Sunday, March 9, 2014

My Favorite Films: Courtroom Dramas

As a lawyer, I find it rare that I enjoy a legal drama. Most legal dramas are so unrealistic as to be truly annoying. But there are some gems. Here they are:

1. Presumed Innocent (1990): This movie has the most realistic trial and trial procedures ever. It also has a fascinating story that weaves local politics, obsession, and revenge, and you have no idea what really happened until the end. Harrison Ford plays against type here as the pathetic, obsessed adulterer and possible murder, and Raul Julia plays Sandy Stern, the guy who made me want to be a lawyer.

2. Breaker Morant (1980): Based on a true story, this is an amazing courtroom drama about Britain trying to use a handful of scapegoats to cover up what it did during the Boer War. Well acted, gripping and emotionally frustrating, this is a strong film. It will make you angry.

3. The Caine Mutiny (1954): Another military courtroom drama, this one involves a court martial for mutiny, but who was really to blame for what happened? This one has an amazing performance by Humphrey Bogart as the insecure Lt. Cmdr. Queeg and one hell of a speech by José Ferrer.

4. My Cousin Vinny (1992): A surprisingly accurate courtroom comedy, this one involves the unlicensed Joe Pesci travelling to deep Alabama to defend his young cousin who was driving the wrong car at the wrong time in the wrong place.

5. Sergeant Rutledge (1960): No film that I’ve seen handles race and justice better than this John Ford film in which Woody Strode stands accused of a heinous crime and his race interferes with his ability to defend himself. Complex all around with amazing nuance, I highly recommend this one.

6. Anatomy of a Murder (1959): Directed by Otto Preminger and starring James Stewart, Ben Gazzara and the mayor from Jaws, this is a complicated film that deals with some really troubling subjects and results in an uncomfortable but excellent film.

7. To Kill A Mockingbird (1962): Lawyer Atticus Finch defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in the South. This was a gripping book and the film does it justice.

Note the lack of Grisham films. Also, note the lack of 12 Angry (Straw)Men, which smears our justice system and manipulates the audience so openly that this film should be considered propaganda.

Thoughts?

58 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

I am certainly with you on the first two. I am a big fan of the Verdict, also. The only one I haven't seen is Sergeant Rutledge. More recently, I enjoyed Fracture.. But Presumed Innocent really is top rated.

Tennessee Jed said...

I thought of some other favorites.: Caine Mutiny and A Few Good Men (military0 The Accused, Witness for the Prosecution,and Reversal of Fortune stand out. I really liked Primal Fear, but that may be mainly due to Edward Norton's great acting job.

Floyd R Turbo said...

Agreed with all of those Andrew. I would Paths of Glory by Stanley Kubrick and Billy Budd with Terence Stamp.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, All good films! I'm glad you agree with my top choices too. :)

"Sergeant Rutledge" periodically comes on Encore and I recommend it. It's an interesting film how it all unfolds. It's also very subtle. I was particularly impressed with the fairness of the judges in how they handled race and how they let the court room show some life, but never too much. It's a very solid story, made all the more interesting that John Ford directed it.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, Nice additions! Paths of Glory in particular is a gripping film. It's a very visceral film because you see how easy it would be to stop this madness, except you can't because the guy in charge won't.

tryanmax said...

The only one on the list I've seen is My Cousin Vinny, but I couldn't agree more. Courtroom aside it's one of my all time favorite comedies.

The only other film which comes to mind us Amistad. Not usually noted as a courtroom drama and I have no idea how accurate it is, but a gripping film.

ScottDS said...

I liked My Cousin Vinny, though I don't consider it the comedy classic that others apparently do. And The Caine Mutiny, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Paths of Glory are classics for a reason. :-)

I will toss my hat into the ring and mention the classic Three Stooges short Disorder in the Court, the courtroom scenes in Ghostbusters II and Bananas, and a couple of TNG episodes including The Measure of a Man and The Drumhead.

(I would mention JFK but let's save that discussion for my review next month.) :-)

Outlaw13 said...

The Caine Mutiny isn't just a courtroom drama it also says something about leadership and the responsibility of those being lead. There's a reason why this film is shown at military schools.

I agree about Primal Fear as well. The twist at the end made it for me.

BevfromNYC said...

