The 25 greatest legal movies
Notes and Observations from Our Judges
FAILURES MAKE FOR GOOD MOVIES
Michael Asimow, visiting professor at Stanford Law School, co-author with Paul Bergman of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies, co-author of Law and Popular Culture: A Course Book and editor of Lawyers in Your Living Room! Law on Television.
Believers in the adversary system think that the best we can do is procedural justice. We can never know the truth about what happened in the past. But pop culture consumers expect substantive justice—that the truth is revealed, bad guys have to pay righteous damages, the guilty are convicted and the innocent walk free. So my favorite legal movies are those in which the adversary system fails miserably to deliver substantive justice.
Our all-time list of cinematic favorites
Paul Bergman, professor of law emeritus, UCLA, co-author of Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies.
Cross-examination is the most distinctive feature of a U.S. trial. The potential for mano a mano combat that often produces drama, humor and sudden plot shifts helps to explain why courtroom films are popular in countries in which oral adversary trials are unknown.
Some great examples of cross-examination:
- Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) Lincoln’s famous almanac cross-examination illuminates a killer’s identity.
- Anatomy of a Murder (1959) A pie-in-the-face answer dooms a prosecutor who asks one question too many.
- Inherit the Wind (1960) Defense lawyer Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan try to make a monkey of each other.
- Bananas (1971) A bound-and-gagged pro se defendant demonstrates the power of cross-examination—at least as it is often portrayed in films.
- My Cousin Vinny (1992) Just as the Harlem Globetrotters can have fun and win basketball games, Vinny can create comedy while turning into a great cross-examiner when the game is on the line. It helps that the prosecutor goes all Washington Generals when he cross-examines Vinny’s fiancee.
- The Verdict (1982) The cross-examination of an admitting-room nurse unlocks the hitherto unrealized potential for drama in the best evidence rule.
MOVIES THAT INSPIRE
Ron Klain, former chief of staff for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joe Biden and former senior White House aide to President Barack Obama.
His choices this year include 12 Angry Men, Inherit the Wind, A Man for All Seasons and the more recent Loving.
All of these provide inspiration for me, particularly in these times. These films show how lawyers can fight bias, prejudice and ignorance with facts and a dedication to the rule of law; how they can stand up to authority and popular opinion; and the need for patience and persistence in tackling such battles. Above all, they show lawyers overcoming incredible odds to prevail for these values—as relevant today as when these films were set.