When I set out on this project almost a year ago, I had many questions: What are the greatest lawyer movies ever? What makes a great lawyer movie great? And how long would Blueprint actually let me keep this up?
Since then, I’ve watched 24 lawyer movies, most of them from the ABA’s Top 25 list. Below, I have attempted to summarize my findings and reflections. I hope they serve as a basis for further research in the burgeoning field of lawyer movie scholarship.
12 Angry Men
And Justice for All
The Paper Chase
Inherit the Wind
Reversal of Fortune
The Lincoln Lawyer
Anatomy of a Murder
A Civil Action
A Time to Kill
My Cousin Vinny
Judgment at Nuremberg
In the Name of the Father
Miracle on 34th Street
A Few Good Men
To Kill A Mockingbird
Kramer vs. Kramer
The 10 Greatest Lawyer Movies of All Time
10) Anatomy of a Murder – “Anatomy of a Murder” might be the definitive courtroom procedural. It’s recreates a case with little social or judicial significance, no clear good guys or bad guys, and not much in the way of personal stakes. But a murder trial is inherently compelling, and by sticking to the facts, director Otto Preminger achieves an unusual level of authenticity. The movie revels in ambiguities: in the interpretation of evidence, in the definition of responsibility, and in the moral obligations of a criminal defender whose client is probably guilty. [Review]
9) Breaker Morant – Despite its historical inaccuracies and one-sided take on the prosecution of war crimes, there’s no denying the effectiveness of “Breaker Morant” as a legal drama and political myth. It tells the story of three Australians in the Queen’s army on trial for killing civilians during the Second Boer War. It’s easy to judge these soldiers from the safe confines of a courtroom, but the reality of war is messy. Sometimes, legal responsibility doesn’t have much to do with moral responsibility: the tribunal punishes those at the bottom of the hierarchy, who had the least freedom over their actions, and gives cover to the decision-makers at the top. [Review]
8) Philadelphia – Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington lead this legal drama about a gay lawyer with AIDS who sues his former employer, a prestigious Philadelphia law firm, for wrongful termination following the revelation of his diagnosis. The movie is a shameless tearjerker, but there’s much to admire about its spirit. It holds up the courts as a place where citizens can go to appeal to the better angels of our nature and ask that their humanity be recognized. [Review]
7) The Verdict – “The Verdict” is the archetypal lawyer redemption story. An alcoholic ambulance chaser has a case fall on his lap that reminds him what lawyers at their best can do: fight to give people half a chance at justice, at least some of the time. Paul Newman’s famous closing statement exemplifies the movie as a whole: it’s unflashy, sincere, pleading. [Review]
6) The Paper Chase – Prospective 1Ls be warned: law school is apparently very hard. Maybe there should be more law school-set psychodramas, because it turns out to be surprisingly satisfying to watch students in “The Paper Chase” cower before Professor Kingsman, a notorious Contracts teacher and terrifying executor of the Socratic Method. His questioning is as dramatic as any line of cross examination. [Review]
5) A Civil Action – The true-story case at the center of “A Civil Action” is a remarkable one: in the mid-1980s, a hot-shot personal injury lawyer proved that a leukemia cluster in a small Massachusetts town had been caused by illegal chemical dumping, and he went bankrupt in the process. “A Civil Action” is a rousing legal drama that gives a fascinating look at the high-stakes poker game of civil litigation. [Review]
4) In the Name of the Father – In theory, the courtroom is a place where citizens meet as equals and reason and the truth win out. In practice, it’s a place where the concentrated power of the state can come crashing down on your head, universal rights of man be damned. The trial in “In the Name of the Father” is not a forum for weighing evidence – there isn’t any evidence. It’s political theater, a scapegoating ritual meant to comfort one population with the illusion of security and terrorize another with a display of arbitrary cruelty. Starring Daniel Day Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite, it is a powerful, tragic film. [Review]
3) Judgment at Nuremberg – Stanley Kramer’s film is a fictionalized retelling of the “Judge’s Trial,” in which a group of German judges were tried for colluding with the Third Reich. While many lawyer movies explore the themes of judgment and guilt, none does so with more depth and seriousness than “Judgment at Nuremberg.” It’s a film that turns our judgment inward, asking us to take a hard look at our own capacity for good and evil and the moral standards to which we hold ourselves. It shows the legal system attempting to do the same: as judges are brought before the court for judgment, the system itself is put on trial, and its relationship to justice is questioned in the wake of unconscionable crimes. [Review]
2) 12 Angry Men – While most lawyer movies focus on the dramatics of trial, “12 Angry Men” goes where the real action is – the jury room – and explores epistemological questions at the heart of our legal system: What can we really know? What constitutes a “reasonable doubt” when a person’s life is on the line? Uncertainty can be maddening, and the tension in the room builds over the course of the movie’s runtime to become almost unbearable. And yet, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the case; it’s one story out of a thousand on a hot New York day. [Review]
1) My Cousin Vinny – I could have saved myself a lot of time and declared this the winner at the outset, but I had to do my due diligence. In the end, it just wasn’t possible to top “My Cousin Vinny,” which is not only a perfect movie, but also a quintessential lawyer movie. Joe Pesci stars as Vinny Gambino (aka Jerry Callo), a New York lawyer trying his first case – a capital murder trial – in the deep south. The movie offers a unique and hilarious perspective on lawyering as the art of quibbling. [Review]
To Kill A Mockingbird
Kramer vs. Kramer
Notable Lawyer Movies Not Reviewed
What can I say? There are a lot of lawyer movies, and I’m just one man. I didn’t get a chance to watch every viable contender. Here are a some notable lawyer movies that were not considered:
A Man for All Seasons
The Caine Mutiny
A Cry in the Dark
The Devil’s Advocate
Ghosts of Mississippi
In Cold Blood
Legally Blonde (my bad)
The Paradine Case
Paths of Glory
The Pelican Brief
The People vs. Larry Flynt
The Social Network
The Young Philadelphians
Witness for the Prosecution
Young Mr. Lincoln
The purpose of this project – nay, journey – has been not only to identify the greatest lawyer movies of all time, but also to better understand what makes lawyer movies distinct and valuable. Below are common themes and tropes I noticed, along with some personal reflections.