What about Judgment At Nuremberg Or are we only talking local, state, and federal criminal trial dramas with a few court-marshal-y ones thrown in?

BevfromNYC said...

Sadly there were no trial in GWTW, so I won't mention it...:-)

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I recommend seeing each of these. Not only are they great courtroom dramas, they're just great films all around.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I thought about throwing out a mention of Ghostbusters 2 and Airplane 2... "Over Macho Grande?"

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, The Caine Mutiny is a hell of a film. It's one of the few film twists that really just smacks you and changes the entire complexion of the film. You feel so happy about how it ends until Ferrer gives his speech and then it's so blatantly obvious that you've been wrong all along. It's a wonderfully well written film. And you're right, the real story is about the requirements of leadership and Ferrer nails those perfectly.

AndrewPrice said...

Bev, We are open to any an all courtrooms. On that point, I'm kind of amazed there aren't more science fiction courtroom scenes.

And sadly, yes, GWTW doesn't qualify this time. :(

5minutes said...

I fully disagree with you on 12 Angry Men. It's not about the justice system as much as it is about humanity. The jurors begin as basic titles: sports fan, accountant, architect, old man, etc. (not to mention "murderer on trial") but as time goes on, you delve deeper and deeper into the personalities of the people as they are forced to deal with their own shortcomings and to begin viewing the defendant as a human being who may or may not have made a terrible decision.

Yes, the ultimate decision of the jury is controversial, and the idea of juror #8 as the hero is really up to the viewer (although we are certainly being manipulated in that direction). Maybe an interesting way to take on the movie, TV film, or play is to watch it from the perspective of the other jurors (especially juror #3).

Floyd R. Turbo said...

12 Angry Men is repugnant to me. Juries like that would end our CJ system as we know it and institute a rule of men and not of law -- the very germ of tyranny.

Chicago, the musical, also has a lot to say about pre-trial publicity and jury manipulation.

ScottDS said...

Andrew -

"I'm afraid I'll never get over Macho Grande." :-)

No doubt the courtroom drama was killed by the legal TV drama, but a lot of comedies for a while seemed to have perfunctory courtroom scenes (or scenes in courtroom-like settings), especially in the 90s. Big Daddy, Patch Adams, etc.

AndrewPrice said...

5minutes, They aren't even close to being real people. They are cardboard stereotypes from the far left -- the racist in particular. And their reactions are all just a setup for each to suddenly break down and make Fonda appear to be some sort of persuasive genius enlightening us to a deeper truth. But it's bullsh*t.

The problems are this. First, the bad characters are given obviously untenable beliefs which they profess loudly even though they themselves obviously don't even believe them. Those are called "straw men" -- not genuine opposition that is set up for the sole purpose of being knocked down. Naturally, as all straw men do, these characters completely abandon these untenable views the moment Fonda starts to grill them. The film then tries to piggyback its message on the defeat of these straw men. That's dishonest advocacy.

Secondly, the other characters bizarrely accept those outrageous beliefs, which makes them all unconscionable... and not consistent with human nature.

So what you have is 11 unconscionable people who are clinging to vile strawn-man beliefs they don't really hold, all just waiting for noble liberal Fonda to persuade them to change their minds. That's a setup.

Then you have the other problems. Fonda puts on a display of logic that is entirely illogical, which assumes facts that aren't known, and which places a burden of proof on the prosecution that is impossible to meet. Essentially he argues that every piece of evidence must itself be a smoking gun showing guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, rather than asking whether all the evidence together establishes guilt. This display of false logic then becomes an attack on the criminal justice system as dominated by untrustworthy racists and indifferent morons. None of that is true or accurate.

Heck, even liberals like Justice Sotomayor have pointed out that what he does is juror misconduct and would be grounds for a mistrial.

The whole thing is one giant left-wing manipulation with the goal of misleading people about the way the American justice system works and persuading people to abandon the death penalty because you can't trust juries.

AndrewPrice said...

Floyd, "12 Angry Men is repugnant to me" -- agreed. Repugnant is the very word that comes to my mind when I think of the film.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, LOL! Indeed! We'll never be over Macho Grande. I love that whole courtroom scene. I love the jive bit too: "Now, Bro, he was onnnn!" :)

On TV versus movies, I'm not sure that the legal drama is dead at all. I think they've just changed a bit lately to add more action into the films. And if I blame anyone for that, it would be Grisham.

