In sweeping the recent Academy Awards ceremony, “American Beauty” earned new releases and longer runs in hundreds of theaters. That’s a good thing for attorneys who may not have realized that Sam Mendes’ beautiful film, named the best picture of 1999, is also an essay on the most persistent question confronting contemporary American law.

The film’s scope shouldn’t surprise us. Movies and cases perform the same social purpose, each using a format that pits one party against another to reconcile competing interests that, left unresolved, would tear civilization apart. Moreover, courts and cinema work simultaneously to establish equilibrium: The Lorena Bobbitt trial explored gender-defined disabilities during the same period that “Mrs. Doubtfire” hit big at the box office and “The Crying Game” won an Academy Award.

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