner in one of the major firms in Boston. He married and had a successful life. Then Galvin learned that one of the senior partners in his firm had tampered with the jury in an ongoing case. He confronted the partner and told him that he was going to the authorities. In a heartbeat, Galvin found himself framed for the jury tampering and thrown in jail. When he realized what he was up against, he told the partner that he had made a mistake. The firm exerted its influence and Galvin was immediately released from jail. But Galvin was fired, his wife left him, he began to drink heavily and became an ambulance chaser for personal injury suits.

All of this happened before page one.

When the story opens, Galvin only has one client, the Doneghys. Mrs. Doneghy’s sister was given the wrong anesthetic when she went to the hospital, which resulted in her vomiting into her mask & suffocating. She was revived but is now in a vegetative state. Galvin has had this case for eighteen months but has not yet met with the family. The case is due in court in five days. Galvin, finally visits the young woman in the hospital. As the first act proceeds, he understands that this case represents something bigger. A doctor’s negligence turned a vibrant, young woman into a vegetable. If he settles out of court, the doctors, hospital and Archdiocese will sweep this under the rug as they have with how many other cases? Nothing will change.

Galvin sees his opportunity to stand up against the system and the “old boy network.” He can win justice and find redemption.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned how when a character has four traits, they feel more real. Every action they take, every word they speak somehow reflects one of those four traits. Do Galvin and the other central characters have four traits? Let’s find out:

FRANK GALVIN (Protagonist):

Galvin is intelligent. He graduated second in his class from an excellent law school. He was a full partner at a major Boston firm. He understands case law and precedent. He knows how to focus his case into the key concepts that the jury can understand.

Galvin is idealistic. He became a lawyer for all the right reasons. He went up against the senior partner in his own firm. He doesn’t give up, even after Concannon, the defendants’ attorney, has used inside connections to win himself a friendly judge, get stories placed in the local press and even plant a spy in Galvin’s life to get inside information. Galvin believes that jury members will do their best to deliver justice, no matter what the court directs.

Galvin is na├»ve. Perhaps because he is such a moral man at his core, Galvin doesn’t consider how low his opponents would stoop in order to win this case. He is careless with information and too trusting of other people. He is also honest, even when it is politically unwise. He tries to be honest about himself, but looks less carefully at other people, whom he considers to be on his side. Dr. Gruber takes a payoff and disappears. Laura betrays him.

Galvin is self-destructive. He is alcoholic. He blindly enters into a romance with Laura, even though he is in the middle of the most important case of his life. He fails to tell the Doneghys about the settlement offer from the Archdiocese – in clear violation of professional ethics. He insults the judge.

ED CONCANNON (Antagonist):

Concannon is arrogant. His success and the trappings of his lifestyle have resulted in his belief that he is better at the game of law than his opponents. He believes he will win because he almost always does. He bullies Galvin’s key witness, even going so far as to suggest that this profoundly decent woman has lied on the stand.

Concannon is manipulative. He seduces Laura into believing that she will be welcomed back into the fold and practice law at a prestigious firm again – but only if she leaves her personal integrity at the door and, like him, is willing to do anything to win. He curries favor with the judge. When he discovers that Galvin’s expert witness is African-American, he makes sure that he has an African-American lawyer sitting among his law team to counter possible accusations that they are racist when he cross-examines. He has stories favorable to his client placed in the local press to manipulate the jury pool.

Concannon is amoral. He bribes Galvin’s first expert witness, Dr. Gruber, to withdraw from giving testimony. He hires Laura to spy on Galvin and provide inside information, even going so far as encouraging her to sleep with Galvin in order to get the job done. His client’s guilt or innocence doesn’t matter to him – it’s not about the law – it’s about winning.

Concannon is ambitious. He relishes his lifestyle and excuses his tactics as a way to justify his taste for good whiskey, a fine house, travel and all the perks of wealth. He further justifies representing guilty but powerful clients as the means to afford his firm’s pro bono work. He represents Boston’s large institutions, like the Catholic Archdiocese and the hospital, as well as the old boy network throughout the city.

LAURA FISCHER (Ally and Enemy):

Laura is ambitious. She wants to return to practicing law. But hanging up her own shingle is too much work and joining a small firm seems beneath her. She wants to practice in the big leagues, at a major firm. And she’s willing to betray her personal sense of what’s right & wrong in order to get it.

Laura is manipulative. She seduces Galvin, knowing just how to play him. She trades sexual intimacy for information, which she passes along to Concannon. Her dialogue is double-edged in many places – is she questioning Galvin and Mickey as she would a witness on the stand or is she simply curious? If the audience doesn’t know her agenda, she seems to be one thing. If the audience knows that she is a spy, then her dialogue reveals something else entirely.

Laura is self-destructive. She is alcoholic. She sells out her integrity for very little money in hopes that she will get a larger pay-off when she is hired at a large law firm. She betrays the man whom she has grown to love and admire.

Laura is idealistic. Her life and failed marriage have turned her into a cynic, but through her involvement with Galvin, her own idealism is reawakened. When his case seems to have fallen apart, Galvin comes to her, feeling sorry for himself and ready to give up. His words hit her like a blow. If he gives up, it isn't only Galvin's idealism that will be lost. Her words to him might be those of a woman who can no longer stomach defeat or they might be a prayer that he pick himself up and do the hard work that must be done. As soon as she has delivered her final report to Concannon and taken his money, she repeatedly tries to talk to Galvin to tell him the truth.


Mickey is loyal. No matter how many times Galvin has failed, Mickey always stands by him. He knows the true story of the jury tampering accusations and feels he must help and protect Galvin because he knows that his friend is a good – but deeply flawed – man.

Mickey is even-tempered. He never gets rattled. Even when Galvin makes mistakes or their case takes a sudden downward turn, he never complains – he simply helps Galvin accept it and take action on their next step.

Mickey is a realist. More than once, he is ready to walk away from the case, because the odds against them are too great. As Galvin’s case is destroyed piece by piece, Mickey knows that sometimes the bad guys win.

Mickey is a follower. While his legal knowledge is excellent, he lacks the ability to deny the odds and lead the fight for what’s right. He plays it safe. But if his friend Galvin is going into battle, he’ll put his shoulder to the wheel and do the work.

In each scene of this script, these four characters exhibit at least one of the above traits through their words or actions.

Galvin's intelligence and idealism support one another. His naivete and self-destructiveness work against him.

Concannon's ambition, amorality and manipulativeness move his personal agenda forward. But his arrogance represents his blind spot, and ultimately brings him down.

Laura is caught between these two characters. In the beginning, she is closer to Concannon’s view. But by the end, her reemergent idealism brings her closer to Galvin's - but is it too late?

As the loyal friend, Mickey’s traits are less in conflict with each other but instead serve to help illuminate various qualities and reveal information about the main character.

This Oscar-nominated & WGA-winning screenplay is also a case study in structure, conflict, dialogue and theme. Studying great scripts is some of the best education any screenwriter can get. You can download a copy of The Verdict for free from

Have a great writing day!