Almost anyone who was around in 1994 has probably heard of Liebeck vs. McDonald's, the case that gives the documentary Hot Coffee its title. A customer named Susan Liebeck sued McDonald's after spilling a cup of coffee in her lap, claiming the coffee was too hot. Those who've heard the story probably have a picture of the whole in their heads, and that picture may make the case sound like a sham, but in under 90 minutes, director Susan Saladoff deftly and clearly paints a picture of a legal system manipulated and twisted by corporations to cut off the rights of the American citizen.
The truth about Ms. Liebeck's case: a picture's worth a thousand words, and the distressing photos of her injuries might turn a few heads. More complications arise in the form of the jury, which awarded Ms. Libeck $2.7 million in damages (intended to reflect roughly 2 days worth of McDonald's coffee sales, as a way of sending a message to McDonald's), and turned her case into a national joke (a judge lowered her payout to around $600,000, and she settled for less on an appeal). With a perfect image of "jackpot justice" in the form of a $2.7 million cup of coffee, the corporate industry took their chance to shift the public's opinion against trials like Liebeck's.
Saladoff's skills as a documentarian are pretty strong. Over the course of the film, she presents the stories of four people, carefully but energetically illustrating the ways the "tort reform" issue (reducing or capping the amount of damages individuals can make from a civil case) has impacted their lives. Ms. Liebeck's case is eye-opening, but Saladoff slowly ups the ante, moving onto the stories of Colin Gourley, the permanently disabled victim of a doctor twice sued for malpractice, and Justice Oliver Diaz, who won his Supreme Court re-election bid in the face of expensive ads run by corporations, only to have his career derailed by two years of baseless investigations. Saladoff uses a smooth blend of archive television footage, interviews with her subjects and other legal experts, and images of documents like newspapers and contracts. The DVD case notes that Saladoff was a former public-interest lawyer herself, and not only does her knowledge of the subject serve her well, but it also informs her style of presenting information.
Most interesting, however, is the final story: Janie Leigh Jones, a contract employee for Haliburton, was sent to Iraq as part of her job, where she claimed she was drugged and raped by other Haliburton employees. When she went to file suit, she discovered that her employment contract -- a mandatory step in being hired -- legally bound her to choose arbitration rather than settle in public court. It's likely that anyone reading this has signed away their rights in a similar employment contract (I know I have) and never thought twice, and it's a little startling to consider how willingly one signs away their rights. The twist, however, came after the film was finished: if you only view the documentary, it appears that Jones is the victim of a gross injustice, but in June 2011, a civil court found Haliburton not guilty, and arrived at the conclusion that Jones' story was fabricated.
On one hand, the movie's ominous music and Jones' nearly emotionless demeanor take on a different light depending on the viewer's knowledge of the case and its outcome (and I'm sure the other three families, whose complaints appear to be sincere, probably wish they weren't lined up next to her), but it's a testament to the strength of the argument presented by Saladoff that it doesn't hurt the film at all. As of today, the Occupy protests continue around the country, and it's easy for anti-Occupy sentiments to cross over into sentiments that nearly read like people surrendering their Constitutional right to assemble. Similarly, although Hot Coffee believes in Jones' story, it doesn't really matter if you believe her, or feel that Ms. Liebeck deserved $2.7 million. It's not a question of merit. It is Jones' right to have her day in court, and a jury siding with the defendant after all of her efforts is a sign the system works. Hot Coffee suggests, and suggests eloquently, that people are being tricked into letting their rights wane, and that's the real issue -- something everyone should care about.
Hot Coffee takes the art from the original poster and sticks with it, slapping it on all three sides (front, back, and spine) of the DVD artwork. Some pictures of the people interviewed in the documentary might've been nice. The disc comes in a standard non-eco Amaray case, with a pamphlet of other Docurama films as an insert.
The Video and Audio
Nothing spectacular here. As with almost every documentary, Hot Coffee uses footage from a vast number of sources, all of which end up looking different in this 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Footage shot for the documentary itself looks sort of mushy, with burned out whites and crushed blacks, and aliasing is apparent throughout the film. Dolby Digital 2.0 audio is pretty no-frills, with little surround activity; it's mostly just the interview subjects, which are easy to understand, even when ambient background noise is present. No subtitles or closed captioning is provided.
A brief interview with Susan Saladoff (6:01) dives into her history, her learning experience as a first-time director, and her experience getting into Sundance. She's bright and perky, but the clip doesn't dig too deep. "Frank Luntz: The Words Matter" (2:14) appears to be a deleted scene, about the psychological basis for the phrase "tort reform." A tiny bit off-topic, but interesting. "Hot Coffee, Mississippi" (1:54) also appears to be a deleted scene, exploring a small town named Hot Coffee. Very off-topic, and less interesting. "Insurance Rates" (1:27), is back on-point and interesting, discussing the way insurance companies play the consumer based on the economy. Last, but not least, is "Take Action (1:04) is reasonably balanced, although it does have a terrible song playing over it. If this was a deleted scene, it should've been left in the movie; it's only a minute long and has decent advice.
No trailers play when you put in the disc (!), but in the special features section, you can view trailers for Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Air Guitar Nation, A Crude Awakening, and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Both a teaser and theatrical trailer for Hot Coffee are included, as well as a text biography of the director and a screen of info on Docurama Films.
Hot Coffee is smart, engaging, and well-presented enough that even if one of its four central subjects didn't really have a case, the movie still holds up completely, because director Susan Saladoff keeps her focus on the bigger picture: the rights of the American public. On the strength of the documentary alone (the effectiveness of which is not affected by the limitations of the presentation, which are mostly source-related anyway, and which really doesn't need anything in the way of extras to augment it), Hot Coffee goes into the DVDTalk Collector's Series.
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