It all started one Monday morning in the office.
Over the weekend, my colleague David had watched A Few Good Men for the first time. David isn't a criminal defense lawyer, and he mentioned that the film gave him a new outlook on the prosecutorial system and what it must be like in the heat of a criminal trial.
I admitted that the movie has some great courtroom scenes, but I told him to check out the first thirty minutes of the Lincoln Lawyer if he wanted to get a great Hollywood spin on the life of a criminal defense attorney on the ground level.
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We started discussing the merits of both films, the stylistic nature of each, and their overall "believability" aspect...this, of course, segued into a discussion of the best legal films of all time.
To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, In the Name of the Father, Primal Fear…the names of films flew thick and fast.
The discussion got me thinking: what makes people so attached to legal films? Is it the notion of a well-oiled justice system doing its job properly? It is the idea that every person, no matter his or her position in life, can depend on the judicial process to rectify the wrongs of our world?
There is no question that we live in a harsh, and at times unfair, society. People no doubt enjoy the comfort of contemplating a justice system unintimidated by those who can afford a team of attorneys to bully their way to victory. No one wants to see a movie about a guilty company burying a lawsuit in legal technicalities. People want to see "the good guy" win. They want to see justice served.
The underdog could be up against discrimination (To Kill a Mockingbird, Philadelphia, Erin Brockovich), corporate bullying (The Verdict, The Insider) or false accusations (My Cousin Vinny, A Few Good Men, In the Name of the Father).
Regardless of the situation, great legal films give everyday folks an opportunity for some sense of security when they put themselves in those "what if that were me?" moments.
For many of these movies, the trial scenes are integral to the whole; for others, they are just incidental. There is no exact recipe for a great legal movie, and that's why they appeal to so many different people.
We thought about doing a blog post on our personal favorite 10 legal films, but that song has been played out.
Instead, we made our own top 10 list and married it up with 14 other well-respected lists to get a weighted result. Since it seems no one else has taken this approach (or at least recorded their results) we decided to make an infographic about it as well. In all, a total of 54 movies received votes.
It’s hard to argue with the top 10 legal movie list that came as a result:
1. To Kill a Mockingbird – This isn't just the best legal movie of all time; many regard it as one of the best movies of all time regardless of genre, not to mention one of the best book-to-film adaptations. Gregory Peck is masterful as Atticus Finch, a role that eventually earned him the Academy Award. The courtroom scenes in the film are brilliant and probably inspired many to become lawyers. This film was required viewing in my Legal Ethics course back in law school.
2. A Few Good Men – Rob Reiner’s military courtroom drama is one of the more modern entrants, even though it’s over 20 years old. “You can’t handle the truth!” has transcended the film. Jack Nicholson dominates the movie, which is a real testament to his role when you realize how little of the film he actually appears in. He was denied the best supporting actor award when Gene Hackman took it from him for Unforgiven. This is one of the only movies on the list to give a stylized treatment of the military's JAG (Judge Advocate General's) Corps, which handles the defense and prosecution of military court-martials.
3. 12 Angry Men – Justice is the decision of the jury, and this film portrays justice at its best. Any attorney who has ever tried a jury trial knows he or she would love to be a fly on the wall during deliberations, and this film gives great insight into the jury room. It’s the story of how one juror stands his ground to sway the other 11 to reach the right verdict. Attorneys beg potential jurors to promise they will stay true to their position and not let others bully them into conformity. The jury process catches a lot of flak, but this film shows it working exactly as it should.
4. The Verdict – This film combined the creative genius of David Mamet with Sidney Lumet. Paul Newman is very convincing as a down-on-his-luck alcoholic who takes on the might of the Archdiocese of Boston. The movie walks a fine line while touching on the difficulties and pressures (both internally and externally) of a solo practitioner trying to make a living. It’s a true "David vs. Goliath" setting, and there’s satisfaction in seeing Newman's transformation from washed-up to cleaned-up in the name of justice and integrity.
