All rise: this cultural round-up is now in session.
Perhaps one of the reasons courtroom dramas are so reliable is that, much like a court case, these films follow a time-honoured protocol. Whether they’re plaintiffs or defendants, we’re on the side of a plucky upstart protagonist who needs the help of studied legal hand to fight an injustice.
When we get into the courtroom, we see all the establishment machinery that we’re going to have to fight: bastard judge, bastard main prosecutor in a very fancy suit, arcane procedure and, most importantly, the assumptions of the jury – and, the implication runs, you too.
You know how it tends to go. After much shouting, surprise witnesses and unexpected revelations on the stand, the bastard judge and the bastard main prosecutor grudgingly come to accept that, whatever the law says, the Plucky Protagonist was in the right all along.
It says something that if you watch a representation of a British trial then you feel short-changed if nobody bangs a gavel (purely an American thing), calls the judge “your honour” (in nearly every instance it’s ‘sir’, ‘madam’, ‘my lord’, or ‘my lady’) or starts screaming about objections in the middle of the other side’s case (just doesn’t happen).
It’s not just the characters being put on trial either. It’s the establishment, the system, a whole country, and me and you watching on.
Anyway, here we go: I swear by Sidney Lumet that I will faithfully try these films and give a true verdict according to the evidence.
Falsely Accused! (1908)
This is one of the earliest surviving courtroom dramas, and intriguingly it shows that cinema as a technology has been tied up with ideas of truth and reality since its very earliest days. A scientist is showing off his cinema camera in his lab to some friends. They go to leave, but when one walks back into the room, the scientist is dead. The woman who found him is hauled in by the police, but she protests that she's innocent. So who killed him? The answer lies in the camera, which has its starring moment in the climactic courtroom scene as we watch the assembled masses watch the evidence. It's only three minutes long and while it's not on any of the streamers, you can dig it up if you do some nosing around yourself. There's also a cameo from early directing pioneer DW Griffith (pictured in the hat, with Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks after founding United Artists), who did the extremely yikes-y Birth of a Nation.
The first of Steve McQueen's Small Axe anthology films for the BBC tells the story of the Mangrove Nine, a group of protestors who in 1970 rallied to the aid of a Notting Hill restaurant which was repeatedly raided by police in a concerted effort to intimidate and degrade the Caribbean community in the area. The police didn't appreciate their protests, and prosecuted nine people on charges of riot and affray. The case is flimsy, and the courts stacked against the nine Black defendants, but they take on the system. The cast is led by Black Panther's Letitia Wright as British Black Panthers leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe, and McQueen's direction is as sure-footed and beautiful as you'd expect.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959)
Along with 12 Angry Men this is probably the foundation stone of the classical courtroom drama. A folksy, charming lawyer takes on a near-impossible case which strikes at the very heart of our notions of morality, and in the process of defending the little man points to how brutal the big man – usually the state – can be. This folksy, charming lawyer is the impossibly folksy and charming Jimmy Stewart, and his little man is Lieutenant 'Manny' Manion, who's accused of murdering innkeeper Barney Quill. Without wanting to give anything away, the truth is anything but folksy and charming; it's a bleak, harrowing apex which is a reminder of the fallibility of everyone involved in the search for the truth.
The Devil’s Advocate (1997)
Keanu Reeves is in his cocky-and-confused pomp as a hotshot and morally ambiguous lawyer presented with the career opportunity of a lifetime by a charismatic, enigmatic and possibly demonic New York CEO, played by Al Pacino. It’s flashy, kitschy and hammy in the best possible ways, as Pacino alternates shouting and mumbling in an attempt to seduce Keanu into his coven. As a supernatural horror it has its moments too, particularly in a disturbing sequence involving Reeves’ wife played by Charlize Theron. It’s long and laid on thick, but if you overlook its flaws and surrender to it, this is Hollywood filmmaking of the most entertaining order.
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
From the lesser-known courtroom-comedy-drama stable (of which we can’t think of many more entrants), this hugely likeable and often very funny film has a plot straight out of a brainstorm meeting; what if two New York college students driving through rural Alabama were accused of a murder they didn’t commit, but could only afford to hire their unconventional cousin to defend them, who had only just passed his bar exam? It might just have easily been screwed up and thrown in the bin, but we should be grateful it came to pass. Joe Pesci is excellent as the Vinny of the title as hilarity ensues, with special props to Marisa Tomei in an Oscar-winning supporting role as his girlfriend and confidante.
