This past week, we were very sadly forced to witness yet again the real-life dysfunction of the American legal system. At times like these, it can be nice to retreat to the idealized world of cinema. We’ve decided to use today’s Roundtable, therefore, to look at some of our favorite movies about courtroom trials and lawyers.
Often cited as one of the more baffling Oscar decisions, Marisa Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress win for ‘My Cousin Vinny‘ overshadows what is a really delightful little film. The premise isn’t anything special: A pair of big city kids are accused of a crime in the South, and call in the titular cousin Vinny, a lawyer, to represent them. What shines here are the performances, with Joe Pesci and Ms. Tomei both displaying considerable comedic chops, and a script full of memorable moments. They manage to mine the fish out of water element (Vinny orders grits at a local diner and stares in horror as the cook proceeds to use a giant lump of lard, the judge often cannot understand his colloquial phrasing, etc.) as well as craft a compelling mystery that unravels in court. It’s not a classic for the ages, but ‘My Cousin Vinny’ is a fine, solid comedy that deserves a second look. And you know, Marisa Tomei is actually really great in it.
Some of Hollywood’s greatest movies take place in courtrooms, so there’s a wealth of great titles to pick from. However, the one I keep coming back to again and again is Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK‘, which may lack historical accuracy but more than makes up for it with great performances and some masterful filmmaking. Kevin Costner’s performance as Jim Garrison in the courtroom is so powerful, the scene where he describes the bullet trajectory has been spoofed on multiple occasions, not the least of which was an episode of ‘Seinfeld’. The fact that this was perhaps the biggest crime of the 20th Century, and that the movie revealed evidence (some of which would later be debunked, but at the time of the film’s release was still fresh and relatively unexamined) little-known by the American public, made for a moviegoing experience that was absolutely riveting. By the time Costner stares directly at the viewer and says, “It’s up to you,” we’ve bought into Stone’s theories hook, line and sinker.
M. Enois Duarte
Of the many great legal dramas readily available for our entertainment, the Sydney Lumet classic ‘The Verdict‘ still stands in my mind as one of the most deeply-moving films with a courtroom setting. The story of pathetic ambulance-chaser Frank Galvin (a wonderful Paul Newman) finally gaining a conscience to fight a malpractice suit, to the surprise of friends and his firm, is a terrific balance of suspense, conspiracy and heart-wrenching drama. Admittedly, the script and plot are formulaic, both in structure (with typical well-timed plot devices) and a predictable outcome, but Lumet and Newman bring the whole affair in a taut, tightly-wounded package that wins the hearts of viewers to fight for what’s right — bringing justice to the victims and families that suffer at the hands of others, especially those we trust. Given the recent, and rather shocking, verdict of one recent courtroom case, ‘The Verdict’ plays like a somber fantasy of what we wish or imagine our courtrooms should be like.
During the mid ’90s, I became obsessed with lawyer/courtroom-based dramas. I blame John Grisham. I was 13 at the time ‘The Firm’ opened, so I was too young to get into that one. My obsession began with the PG-13 rated ‘The Pelican Brief‘. The movie is filled with legal jargon, but its greatness comes from the mystery. Compared to other legal dramas, I still find ‘The Pelican Brief’ to contain more tension and “whodunnit” than most others out there. The film opened in 1993, back in Julia Roberts’ prime, back before her image was tarnished by rumors of her (supposedly) awful character. She acts her ass of in it and is highly compatible with Denzel Washington. It has been a few years since I revisited the movie, but now that it’s back in my thoughts, I realize how much I need to own the Blu-ray.
Technically, this is more of a pre-courtroom pick, but I think ‘The Social Network‘ is a pretty extraordinary legal drama. The entire framework of the story is comprised of legal depositions, and every minute of those depositions is tense, funny, witty and exciting. I’ve been deposed for lawsuits, and while they were many things, they were anything but funny, witty or exciting. That a film about the origins of a web site can be all of those things and more says everything you need to know about David Fincher’s filmmaking mastery and the strength of the writing. I think ‘The Social Network’ is Aaron Sorkin’s best script about the legal system – and the guy wrote ‘A Few Good Men’, so that’s saying something.