5. Judgment at Nuremberg – One of the biggest trials ever was made into an epic movie with a super-cast staring Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich and Maximilian Schell. The subject matter doesn't lend itself to a fast-paced suspenseful thriller like many of the other films on this list. Regardless, the greatness of this movie lies in the subtle realization that evil often happens when good men stand by and do nothing.
6. Anatomy of a Murder – James Stewart stars in possibly the best trial movie of all time. The film famously puts the whole legal process under the microscope by examining how both sides use tactics to gain their desired verdict as opposed to letting “the facts” speak for themselves. The film not only touches on the issues of trial tactics and the adversarial nature of trial proceedings, but it also looks into the ethical dilemmas presented when one zealously defends his or her client’s interests.
7. Erin Brockovich – This may have been the role Julia Roberts was born to play. Although Roberts plays a file clerk, and not an actual attorney, the film examines the discrimination women face in the legal landscape. Ultimately, she turns the supposed weakness into a strength. To take it up a notch, the film is based on real-life events. For her efforts, Roberts deservedly won a Best Actress Academy Award.
8. Philadelphia – Jonathan Demme’s direction resulted in one of the first major Hollywood films to deal with the delicate subjects of AIDS, homosexuality, homophobia, and their place in our society at that time. Tom Hanks won the Oscar for Best Actor, while Denzel Washington is great as Hanks’ lawyer attempting to prove Hanks was wrongfully terminated from his position at a prestigious firm due to his lifestyle choices. The film tackles issues of prejudice and discrimination, both in society and in the courtroom.
9. Witness for the Prosecution - This film is based on a short story by Agatha Christie, and it has survived the decades to become one of the greatest law-related movies of all time. The twists and turns encountered by the defense counsel at trial will remind many that appearances can (and often are) deceiving. The tale is a classic for many reasons, including a great plot twist in the final act. The result is so surprising, that a voice over at the end was included to request patrons not to spoil the plot for subsequent viewers. Interestingly, this film involves an American take on the British legal system.
10. My Cousin Vinny – Perhaps one of the classic sleeper films, My Cousin Vinny punches way over its weight. It is held in high regards by many; my Trial Practice professor in law school strongly suggested we all watch it. Joe Pesci stars as Vinny, but it’s Marisa Tomei who steals the movie as well as the Oscar. The trials scenes are first-class, and the comedic interplay between the attorneys, the judge, and Vinny's unintentional disregard for some of the finer points of courtroom etiquette are underscored by the titular character’s preparation and skill when it matters most.
And the Winner Is….
In terms of Academy Awards, the most successful legal film was A Man for All Seasons, which is the story of how Henry VIII went over and above the law in order to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The year it won, British was big in Hollywood. Paul Scofield won Best Actor ahead of Richard Burton and Michael Caine, while Elizabeth Taylor took the Best Actress award with both Redgrave sisters nominated.
Over the years, there have been many deserved wins for roles in legal films, such as Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich, Jodie Foster in The Accused, and Maximilian Schell in Judgment at Nuremburg.
There have also been some wins that came at the expense of each other, such as Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs Kramer over Al Pacino in And Justice for All, and Tom Hanks in Philadelphia over Daniel Day-Lewis for In the Name of the Father.
However, we cannot mention the notable wins without acknowledging the notable snubs. Paul Newman’s role in The Verdict had the unlucky distinction of competing with Ben Kingsley in Gandhi, but there was no reason the The Social Network should have lost Best Picture to The King’s Speech.
Then of course there was Marissa Tomei’s win in My Cousin Vinny, which had people so flummoxed that they were convinced presenter Jack Palance read out the wrong name.
Which of these 54 films is your favorite? Which of these will make you return for a repeat viewing, even though you’ve seen it countless times before?
Though 54 movies received votes, some great legal movies aren’t present. There is no love shown for films such as "Presumed Innocent" and "Reversal of Fortune." Are there any others you feel have been overlooked? How many of these have you seen?