AndrewPrice said...

I have to add, by the way, that in all the trials I've had, win or lose, I've never had a single juror who didn't take their obligations seriously and who didn't do their best to be fair.

Outlaw13 said...

I know Adam Sandler isn't generally held in high regard, but the judges rant in the movie Billy Madison is classic...so much so that a Texas judge actually used it in court. "...what you've just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul."

ScottDS said...

Outlaw -

That was former SNL writer Jim Downey, who was responsible for a lot of classic political sketches.

I just read a recent profile of him here.

Kit said...

Alas, I have not seen that many courtroom dramas. I did love My Cousin Vinny, however.

AndrewPrice said...

Outlaw, That was an hilarious speech. I love the bit about everyone being stupider for hearing it! LOL!

AndrewPrice said...

Kit, You should watch the others, they're very good.

John Jameson said...

Presumed Innocent is a great movie. I also quite like A Few Good Men which was mentioned above without further comment. However, this is rather political piece, like 12 Angry Men. Does it not have the same problems?

AndrewPrice said...

John, No, it doesn't.

I'm not a huge fan of A Few Good Men for one reason: I've never, ever, ever seen anyone break down on the stand and do what Col. Jessup does. To me, that's just a truly unrealistic moment.

That said, I don't have any problems with the politics of A Few Good Men. The difference to me is this: In A Few Good Men, both sides are given the chance to state their case fairly. Jessup does what he thinks is right. He truly does believe it. He has solid justification too for what he does. And he's allowed to present his argument fairly, laying out exactly why he thinks he's right. Is he right? No. But it's very believable that he would think he is and it's obvious that a sizable number of people in the audience will actually think he was right. So the result is that you are given two legitimate points and you get to decide which is right.

That is not the case in 12 Angry Men. In 12 Angry Men, you are fed a totally fraudulent set of arguments which Fonda then takes down to win the movie. Specifically, the bad guys are given blatantly unrealistic motivations: "My son made me angry so I'm going to sentence some Puerto Rican kid to death." Then they make arguments that aren't even close to legitimate ("he's going to get away if we don't do this!"), which the other characters blindly accept even though real people recoil at arguments like this. Then Fonda treats these false straw men arguments as if they are the legitimate voice of the other side. And the movie wraps up by saying, "See, this is why you need to accept our argument."

That's deceptive. The presentation in A Few Good Men is not.

John Jameson said...

Interesting: "you are given two legitimate points and you get to decide which is right", but "Is he right? No." In other words, the movie tells you whether your decision was correct. It is a more subtle approach than 12 Angry Men, but the very scene you dislike manipulates the audience into accepting who was right and who was wrong.

Rustbelt said...

I'm in the same boat as Kit, Andrew. I haven't seen many courtroom dramas, save for 'My Cousin Vinny.'

Wow, "12 Angry Men" still gets under your skin. I remember when you and Lawhawk took turns skewering it over the coals in a previous thread. I may have to watch it just to see what a liberal wet dream it really is.
Hey, how about this idea for a reality show? Take the film's case, try it in an actual courtroom mock-trial sytle, and see what a real jury- following the rules- would come back with. (Repeat several times for scientific study purposes, of course.)

AndrewPrice said...

John, Yes, it is manipulative. And that is a rather lousy way to end the movie. That's why a lot of people I know think the film was unfair and why, to me, the film ultimately fails.

But the difference is this. Few Good Men presents fair arguments until the conclusion. The conclusion is obviously manipulative, but you can accept or reject it. 12 Angry Men, on the other hand, presents distorted manipulative arguments throughout to smear and distort the other side.

I don't have a problem with advocacy or even some manipulation, because all advocacy involves some manipulation. What bothers me is dishonesty and distortion.

AndrewPrice said...

Rustbelt, 12 Angry Men has bothered me (and a lot of people) for a very long time. If you haven't seen it, you should watch it just to see what we're talking about. Just realize that everything you see happening is improper under our judicial system and would never be tolerated.

Tennessee Jed said...

