TOP COURTROOM MOTION PICTURES
In the spirit of the many lists of “top” whatever in the entertainment industry, I decided to write about my favorite courtroom films. Before doing so, I decided to do “research” — so I purchased some movies that I had not seen before and some others that I had not seen in a while. It was gruesome research watching all these films. But someone had to do it.
After the jump, I’ll give you some thoughts on my favorites and my views on what real-life trial lawyers can learn from the fictional ones.
THE LIST OF COURTROOM FILMS IS LONG AND VARIED
With many of these films, the courtroom or trial provides only a backdrop to the actual story being told. With others, the trial is the main focus of the film. I’ve been entertained by both kinds. And my favorite courtroom films are . . . .
1. To Kill A Mockingbird
2. A Few Good Men
3. My Cousin Vinny
4. The Verdict
6. 12 Angry Men
7. Class Action
8. Presumed Innocent
9. The Accused
10. Absence of Malice
I enjoyed “To Kill A Mockingbird” and the moral lessons that film conveys. For that, it tops my list. “A Few Good Men” probably had the most realistic fictional trial. “My Cousin Vinny” was simply hilarious. “The Verdict” was a story of an underdog/beaten down protagonist fighting for justice — and was a film that provided some inspiration to me to go to law school during college. “Philadelphia” was an incredible film which tackled a difficult subject matter.
There are obviously many other films worth of recognition. As best as I can tell, one “courtroom” film won the “Best Picture” Academy Award (Kramer vs Kramer) and five were nominated for that honor (Judgment at Nuremberg, 12 Angry Men, The Verdict, To Kill A Mockingbird, A Few Good Men). Four films were awarded the Best Actor Oscar: Judgment at Nuremberg (Maximilian Schell), To Kill A Mockingbird (Gregory Peck), Kramer vs Kramer (Dustin Hoffman), Philadelphia (Tom Hanks). One film won the Best Actress Oscar: The Accused (Jodie Foster). Two films won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar: Kramer vs Kramer (Meryl Streep) and My Cousin Vinny (Marisa Tomei).
Other films can claim significance for other reasons. At the recent Ninth Circuit Judicial Conference, Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke of his work in China and the growth of law schools in that country. The majority of the Chinese students cited “Legally Blonde” as their inspiration for going to law school. The film “Red Corner” featured scenes shot in China without the knowledge or permission of the Chinese government — the first footage of Beijing captured in 35mm film. (Most of its outdoor scenes were actually shot in an empty Los Angeles field — now known as Playa Vista — where a Beijing village was recreated, complete with cars and bicycles imported from China.) But mostly, my favorite films were simply entertaining — and (for the more “realistic” films) provided certain lessons applicable to real trials.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED FROM THE FICTIONAL TRIALS
Beyond lessons in morality and even ethics — like those in “To Kill A Mockingbird” — real-life trial lawyers can learn some things from fictional courtroom dramas. For example, the trial in “A Few Good Men” provided good examples on how to simplify a message for a jury — like Kevin Bacon’s opening statement (“These are the facts of the case, and they are undisputed.”). The trial in “Philadelphia” provides similar lessons — “Explain this to me like I’m a six year old” — that complex issues can (and must) be simplified. These films with more realistic trial scenes also provide good lessons about little things, like controlling your reaction to evidence and how facial expressions and body language can communicate things to the jury. In the heat and intensity of a real trial, some of us may forget that we are being watched virtually every second that we are in the presence of the jury.
However, these motion pictures are just more entertaining to lawyers than to non-lawyers — just like my non-golfer friends can’t stand to watch golf on television. (Golfers can glean tips how to play from watching “pros” too.) Obviously, you can’t take too much away from these movies. One thing is certain: trial lawyers can only hope that our real-life trials go as well as the fictional, scripted ones.
See you at the movies.