While the opening credits roll, we watch the latest batch of first-year law students find their seats in the classroom at Harvard Law School. Rather than beginning the first lecture with some cliché about how only one person is ‘cut out’ to graduate from law school among the one in your seat and the two on either side of you, Professor Kingsfield, played by John Houseman, dives straight into Hawkins v. McGee—the infamous ‘hairy hand’ case. In Kingsfield’s contracts classroom, there are no prefatory remarks, no congenial introductions, and no easy questions. There is just the law. Those who can keep up are welcome to James Bridges’ The Paper Chase (1973).
The plot is told from the perspective of young Mr. Hart, played by Timothy Bottoms. Hart is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota who soon finds himself ensconced in a study group (which is serious business, mind you) with fellow 1Ls of estimable pedigree and (generally) insufferable disposition. As a strategy of acing the exams, the group divides their labor so that each member is responsible for outlining one of the classes. Hart, whose spectacular failure to impress Kingsfield on the first day of class has awakened an imperturbable desire to excel, nominates himself as the group’s champion of contract law.
The remainder of the film explores Hart’s effort to navigate the crucible of 1L year. The focal point of that experience is his relationship with Kingsfield, whom Hart desperately wants to impress. Hart’s desperation couldn’t be more odd: he will unflinchingly hatch a plot to break and enter into the library after hours to steal a glance at Kingsfield’s notes from his own days as a student, he will obsessively muse about what he thinks makes Kingsfield tick, and he will even sleep with Kingsfield’s daughter Susan, played by Lindsay Wagner. The depth of Hart’s attraction to Susan is rather hard to place. Perhaps it is sincere; perhaps it is instrumental. After all, it’s too much of a stretch to think that Hart’s irritatingly frequent mentions of Susan’s father, even in their private moments together, are purely benign. If so, Susan’s motivations are similarly peculiar. She seems just as happy to indulge his fanciful curiosities about Kingsfield as he is to bring them up.
Hart is not the only one with problematic neuroses. Hart’s friends are similarly afflicted. Each member of the study group crumbles under the pressure of 1L year, skilled though they may be with their perfect memory recall, or impeccable outline, or intellectual prowess. It turns out that each of these skills is necessary but not sufficient (a distinction that they must learn to love in order to survive) for success—in addition to all those skills, they must also be tenacious. Most succumb, sometimes catastrophically so.
And that’s precisely the virtue of The Paper Chase. Replete though the characters may be with their own pathologies, each one of them is represented as they are. That presentation is honest, sometimes un-flatteringly so, but it is as matter of fact as Kingsfield’s questioning: for their courage in the classroom the students are not to be mocked or ridiculed. For each of them, even minute turbulences may become devastating anxiety, but we aren’t led to believe these characters are fickle or pathetic because of it. On the contrary, the success of The Paper Chase is its ability to convey just how it is that competent people are reduced to haplessness and embarrassment in the face of otherwise trivial concerns.
A reasonable observer may think it improbable that a capable person becomes so enveloped in the whimsies of a professor that the slightest rebuke sends them spiraling into shame. But this is not the natural reaction when watching The Paper Chase. Rather, it is a thoughtful study of the way that even for reasonable people, low stakes may be transformed into high stakes with little more than a casually dismissive word.