Assuming The Paper Chase is a cutting-edge slice of life in the newsroom of some regional paper is forgivable, surely? Just the word paper strikes that. But no, the mothballs that have gathered around this James Bridges-directed feature obscured the pretentious and useless projection someone obsessed with 1970s journalism features would have had. The Paper Chase is a Harvard Law School disaster waiting to happen and it leans into that nicely with the Timothy Bottoms feature reliant as ever on those around its leading man, rather than the bloke at the centre of the storm. That storm is as interesting as it gets, but it is remarkable how ineffective and harmless it can be despite its sudden gut punches and hefty blows to the brain.
Tension boils frequently. The demands of a man to fill the room with his intelligence look ironic now, knowing how few have it in them to do so. The Paper Chase shows that few people could do it back then too. Harvard as a body, as an institution, is one that expects people to look up to it. In fact, it is much easier to look down on it. Their snobbery and sickening displays make for an excellent backdrop here that never crawls out of the woodwork. Stifled settings are easy to explode from but The Paper Chase finds context in the screams of someone running down the halls. It is normal to them, every Friday and every Sunday, to have a man rattled by the expectations of the education system so badly that he needs to tear down the halls and screech his way to mental freedom.
Whether that works as an outlet or an escape is neither here nor there for The Paper Chase, a collection of moments and stuffy storytelling. Despite that heavy feel, that musty display of old classrooms and older teachers, there is a sense of liberation at the core. A sense and statement of anxiety that opens Bottoms’ approach to the world of law and the impact he hopes to leave. John Houseman is the integral piece of all that, though. A stern teacher is seen as a respected leader and also an antagonistic horror that pushes students to their breaking point. It feels like the groundwork that would later inspire Whiplash and JK Simmons’ Academy Award-winning role. A moral compass is defined not by humanity but by an expectation for greatness.
The Paper Chase then ironically falls from the greatness it expects of itself. It is a fine film with some gorgeous cinematography from Gordon Willis. His hand behind the scenes for The Godfather and Annie Hall are telling components. His work here clearly impacted that of Annie Hall and the close-ups that come through, delivering this animosity in the ordinary, are clearly influenced by The Godfather that came just a year before. Willis is an unsung hero of the 1970s pastiche and his work here is highlighted well. It pairs with the stifled dejection, the self-confidence that quickly ebbs away. For those who have been crushed up and flattened out by the education system, The Paper Chase will have its moments, the cogs whirring away as everything falls into horrific place without the dramatics, despite it trying, to hold it all together.