For the better part of five decades, Harry Pregerson, the subject of 9th Circuit Cowboy – The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson, devoted his life to his country and its richly diverse inhabitants. As a judge of California’s notorious 9th Court of Appeals, he openly admitted to “ruling with his heart over his head.”
It’s hard to imagine the number of lives he had changed upon his passing at age 94 in 2017, but his impact resonated as a social justice warrior in the purest sense of the phrase: fighting for the rights of the homeless, armed service veterans, and same-sex marriage.
We hear stories from his family members of Pregerson’s life, discover his passions, and intimate details of the moments behind his motivations are disclosed. The judge’s life prior to the bench was as equally as colorful: growing up with anti-Semitism for his Jewish heritage; he served as a Marine during World War II, and the wounds suffered in combat; his earliest cases battling for the underdog, regardless of the circumstance.
It is easy to see the richly colorful life Pregerson lived through words, but the visuals never fully capture the dynamism. Producer/ director Terry Sanders includes rare family photos and snags a few interviews with surviving family members. While the tales told are abundant with life, the corresponding imagery never seems to capture that same sense of urgency. It’s like casually browsing through a family album with candid-but-posed shots that don’t do justice to the stories they support. And when it uses original artwork, they are charcoal sketches that fail to capture the same magnetism Pragerson’s so obviously exuded.
“We hear stories from his family members of Pregerson’s life…”
9th Circuit Cowboy – The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson could have also benefited from a larger swath of interviewees, such as legal opponents who were routinely foiled by Pragerson’s rulings. Or the family of vets and homeless for whom he would advocate, just to provide a semblance of balance and not hagiography from family members and closest friends. When you hear that he was deemed “a thug for the Lord” or even “a rescue machine,” it calls for clips, videos, or images that are far more powerful than those here.
Sanders, a two-time Academy Award winner, produced the documentary Maya Lin: A Strong, Clear Vision, which followed the young architect’s journey to craft the then-controversial Vietnam Memorial Wall, in which we hear from conservative members of Congress such as Pat Buchanan and Henry Hyde as they fought against its design and construction, culminating in a tearful defense from the then-20-year-old protagonist. It is through that we are given a more well-rounded narrative investment in our subject. That is something that 9th Circuit Cowboy – The Long, Good Fight of Judge Harry Pregerson could have used more of.
There is no doubt Pragersen’s tale alone is one that is as admirable as it is colorful. But when translated to film, the director needed to allow us to hear and see more about the stakes involved so that we can fully appreciate just how high this cowboy rode on his saddle.
"…the corresponding imagery never seems to capture that same sense of urgency."