Directed by Sydney Pollack, Absence of Malice features Paul Newman as liquor wholesaler Michael Gallagher and Sally Field as Miami newspaper reporter Megan Carter. The plot is set in motion when Carter publishes a story linking Gallagher to the disappearance of a local union leader. The problem: Carter obtained the information about Gallagher from federal prosecutor Elliot Rosen (whose leak of the out-of-context information about Gallagher was, at best, improper). Gallagher spends most of the film attempting to clear his name and, ultimately, scheming to bring down those who sullied his reputation. But it is Wilford Brimley, as Assistant U.S. Attorney General James Wells, who steals the movie in the fascinating final scene.
Scene: No summary can do the final sequence justice; it must be seen to be fully experienced. As Gallagher’s efforts to “get even” begin to come to fruition, Wells convenes a meeting of all of those involved in the Gallagher affair—including the federal prosecutor, the district attorney (to whose campaign committee Gallagher has made anonymous contributions so as to cast doubt upon him), Carter and the newspaper’s lawyer—in an office conference room. The federal prosecutor attempts a mock cross-examination of Gallagher to prove his revenge scheme, but Wells takes over the meeting and queries Carter about her source into the investigation of Gallagher. Carter admits she received the information from the federal prosecutor, and following that admission, Wells—after commenting on the First Amendment and the purported reporter’s privilege—tells everyone where they now stand.
Lesson for lawyers: Wells offers one lesson to the government lawyers in the room: “We can’t have people go around leaking stuff for their own reasons. It ain’t legal. And worse than that, by God, it ain’t right.” He also quips: “Wonderful thing, a subpoena,” acknowledging its procedural role in the search for truth.
Finally, his best piece of advice to Gallagher applies not just to lawyers but to us all: “Don’t get too smart.” Indeed.