I think "A Few Good Men" has a point of view, but don't see it as being overly manipulative. The movie explores the difficulty people in the military face all the time. Think of the dilemma the SEALS face in Lone Survivor. They are concerned about the consequences of killing the goat herders while realizing they are badly jeopardizing their own chance for survival. Jessup IS right in many ways, but where he comes a cropper is in covering up what he did. The defendants don't deserve to be thrown under the bus. It might have been a more realistic if Jessup was not written to be an arrogant prick. Rather, a sympathetic character who decides to admit what he did, and then defend his actions.

tryanmax said...

Another log for the fire. I agree, 12 Angry Men is just awful.

BTW, I'm sure it's all crap but I can't help enjoying the original Perry Mason TV show.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think that a less arrogant Jessup would have been a different movie. A Few Good Men was really just a vehicle for the hero lawyer to have an explosive courtroom battle which he wins in the most dramatic fashion. I see Jessup as a prop more than a point. And I don't think the film ultimately has a real message except "Isn't Tom Cruise cool?!"

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, I never got into Perry Mason because it wasn't on at a good time for me, so it's hard for me to tell.

tryanmax said...

To me, Perry Mason functions more as a detective show where the detective just happens to be a super lawyer. Hamilton Burger shouldn't have lasted so long as prosecutor, losing to Mason as often as he did.

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! Yeah, probably not.

John Jameson said...

As I said above, I like A Few Good Men, and the final courtroom scene is a big part of its appeal (Jack Nicholson is awesome in the role of Jessup). However, although the audience gets to choose sides, the ending tells those who chose "wrongly" that they sided with a psychopath. Jessup could (for example) have made a more persuasive case for his regime, then taken the fifth amendment.

AndrewPrice said...

John, That's true. He could have made a much more persuasive case. But the point to the film was drama rather than a political/philosophical point, so the writer made him into a raving psychopath who was going to go toe-to-toe with Cruise and then implode. It was fun to watch, but unrealistic. A much more believable bit of implosion on the stand was Bogart in Caine Mutiny.

Voz said...

A Time to Kill is one of my favorite courtroom dramas...Matthew McConaughey wasn't well known, but I always thought his performance was perfect for the character.

KRS said...

I really wish Nicholson would have been allowed to keep his temperment on the stand. He could have carried it off and left the audience wondering who really was right in the end - a more powerful ending.

Another movie I like is An Innocent Man (1989) with Tom Selleck. Not as much time is spent in the courtroom, other than to show how an unlucky man can get creamed by the system. But he evolves into a reluctant hero, forced to avenge himself on the bad cops who put him behind bars.

And, just to join in on the 12 Angry Men bashing, Henry Fonda contaminated the deliberations by purchasing a switchblade and bringing it into the room to conduct their experiment. Bad, bad jury!

On a positive note, I only saw 12 for the first time couple years ago when my kids caught it on TV. The spectacle caught their interest and they watched it through to the end - these were, after all, great actors. I held my tongue because they were fascinated by an old B&W movie with mostly dead men in it. Since then, they routinely pull up good, old movies to watch from the glory days of Hollywood - which is better than the typical fare.

goldvermilion87 said...

I love 12 Angry Men, but I never thought of it as a realistic picture of what does and/or should happen behind the closed doors of the jury room. In fact, if what happened in that jury room were to have happened, I always thought some lawyers should have been sued for malpractice. I watch 12 Angry Men as a study in the art of rhetoric.

(And also as an opportunity to see Arthur Fiedler in the flesh. Does anyone else find him inherently hilarious as a real person?)

I've never been into courtroom drama -- perhaps ironic as I'm in the process of becoming a paralegal -- but whenever someone talks about it, I think of the trial in "Court Martial" where Captain Kirk is accused of jettisoning an escape pod with an ex-friend in it? That's an episode of ST that I appreciate seriously, because of the way it deals with technology as a potentially unreliable witness. And I'd like to work for Cogley. :)

Jason said...

“Note the lack of Grisham films.”

I’ve never seen a one yet. I just know Grisham’s books were hot stuff for movie adaptations in the 1990s but seem to have dropped off by the 2000s.

PikeBishop said...

KRS: Ah another "An Innocent Man" fan. Great performance by Selleck, and it depicts the nightmare of a regular person being sent to prison that probably keeps 95% or so of us from committing crimes on some level.