Legal Justice v. Moral Justice: Even on its best day, the legal system is just an approximation of justice; there’s an inherent gap between what’s right and what’s legal. Lawyer movies like “…And Justice for All,” “A Time to Kill,” and “Amistad” are all about this gap. The tension between intuitive, emotional morality and the big-picture, impersonal rule of law is perhaps the most common and unifying theme of the subgenre.
David v. Goliath (aka Justice is blind): Equality before the law is an ideal enshrined in the 14th Amendment and further sanctified in Hollywood Court, where the law is so powerful a tool that it can be used by the powerless to bring down tyrants and unravel maleficent conspiracies. Hence the abundance of lawyer movies about a little guy daring to take a giant to trial. See, e.g.: “Erin Brockovich,” “Philadelphia.”
Judgment: The essence of a trial is judgment. So lawyer movies naturally raise a lot of complex questions about responsibility, complicity, and innocence. What should we make of the ugly things that we humans do? Should we forgive each other, and by extension, ourselves? Or should we demand better, and hold in righteous contempt anyone who betrays the our shared principles? Movies like “Compulsion,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” and “A Few Good Men” offer tentative answers.
Redemption: In movies about the day-to-day grind of being a lawyer, the theme of moral redemption is prevalent (although you could probably say the same of Hollywood films in general). Lawyers can represent our loftiest ideals, but they can also be money-hungry bullshit artists. A profession that spans such a moral range is perfect for stories of rebirth (see “A Civil Action,” “The Verdict”). Thus the lawyer movie myth of the down-and-out advocate who gets One Good Case and finally has a chance to do something that matters.
In my reviews, I’ve often referred to the website tvtropes.com, a wikipedia of the formulas and cliches found in literature, TV, and film. It’s an amazing rabbit hole of a resource, and it helped me identify the following as common tropes associated with the lawyer movie subgenre:
The Ambulance Chaser
Army of Lawyers
Break Them by Talking
Common Nonsense Jury
Conviction by Contradiction
David vs. Goliath
Disregard that Statement
Good Lawyers, Good Clients
Grey and Gray Morality
Ham to Ham Combat
The Killer Was Left-Handed
Miscarriage of Justice
The Perry Mason Method
Simple Country Lawyer
Stock Legal Phrases
That Was Objectionable
A trial is a natural subject for film. This is somewhat obvious, but watching 24 lawyer movies really drove home for me how much sense the courtroom makes as a setting for a movie. I can think of three main reasons.
One, trials are naturally theatrical. They’re showcases staged for the jury; contests with clear-cut adversaries, rules, and stakes; operations with built-in beginnings, middles, and ends.
Two, trials are both intensely personal (lives are at stake) and highly impersonal (precedents and principles are also at stake). The best drama tends to be similarly split. It’s both specific and universal, telling stories rooted in people’s individuality but connecting to some bigger picture. Most court cases that become lawyer movies have this dynamic built in.
Three, the law intersects with various other subjects that make for great screenplays: government and politics, crime and violence, police investigations, the prison system, and the fog of war, to name a few.
Which is all to say: it’s no wonder that people are still telling legal stories 2,500 years after Aeschylus invented the genre with “The Eumenides.”
Movies are a great and terrible way to learn about the law. A number of movies I watched opened my eyes to aspects of the legal system that I was unfamiliar with. And since the law affects each of us so profoundly, there’s a ton of value to movies that inform mass audiences about how the system works. “Anatomy of a Murder” and “A Civil Action” are good examples of lawyer movies that are both accurate and insightful. On the other hand, too many lawyer movies are set in the world of Hollywood Law. They distort and glamorize the practice of law and contribute to our collective ignorance. A little embellishment is understandable – real lawyering can be pretty boring, I hear – but it’s a problem when lawyer movies perpetuate gross misconceptions. Take, for example, the “CSI Effect“: some argue that jurors have started having unrealistic expectations about forensic evidence thanks to the lawyer movies and TV they watch, and this might be improperly influencing their willingness to convict.
A lot of lawyer movies age badly. I found a surprising number of movies to be uncomfortably dated, especially with respect to gender and race. Movies like “The Paper Chase” (1973), “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), “Presumed Innocent” (1990), “A Time to Kill” (1996), and “Amistad” (1997) all offended my modern sensibilities in subtle and obvious ways. I don’t think this has anything to do with legal subgenre in particular, but watching so many old movies reminded me how much culture has changed over the past few decades. Signs of progress, I suppose.
Filmmakers need to get clear on “vs.” versus “v.” Why are “Kramer vs. Kramer” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” which are both about court cases, going with “vs.” while “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice,” about a 10-minute misunderstanding between two superheroes, uses the legalistic “v.”? A special prosecutor and/or congressional investigation is needed.
Lawyer movies are great. I thought I’d be sick of them by now, but I’m not. While this particular investigation has come to a close, I plan to keep watching lawyer movies whenever I can find them. Who knows? Maybe someday one will impress me so much that it will make me reconsider my pick for the Greatest Lawyer Movie of All Time. But I kind of doubt it.
Honestly, how could any movie lawyer be better than this guy?