Top Five courtroom dramas

Got this e-mail yesterday from a local trial lawyer:

Mr. Warthen

Read with interest your brief comments about Ms. Brockovich’s appearance at our convention. Why not come listen to her before you judge? You might actually learn something.

By the way, Jonathan Harr, who wrote "A Civil Action," (the book is much, much better than the movie) spoke by invitation to a group of trial lawyers, hosted by former AAJ president Ken Suggs, a few years ago. Signed my copy of the book! And the lawyer who was portrayed (Jan Schlictmann) has been invited numerous times to speak to our group. Ask your daughter, Elizabeth — we trial lawyers have open minds!

First, I have a daughter who is a lawyer, but her name is not Elizabeth. I’m leaving this lawyer’s name off to protect him from my daughter.

I replied by saying I didn’t know I was "judging," I thought I was just riffing on the blog as usual. And sorry, but I really didn’t like the movie. I did mention another I liked — "Runaway Jury."

This brings us to the fact that we haven’t had a Top Five list in days. How about a Top Five Coutroom Dramas list? Here’s one to start the conversation with:

  1. "12 Angry Men" — Nothing else can touch this, of course. It’s to courtroom dramas what "High Noon" is to Westerns.
  2. "To Kill A Mockingbird" — Very close second, and even maybe a better movie — but only part of it happens in the courthouse.
  3. "A Few Good Men" — Does military justice count? I think so.
  4. "Witness for the Prosecution" — Just to get all snooty and throw in some foreign accents.
  5. "Primal Fear" —  Edward Norton’s breakout, and certainly scariest, performance. Richard Gere almost disqualifies this one, but Norton saves it.

Other candidates?

9 thoughts on “Top Five courtroom dramas

  1. Rodney Welch

    “The Verdict.” Paul Newman is superb as an ambulance-chasing alcoholic lawyer who takes on a medical malpractice case that pits him against smooth-talking James Mason and his pack of high-priced yuppie weasels, along with the backstabbing Charlotte Rampling and a prejudiced judge played by Milo O’Shea. Great direction by Sidney Lumet, a crackerjack script by David Mamet, and a great performance by Newman, whose final appeal to the jury illustrates the difference between showcasing your skills and showboating. (Are you listening, Al Pacino?) Newman was nominated for an Oscar and might have won had he not been facing contenders who were also all playing at the top of their game: Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year, Jack Lemmon in Missing and the winner, Ben Kingsley in Gandhi. Tough odds.

  2. Richard L. Wolfe

    Interesting that you brought up the Verdict. It was on my wife’s reading list for college but we haven’t been able to find it at the video store. Does anyone know if it was based on a novel?

  3. bud

    Does Witness count as a courtroom movie? Even though it mostly took place in an Amish village it still had courtroom implications.

  4. Brad Warthen

    Ow! Major omission! John S. Nichols, "immediate past president of SCTLA/SCAJ" (does it really count as an abbreviation or acronym when it gets to that point?) reminded me that I forgot about "My Cousin Vinnie!"

    I’d make that number 3 on the list, and bump everything else down.

    No, bud, I don’t think "Witness" makes it, although it’s a good one. I think that would have to go on a "crime drama" list, or a "fish-out-of-water" list.

    In fact, it DID make my "Top Five Harrison Ford flicks" list.

  5. Jay Elliott

    Here are five more. “Anatomy of a Murder” with James Stewart struggling with ethical dilemmas and getting his secretary paid (both of which happen more than you might think). “Breaker Morant,” a compelling film about a courts martial of three soldiers in the Boer war, bespeaking the war in Viet Nam. “Compulsion,” a fictionalized account of the trial of Leopold and Loeb, with Orson Welles portraying Clarence Darrow, and his moving argument opposing the death penalty. “Inherit the Wind,” another portrayel of Darrow, this by Spencer Tracey, in which science is on trial (as it still is). Finally, “Fear on Trial,” with George C. Scott as the esteemed trial lawyer, Louis Nizer. This last is not commercially available, but it is an excellent courtroom drama using actual trial transcripts of a libel lawsuit brought by a blacklisted broadcaster accused of being a communist. Apropos of “The Verdict,” the jury really did return with the question of whether they could award more damages than the plaintiff sought.


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