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.