Hollywood is not usually known for realistic portrayals of the world. After all, when you squeeze a complicated story into a 90-minute arc, you lose a lot of detail and context.
This is especially true with movies about lawyers, whose work is mostly tedious, boring, and slow-paced. But, we still love films that show us the drama, humor, thrills, and moral struggles that attorneys deal with every day.
I love courtroom dramas – here are a few of my favorites. If I’ve missed any you think I should see, please let me know in the comments…
Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch is kind, dedicated to justice, and tough. He stands up to the racist status-quo in 1930s Alabama by representing a black man falsely accused of raping a white girl, and the angry white townsfolk make life hard for his family. But Finch’s measured stoicism helps guide his children through the ordeal and come to see “the other” with a more open mind.
Matthew McConaughey’s Jake Tyler Brigance is a whiskey-drinking womanizer whose many flaws just make him all the more likable.
Brigance represents an African-American man who shot and killed the white man who raped his daughter. Despite a jury dominated by white Mississippi racists, Brigance wins a not-guilty verdict by appealing to the universal human desire to protect children.
It’s a farce, but it’s known among attorneys as one of the most realistic portrayals of a trial in movie history.
Joe Pesci plays Vincent Gambini, a lawyer who travels from his home in New York City to defend two cousins and fellow New Yorkers, who have been accused of murder in rural Alabama. The film takes on the realities of trial – from limited budgets and hostile judges to poorly worded questions and time-wasting arguments – and turns them into a gut-busting comedy.
Richard Gere plays Marty Vail, a greedy defense attorney with little interest in truth or justice.
He finds a sort of redemption when he pours his heart into defending his altar boy client who is accused of murder. The young man has multiple-personality disorder, and Vail dedicates himself to keeping him out of prison.
He wins the case, but, as he tells his client they’ve won, he learns the final twist in the bizarre tale of his client’s case. Richard Gere, Edward Norton, Drew Barrymore, and Courtney Love make this an unforgettable story.
This one is credited with helping change the way Americans think about AIDS.
Tom Hanks won an Oscar for his portrayal of attorney Andrew Beckett, who is fired when his firm discovers he has AIDS. With the help of a personal injury attorney played by Denzel Washington, he files a personal injury lawsuit against the firm for discriminating against him.
This is more of a jury movie than a lawyer movie – 93 minutes of the 96-minute movie takes place in the jury room. The film explores the techniques used in consensus building and the inevitable tension and conflict that arise when 12 strangers try to reach agreement. Mostly, it spotlights the power of one person to force a change of perspective on others.
Although there is a remake, you should watch the original black and white version – it is worth it.
A group of Africans revolt aboard a ship carrying them to the United States, where they will be enslaved. They take over the ship, but it is captured off the coast of Long Island, and attorneys do battle over whether they are free men or slaves to be treated as “chattel,” or property, under the law. Ultimately, the US Supreme Court ultimately decides they are free, and the men are released.
A young, idealistic attorney defends a man accused of killing a fellow Alcatraz inmate.
Public defender James Stamphill, played by Christian Slater, argues that the defendant had a psychotic break because he had been held in solitary confinement for three years. Will he be convicted of murder? Will the prison be held responsible for its part in causing the murder?
Jodie Foster won an Oscar for her portrayal of Sarah Tobias, a young waitress who is gang-raped. More than 20 years after its release, the movie is still remembered as one of Hollywood’s most gritty portrayals of rape and of the legal complications of prosecuting the crime.
Julia Roberts won an Oscar for her portrayal of a real-life legal clerk who almost single-handedly brings down a power company that polluted a California city’s water supply.
This film is an inspiration that shows the gritty fight that environmental and personal injury lawyers face when they take on the most powerful, most wealthy corporations on behalf of ordinary citizens.
At the intersection of courtroom drama and the macabre lies the Exorcism of Emily Rose.
Anneliese Michel is believed to be possessed – when a parish priest performs an exorcism that results in her death, he is placed on trial for negligent homicide and defended by an agnostic attorney who does not believe in God or possession…
If you love lawyer movies and have more suggestions for good ones, leave them in a comment to complete our list.
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