Thurgood Marshall was the first African American to sit on the US Supreme Court, but Marshall, 2017’s theatrical release named after him, rather than telling the story of how he came to occupy his seat there, instead focuses on a trial in which he became involved as a much younger lawyer. It stars Josh Gad, Kate Hudson and Black Panther himself, Chadwick Boseman, as the eponymous lawyer, with Sterling K. Brown, James Cromwell and Dan Stevens rounding out the impressive cast.
Marshall’s home entertainment release is fast approaching (out on Monday the 26th…) and it has got us thinking about cinema’s grand tradition of impressive courtroom dramas.
Courtroom dramas have been part of the fabric of cinema for decades and whether convincing, dramatically effective, unrealistic or wish-fulfillment, their back-and-forth pugilism and often sky-high stakes continue to make them compelling viewing. Guilty or innocent? Do we know? Do we care? Are we invested in the outcome? TV’s The People vs OJ Simpson showed that a longer-form TV drama could capture the mayhem and insanity of one of the most public and publicised trials in modern history and take what seemed like a can’t-lose case and turn it into a devastating defeat for the public prosecutor. My Cousin Vinny showed just how funny Joe Pesci is and just how much fun it is to be able to say “I’m done with this witness” once you’ve driven a coach and horses through their testimony. Channel 4’s “The Trial: A Murder in the Family” gave us a fictitious case, but real-life barristers, judges and police officers and invited us to observe an unfolding “could go either way” trial. Compelling stuff.
But what are the very best offerings we’ve had on the big screen? Anatomy of a Murder broke a taboo with its (for the time) daring descriptions of a sexual crime. Trial at Nuremberg has historical and thematic heft as it deals with Nazi war crimes and the horrors of the Holocaust. A Few Good Men gave us “You Can’t Handle The Truth!”. But do any of them make the shortlist?
To Kill A Mockingbird – Because it is the greatest courtroom drama in the history of cinema.
As inevitable as the outcome is, in every sense, Atticus Finch remains resolved. He argues his client’s case passionately, fearlessly and flawlessly. An uphill struggle and a futile errand, some might say, but he sees that it is a battle worth fighting. When something is right, it should be done. As Jim Garrison says in JFK, “let justice be done though the heavens fall”.
12 Angry Men – Because it shows that decency, humanity and the pursuit of truth matter more than courtroom histrionics.
What then unfolds is an increasingly tense, real time chamber piece, as Fonda works his way through the evidence and the witnesses, not only picking apart inconsistencies and gaps, but also gently but persuasively revealing the prejudices and presuppositions within the other jurors that are colouring their own views and slanting their decisions. The thoroughly hard-baked J. Lee Cobb is the last to crumble, eventually giving way not so much to the evidence as his realisation that the enmity between him and his own son was preventing him from delivering an honest verdict. Fonda’s juror is as relentless and decent as Atticus Finch, but remains a more mysterious character, as we know nothing of his life outside that jury room. But it is nonetheless a compelling and gripping piece of cinema, as we see the guilty votes one by one turn to innocent ones, as each juror in turn reconsiders their initial knee-jerk reaction.
The Verdict – Because it shows the slog of trying to make headway in the trenches.
We see the end result of what could have been a bright, illustrious, high-profile career instead reduced to ambulance-chasing, but Newman’s dignity and doggedness somehow remain. Instead of settling for a quick buck, he presses on to trial – more risky, but that optimistic young lawyer is still lurking inside somewhere and he knows what is right.
The work of a lawyer is not always making grand-standing speeches to the Supreme Court, not every case is life or death, not every trial will transform legal history. It’s not always glamorous and Lumet and Newman here show us a career lived in the tranches. Newman’s lawyer may well find a new lease on life through the trial that forms the centrepiece of The Verdict, but we are left in no doubt that this is a huge contrast from the rest of his career, as he has struggled and warred his way through dispiriting cases and thankless settlements. There’s life in the old dog yet, but he’s been through the wars.
JFK – Because even if the extent of the conspiracy theory is too much to swallow, this is compelling storytelling.
JFK is indeed far more than just a courtroom drama, but Kevin Costner’s 40-minute long address to the court at the film’s finale is, simply put, one of the finest court-based sequences ever committed to the screen. The Zapruder footage, the magic bullet theory – it’s astonishingly gripping and adroitly delivered. Part of the engagement here is how convinced Costner’s Jim Garrison is of the truthfulness of what he is saying and the nobility of his cause. After Field of Dreams and The Untouchables, Costner was an obvious choice for this sort of decency and commitment to the cause – his oration moves effortlessly through both the evidence and the emotional gears, engaging our curiosity and eventually our outrage at such an obvious conspiracy and cover-up. Garrison (and indeed Stone) may have eventually over-reached a little, attempting to implicate even VP Lyndon Johnson in what at least seems to be an arguable far-reaching conspiracy, but Stone’s film remains an enduring masterpiece.
A Time to Kill – Because it paints us into a corner over our views on vigilantism, whether we like it or not.
People shouldn’t take the law into their own hands, because equality under the law, the rule of law and due process are all cornerstones of our democratic system. But then something this egregious happens and we find ourselves screaming for blood. When video footage was broadcast recently of the father of one of the victims of Larry Nassar (the US gymnastics coach/doctor who was recently convicted on multiple counts) lunging at the perpetrator after asking for five minutes alone in a room with him, our hearts went out to him. We also sympathise with Jackson’s Carl Lee Hailey and want justice for his little girl, so cruelly victimised. But what is the film’s conclusion? A heart-rending and compelling plea from Matthew McConnaughey’s attorney to the jury, to consider how horrendous Hailey’s daughter’s ordeal was, how inhumane the perpetrators were and an appeal that they essentially find that the attackers had their fate coming to them and that no-one would blame Hailey for having killed them. It works. And whether we like it or not, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that we have approved of vigilantism.
The People Vs Larry Flynt – Because it showcases what delivering a speech in court is really like, with all of its normal human hesitancy, searching for the right turn of phrase and eventually getting to the end (despite what Aaron Sorkin would have us believe is achievable)
And in the end, success in a courtroom is much more about the strength and persuasiveness of your arguments than it is about your seamless fluidity. This list wouldn’t be complete without some sort of honest representation of what it looks and feels like to feel your way through to your point. So here you go.