Sidebar: One of the things I like about that movie is that Selleck's character does what he has to do!!There's no cheap Hollwyood writer's escape. He did what he had to do. I think you know what I am referreing to from the film.

Anonymous said...

Not only is My Cousin Vinnie one of my favorite comedies, I've read it's a proper portrayal of courtroom procedure and tactics that professors use as a teaching aid.

I can also say, as a retired mechanic, that every fact presented concerning automotive theory and operation is spot on. I really appreciate that in a movie. Having Marisa Tomei as the defense expert is icing on the cake.

AndrewPrice said...

Voz, McConaughey did a good job in that film.

AndrewPrice said...

KRS, What Fonda does is entirely improper and would lead to a mistrial.

I'm glad though if the film got your kids watching other black and white films. A lot of the older films are true gems and shouldn't be missed.

AndrewPrice said...

goldvermillion, "Court Martial" is one of my favorite episodes as well. :)

AndrewPrice said...

Jason, I'm not sure what happened to Grisham. He was super hot in the 1990s, but does seem to have fallen off. The thing about his books is that they often contained great little ideas, but they were pure fantasy.

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, I enjoyed that one too.

AndrewPrice said...

Anon, Speaking as a trial attorney, the trial in My Cousin Vinny is perhaps one of the most realistic courtroom presentations in Hollywood, which is really ironic as the film is ultimately a comedy.

Brn said...

Two that haven't been mentioned yet that I liked were The Lincoln Lawyer and a old TV movie from 1996 that is sort of an anti-12 Angry Men called We the Jury.

AndrewPrice said...

Brn, I haven't heard of We the Jury, I'll have to look for that.

The Lincoln Lawyer was a good film.

Dave Olson said...

Pike Bishop: I've only seen bits of An Innocent Man; I seem to recall F. Murray Abraham strongly suggesting that Tom Selleck "Walk!" instead of running. (No spoilers as for why, assuming I'm remembering the right movie.)

As far as a film keeping people from committing crimes, I have to say that for as much as I oppose and loathe every political thing Sean Penn stands for, his portrayal of Michael O'Brien in Bad Boys sure scared me straight. Oh I was (almost) always a (mostly) decent kid, but a few nudges could have easily sent me down the path of the Dark Side, so to speak. Seeing what a youth prison looked like, even a fictional version, was enough to ensure that I kept my nose clean.

AndrewPrice said...

Dave, I love F. Murray Abraham. He's a fantastic actor. I haven't seen Bad Boys.

Koshcat said...

What I tend to hate about some courtroom drama is that they will make one of the lawyers either incompetent or down right evil. I think where My Cousin Vinney and A Few Good Men work is that the lawyers on both sides are just doing the best job they can. I think Kevin Bacon does a good job as the prosecuting attorney and is very believable when he warns Cruise about going after Jessop. He isn't worried about losing the case, he is worried about losing his friend. And yes I do want Jessop on that wall.

Please don't take this as an offense, but I have a hard time seeing a lawyer as hero. Good guys and useful but in the same vein as an accountant. As a physician we sometimes get put up into that hero level as well. It reminds me thought of when I was training in Utah. While doing rotations on the bone marrow transplant unit a tornado hit downtown Salt Lake. The hospital set off the mass casualty alert where all the physicians in the hospital have to report. My attending at the time was very anxious and stated "I don't think I'll be very helpful. All I can do is tell them they aren't a transplant candidate."

AndrewPrice said...

LOL! That's actually really funny.

On lawyers as heroes, I concur. There are good lawyers who go way beyond the call of duty to help people who need it, as there are in all professions, but most lawyers are merely doing the job they are paid to do.

I think the idea of lawyers as heroes has evolved from the need for stories to be told efficiently and to keep the lead actor on the screen as much as possible. Thus, it was easier for films and television shows to eliminate the investigators and the cops and to hand their duties to the lawyers... just like CSI eliminates detectives and deputies and hands all their duties to the crime lab. The end result is a dramatic profession in which the lawyer is essentially "Mr. Justice" (Cop, Judge, Jury, Executioner) rather than just part of the justice system... which isn't like the real world at all.

A real offender in this was JAG, which is nothing like the real JAG Corp, and of course any Grisham novel.

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