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There's no smoke without tobacco
"Nothing sells like fear in America."
Terry Lavin, former President of the Illinois State Bar Association


Not being that familiar with the finer points of American civil law, I have to admit that until I sat down in front of Wayne Ewing's Benched: The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary I had never encountered the term 'tort'. For those of you in the same boat, Microsoft Word's inbuilt dictionary defines it as, "in civil law, a wrongful act for which damages can be sought by the injured party." That means, for example, that if you go into hospital and someone screws up and you are left permenantly damaged in some way, you have the right to sue them or their organisation for damages. The level of the award can vary from case to case depending on its severity, the cost of resulting medical care and the estimation of the financial recompense for the suffering caused.

Back in 2005 in Illinois, a campaign was under way to impose a cap on the payouts in such cases, to restore some sanity to a system in which individuals were suing at the drop of a hat and reaping the financial benefits. This had resulted in a shortage of medical professionals, who were fleeing the state to anywhere they would be less likely to find themselves at the end of an unfair law suit. With shiftless members of the judiciary in on the deal, the whole situation was clearly in need of reform.

At least that's the pro-tort reform campaigners would have you believe. With press stories tending to focus only on more outrageous-sounding law suits and often misreporting the facts of the case, it all sounds surprisingly plausible. But is it? The issue of tort reform proves to be at the centre of a two horse race for a position in the Illinois Supreme Court between Democrat Gordon Maag and Republican Lloyd Karmier. Karmier promotes himself as the friend of the ordinary working man and woman, keen to protect their access to health care by putting an end to all these overpriced payouts that are scaring the doctors away. The pro-reform campaign encourages everyone to vote for him and puts out ads in which good-looking doctors and nurses earnestly endorse his candidacy. What a guy. Except something's not quite right here. People in Karmier's camp appear strangely reluctant to talk to our intrepid reporter, the stories about an exodus of medical professionals may not actually be true, and there's a strong suspicion that the US Chamber of Commerce have poured millions of dollars into Karmier's campaign. Now why would they do that? Well, one of their own contributors is tobacco giant Phillip Morris, who only recently lost a class action suit and had a 10.1 billion dollar judgement made against them, the very sort of big payout our friend Karmier seems keen to overturn on appeal. Aha...

Boasting none of the visual pizzazz of some of the more prominent documentary features of recent years, Benched is shot and edited in the style of a news special and is presented and narrated by correspondent Paul Johnson. Johnson's distinctive accent and studied sincerity may initially prove a small hurdle for a UK audience that is a little too used to seeing such a reporting style satirised, but his approach is direct and effective, and when presenting a questionable newspaper ad at an Illinois State Bar Association press conference, is tinged with just the right level of sardonic wit. Ewing and Johnson assemble some very persuasive interview material, including level-headed contributions from former Illinois State Bar President Terry Lavin, attorney Rex Carr, Victims and Families United head Doug Wojcieszak, and Joanne Doroshow from the Centre for Justice and Democracy. The increasingly unpleasant rivalry between Karmier and Maag is nicely illustrated by TV ad campaigns that simply wouldn't be allowed air time in the UK, but it's in the later stages that the ante is really upped, as the true scale of the corporate and political self-interest becomes clear and Karmier's repeated disinterest in participating in the film mutates into something a tad more unpleasant. Attempting to film a Republican Party rally, Ewing's camera is repeatedly blocked by a party goon, who chillingly informs him that he has no place there because "You are on the street, but you're not with us."

It seems doubtful that Ewing and Johnson began their film from a position of complete neutrality, but I personally have no problem with that – good reporting more often than not starts from the suspicion that something stinks and is driven forward by a determination to locate the source of that smell, and there is clear evidence here of something rotten in the state of Illinois. What starts as a seemingly domestic issue is soon shown to have wider implications, the clear suggestion of unsavoury corporate practices having a depressingly familiar ring, and one whose relevance reaches far beyond Illinois and even America itself to just about every country in which multi-nationals operate. As British politicians and companies increasingly embrace the corporate American model, the film's final message should serve as a warning of things to come or already taking place, their participants no doubt keen to avoid their own fifteen minutes of infamy in the documentary spotlight.

sound and vision

Shot, I am guessing, on NTSC DigiBeta or similar, the image is here is framed 4:3 and looks largely fine, with a good level of detail, solid contrast and no obvious compression artefacts. The very recognisably video look is not an issue, being appropriate to the investigate documentary format.

The soundtrack is similarly pleasing – nothing flashy, but always clear and some surprisingly good stereo separation in some of the exteriors.

extra features

Case Study (14:19)
One of the victims of medical negligence who was successful in his claim for damages but whose scenes did not make the final cut of the film, Michael was left in a quadriplegic state and very clearly outlines the financial and emotional cost of his condition and the difference the settlement, won for him by attorney Rex Carr, has made to his quality of life. This is a touching an informative inclusion that inevitably prompts you to consider how you would cope in his place.


Wayne Ewing is something of a cottage documentary film industry, shooting, editing, producing and directing his films and the putting out the DVDs himself, selling them through his own websites. This is the second of his films I have seen and reviewed (the first was Free Lisl: Fear and Loathing in Denver, although I have The Last Campaign sitting by the TV as I type) and already the theme that appears to unify the work is a desire to highlight injustice by the system against the individual. Benched: The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary may not be as well known as several other investigate documentaries I could name, but it absolutely deserves to be seen by anyone troubled by the increasingly dominant and sinister nature of the big corporations, and if you're not then you damned well should be. This is not an American issue, but an increasingly global one, and to be informed, frankly, is to be forewarned.

If you are interested in purchasing the DVD, then you'll need to do so directly from Wayne Ewing's site at

Benched: The Corporate Takeover of the Judiciary

USA 2005
75 mins
Wayne Ewing

DVD details
region 0
4:3 OAR
Dolby 2.0 stereo
Case study
Wayne Ewing Films
release date
Out Now
review posted
7 February 2007

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See all of Slarek's reviews