Jagged Edge (1985)
This seemingly forgotten Eighties courtroom thriller is a classic of its type; scripted by Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) as a modern take on Anatomy of a Murder, it stars Glenn Close as a trial lawyer reluctant to take on the case of a man (a young and inscrutable Jeff Bridges) accused of brutally murdering his wife. The reason she’s uncertain because she can’t decide if he did it or not, which provides much of the escalating tension – sexual as well as legal – as the plot-points come thick and fast to keep you guessing until a very satisfying twist.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)
Aaron Sorkin knows his way around a rat-a-tat walk-and-talk drama, and his new one for Netflix opens with perhaps the most rat-a-tat walk-and-talk sequence he’s yet attempted. This is the story of how seven anti-Vietnam protestors (plus Black Panthers founder Bobby Seale, who was cut out part-way through the trial) were tried for conspiracy and inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In Sorkin’s hands, the trial becomes a locus of arguments about the very fundamentals of America. Who gets to protest, and how? Can you reform broken systems? And should you compromise your principles with pragmatism?
Just Mercy (2019)
Michael B Jordan is young Harvard grad Bryan Stevenson, who heads to Alabama to give ordinary people a chance to represent themselves properly in court. The case of Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx) soon gives him exactly the cause he was looking for: McMillian is on Death Row based on the shakiest of evidence. On taking up the cast, though, Stevenson finds himself subjected to all of the white establishment’s darkest arts of dissuasion. Based on a true story, this is urgent stuff.
Amma Asante’s mid-Georgian period piece is a fictionalised slice of the life of Dido Lindsay (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), daughter of an enslaved African woman in the West Indies and a white Royal Navy officer. As she grows up she becomes an heiress and slightly uneasy society staple. She learns about an atrocity at sea in which enslaved people were thrown from a ship and left to drown in the Atlantic, and sets about making sure some measure of justice comes to the men responsible.
Bridge of Spies (2015)
In his late period, Steven Spielberg’s pretty conclusively shifted gears into assured and quietly impressive political dramas. Between Lincoln and The Post came Bridge of Spies, about the 1957 trial of alleged Russian spy Rudolf Abel. Tom Hanks does his Tom Hanks thing as the folksy small-time insurance lawyer trying to stoutly defend a man most in America thought utterly indefensible, but really this was all about Mark Rylance’s Hollywood coming out party as Abel. On top of the skilfully evoked Cold War paranoia, it’s got the style and panache of Catch Me if You Can, plus – with Ethan and Joel Cohen contributing to the script – wit to spare.
An under-seen gem. When noted Holocaust denier David Irving was called a Holocaust denier by historian Deborah Lipstadt, Irving retaliated by suing her for libel. Libel laws being what they are in the UK, the only way Lipstadt and her team could win was to prove that not only are Irving’s claims false, but that he’s maliciously manipulated evidence to speak how he wants it to. With the distressing rise news that two thirds of young adult Americans don’t know six million Jewish people died in the Holocaust, Denial is perhaps even more pertinent now than it was four years ago.
Another frustratingly under-appreciated film, this time following a case in the early career of the later Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, here played by a magisterial Chadwick Boseman. In 1940, Marshall was an NAACP lawyer helping Black defendants wrongly accused of crimes by an institutionally racist police and justice system. Joseph Spell, a chauffeur accused of rape by his white employer, is his next case, and the one has electrified the press and public.
A Few Good Men (1993)
Sorkin’s first bravura legal drama is about abuse and secrecy at Guantanamo Bay leading to a young soldier’s unlawful death, but, really, it’s almost completely about Jack Nicholson’s turn as Screamin’ Colonel Jessup, so here’s an anecdote.
While warming up to film that endlessly parodied “You can’t handle the truth!” moment, director Rob Reiner was getting some single shots of Tom Cruise doing his side of the argument. Take after take, Nicholson kept launching himself into a full-blooded rendition of his big rant, despite not actually being on camera. Reiner suggested he chill out and save it for the real take.
“Rob, you don’t understand,” Nicholson told Reiner. “I love to act.”
12 Angry Men (1957)
Still as endlessly rewatchable and relevant as it ever was, Sidney Lumet’s dissection of how the flaws, biases and uncertainty inherent in a trial by jury are both its weakness and its strength is an essential part of the 20th century canon. Lumet’s direction is at once exacting and almost imperceptibly light-fingered, allowing each of the dozen clashing personality and perspectives to stand apart before coalescing into a microcosm of postwar America.
The dozy dozen of the title are all sure that a young man has killed his father and are ready to send him to the electric chair – well, nearly all of them. Henry Fonda leverages all of his good guy aura (check the all-white suit) to show that doubt isn’t necessarily an admission of weakness.
Liar Liar (1997)
No, look, honestly. I'm not saying this is a great film. If you like Jim Carrey, it's probably in or around your top five Jim Carrey films. No, what I'm saying – if you'd just listen – is that the glossiest of Carrey's films from his stupid-tit-about era climaxes in a genuinely very, very well put-together bit of legal showmanship. He’s not going to Atticus Finch you out of any era-defining civil rights cases, true, but the man knows his way around the technicalities of divorce law. His kid’s made a birthday wish that stops him lying, you see, which means he’s a bit hamstrung as a lawyer and as a general gadabout. Doesn’t explain all the screaming and gurning though. Maybe the kid got another wish.
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