As tempted as I was to pick ‘Rashomon’ as the alpha and omega of courtroom/lawyer movies, I have to instead reach into the bin of TV movies. That brings me to the Don Johnson-powered ‘Word of Honor‘, which aired on TNT in 2003. Adapted from the Nelson DeMille novel of the same name, the movie version is fair as an adaptation. More importantly, it captures the compelling desire for truth that drives the story. In the furor following a new magazine exposé, the U.S. Army recalls a middle-aged man back to service to face murder charges in a court martial for events some 18 years prior. With Benjamin Tyson’s life turned upside-down, the public is polarized over him, even as multiple varied accounts circulate. The film’s revelations come like a cresting tide as the agreed upon truth and conclusion of trial fails to match the fascination that lead up to those revelations.
Adam Tyner (DVDTalk)
‘Anatomy of a Murder‘ is far and away my favorite courtroom drama. The film addresses rape and murder with the gravity they’re deserved and a frankness uncharacteristic for the late 1950s. It’s ultimately Jimmy Stewart that defines the film, though. His is a delicate balancing act that’s executed brilliantly. His small town lawyer is gentle and sympathetic yet authoritative. He has a puckish, occasionally self-deprecatory sense of humor, but at no point does that diminish our perception of him as a strategist and a remarkably gifted lawyer. Stewart brings to life a charismatic, instantly likeable lawyer for whom we eagerly root, yet it can’t be overlooked that some of the maneuvers he makes aren’t entirely “white hat.” ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ isn’t about justice; the film is far more interested in exploring the underlying system, calling into question every component of the legal process. As endlessly compelling as ‘Anatomy of a Murder’ is as a drama, the numerous left turns, quick-footed legal maneuvering, richly drawn personalities and another spectacular leading turn by Jimmy Stewart ensure that the film functions wonderfully as pure entertainment as well.
I could go with any number of fiction movies here. Of course, ’12 Angry Men’ (the source of this post’s banner image) and ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are obvious picks, and will get Honorable Mentions from me.
This time, however, I think that I’d rather look toward a documentary, and the one that comes first to my mind is ‘Brother’s Keeper‘, the 1992 debut feature from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The film recounts the trial of Delbert Ward, an elderly, barely half-literate farmer from rural New York who was accused of murdering his brother, despite the fact that the initial police investigation concluded that the man (who’d been in ill health for many years) died of natural causes. Delbert confessed to the crime under interrogation, but may not have been mentally competent enough to understand what he was saying. As we dig further into this case, we learn all sorts of bizarre, fascinating details about Delbert and his family of three brothers, who lived together in squalid, hermit-like conditions that created a perception among outsiders that they were a bunch of backwoods, ‘Deliverance’-style sociopaths. (The prosecution even put forth a theory that the death was a sex crime.) It’s been a while since I’ve seen the movie, but what I remember most vividly from it is the realness of the trial footage, which contrasts so starkly with the slick speechifying and morally righteous crusading you see in movies and TV. One of the lawyers was borderline incompetent, yet held a man’s fate in his hands. I was reminded of this years later, when I had to serve jury duty and witnessed something very similar unravel right before me.
Berlinger and Sinofsky would later go on to make the superlative ‘Paradise Lost’ trilogy of documentaries about the West Memphis Three. Those are excellent choices for this category as well, but something about ‘Brother’s Keeper’ has stuck with me all these years.
We barely even touched upon the legal thriller genre here (aside from Luke’s pick of ‘The Pelican Brief’). There are a number of other great movies in that vein. What else have we missed? Tell us in the Comments.
My Cousin Vinny, while really hilarious, is one the closest you’ll come to a real trial.
12 Angry Men is one of my favorite.
I can’t believe no one mentioned To Kill A Mockingbird.
Another one of my favorites was a Harrison Ford gem Presumed Innocent. Just a great cast and performances from all.
How about Liar Liar? LOL
I can’t believe no mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird either…especially since Josh did—honorably, even! 🙂
My top pick is a film whose genre one usually doesn’t classify as courtroom drama; ordinarily one thinks “Christmas movie” instead. Yes, I’m talking about the original Miracle on 34th Street, in which a man who claims to be Santa undergoes a legal hearing to determine his sanity. It’s dramatic and it’s hilarious, and the legal maneuvering is riveting. Really, why relegate it to just Christmastime?—its original release date fell in May!
Honorable mentions: The Passion of Joan of Arc, the 1928 silent re-creating the heresy trial of the Maid of Orléans and her execution at the stake, using elaborate sets and extensive closeups to center the audience right in the action, both topographically and emotionally; A Matter of Life and Death (a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven), in which a WW II pilot, fated to die in a doomed mission, is missed by his angel of death and must undergo a trial held in the world of the afterlife to determine whether he can stay on Earth with the woman with whom he has just fallen in love; and Defending Your Life—“the first true story of what happens after you die”—in which a recently deceased Albert Brooks finds himself in Judgment City, a strangely pleasant Earthlike community where one’s life is examined in a legalistic hearing to determine whether one advances to a higher place in the universe…or gets stuck being reincarnated on Earth.
My only problem with Miracle on 34th Street as a legal drama is that the outcome of the trial (since the Post Office accepts mail addressed to Santa, the court must acknowledge him as a real person) makes no legal sense at all. Surely they’d heard of mail fraud even in 1947? 🙂
So Josh, your problem with the REALISM about a Santa Claus movie is the misapplication mail fraud laws?!
Yeah, but that would be a federal matter. The judge in a state court was deferring to a federal decision; if the case had been in federal court, the judge in question would have had to find some other politically expedient excuse. 🙂
I agree, where is To Kill a Mockingbird?
First paragraph, second sentence of Josh’s roundtable answer, shortly after 12 Angry Men. You might try your browser’s Find command.
When I sent the instructions to staff this week, I specifically asked that we not do 12 Angry Men or To Kill a Mockingbird, because those are both too obvious and I didn’t want everyone picking the same movie. Also, Mockingbird recently came up in our Favorite Movie Dads Roundtable.
Yes, everyone should know that 9 times out of 10, we’re specifically asked not to pick the most obvious movie and not to pick something someone else has already claimed.
My FIRST pick for this week was MY COUSIN VINNY – because (as another poster pointed out) you learn a lot about REAL law during Vinny’s bumbling and stumbling through the trial. But Daniel had already submitted it first, so I had to go with my second choice – JFK.
Hey, where’s my favorite: Billy Wilder’s Witness For the Prosecution and those performances from Marlene Dietrich and Charles Laughton? The most forgotten of all…and(NOT my favorite: Town Without Pity?
There are only a handful of us writing these Roundtables. If you have a favorite we didn’t mention, that’s what these Comments are for. 🙂
Where are Miracle on 34th Street, The Passion of Joan of Arc, A Matter of Life and Death, and Defending Your Life? Oh, wait a minute…
How about A Few Good Men. I know in places it’s a bit cheesy, but you get some amazing performances in one of Rob Reiner’s finer films. I think Kevin Pollock is especially good in the film, and who can argue with Jack Nicholson in a buzz cut.
That would be on my list for the worst law movie…the film is entertaining, but the idea that Tom Cruise’s character would be able to talk Jack Nicholson’s character to confessing on the stand is just crazy…the kind of stuff that deserves to be on silly TV shows like MATLOCK.
Speaking of recent events, (Zimmerman trial is what prompted this Roundtable, no?) the recent Supreme court ruling should have triggered this film nomination: Philadelphia.
Hanks & Denzel! What great performances! Was that Tom’s first Oscar? What was that Denzel line? “Explain it to me like I’m a 4th graders/kindergartener?” Hanks’ transformation as he’s getting sicker, was this eye-openning visual about the disease. Denzel’s homophobia was played into the storyline. That scene where the debunking stereotype of a gay guy who can kick Denzel’s ass; decades before pro athletes are coming out. AIDS was this taboo, unknown, fearful thing. That film was so relevant and influential. That film’s effect was to help the country see that AIDS was a global problem, not a “punishment” to an outcasted minority group. Movies like Philadephia help to keep our times a changin’ and pushed our world a rollin’ forward.
And Philadephia’s soundtrack had some many great songs: Springsteen’s Streets of Philly, Neil Young’s Philadephia, I gotta go dig out my CD of it.
The Phildephia blu-ray has a May 14 2013 release date, but has been delayed??
M. Enois Duarte
Not exactly delayed. More like Twilight Time released it and pretty much made it a collector’s item per their usual practices without sending any copies for review.
So, it’s out there and available, but you’ll have to pay a pretty penny for it.
All Twilight Time releases are distributed exclusively through screenarchives.com. They still have copies of Philadelphia available at the original price of $29.95.
Even though they’re limited to 3,000 copies, very few Twilight Time discs have ever actually sold out. (Of course, that doesn’t stop people from trying to speculate on them with jacked-up prices on eBay.) I remember people freaking out about As Good As It Gets being a Twilight Time limited edition, but that Blu-ray is still available more than a year later.
Quite sad that less than 3000 people want to own ‘As Good As It Gets’ on Blu-ray. Such a great movie.
While this might invite ridicule I’d like to throw in a little gem (though by no means within the same league as the other films mentioned here) from 1987, “From the Hip”.
The main weakness of this post-Breakfast Club Judd Nelson-movie is probably its rather unconventional shift from comedy to dark suspense, which might be somewhat irritating, but it has many of the elements which made screenwriter David E. Kelley’s Boston Legal such a great show.
I would like to add A FEW GOOD MEN and A TIME TO KILL to the list.
Loosely fitting the profile, I enjoyed SCENT OF A WOMAN as well.
Legal Movies – PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT.
Honorable Mention – Ghosts of the Mississippi and The Firm.
Shannon, I never claimed the courtroom scenes were realistic, but the topic was favorite courtroom movies, not most realistic. A Few Good Men and Miracle on 34th Street should both be acceptable answers under that criteria. While on the subject, My Cousin Vinny has been described as one of the more realistic courtroom movies multiple times. In my limited experience in courtrooms, I find it difficult to believe that any judge would tolerate Joe Pesci’s antics throughout that trial. Plus, had he lost the trial, Ralph Macchio would have been locked up for a long time, and who wouldn’t like to see that?
I think people are referring to the fact that MY COUSIN VINNY follows procedure correctly, where many courtroom dramas do not. Obviously, Vinny gets away with stuff in the film that no one could in real life…but it IS a comedy, after all.
The Accused, Judgment at Nuremberg, and Inherit the Wind rank up there for me.
While not a traditional courtroom drama, I also really enjoy Stalag 17 for its courtroom like drama.
Freddy D Gompf III
Here are my Top 10, as I have them posted on my Flixter list. I may need to revisit the ranking but its pretty good:
1. 12 Angry Men
3. The Firm
6. A Few Good Men
7. Erin Brockovich
8. A Time To Kill
9. The Hurricane
10. The Pelican Brief
11. The Social Network
12. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets Nest
13. My Cousin Vinnie
15. Witness For The Prosecution
Jeez! Really poeple? No love for Find Me Guilty? Do people really not like that movie or is it just that no one has seen it? Directed by the legendary Sidney Lumet and starring Vin Diesel with actual acting skills… and hair!
I remember seeing Witness for the Prosecution on our family’s B&W TV when I was much younger, and just sitting there stunned (if you’ve seen it you know what I mean). I thought I’d discovered a hidden gem, but everyone I knew that was older already loved it! It’s one of the films that sparked my interest in cinema and an appreciation for good storytelling. Bravo!