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.
To Kill A Mockingbird is essential reading and viewing. Atticus Finch is the greatest father and lawyer in the history of cinema and in dealing with racism, bigotry and inequality under the law in the US, it is as relevant now as when it was made (and indeed the era in which it was set). Of course one can sling the usual criticism of the white man coming to the rescue of the put-upon black man, however the reality is that any defendant in Tom Robinson’s position would have been wholly reliant on the help of white people, a defendant up against a hopelessly biased legal system, with no hope of a fair trial or due process, lucky to even get to the inevitable guilty verdict before being lynched – a reality as appalling as it is inescapable. Into this seemingly intractable situation comes Atticus Finch – noble, dignified, strong, and determined to see Tom granted the defence that is his constitutional right. Atticus is no fool, he understands the environment in which he is operating and the impossibility of a fair trial despite his best efforts, but he knows what is right and he resolves to see the matter through, even sitting armed by the courthouse to protect his client from a lynch mob. Calm, measured, incorruptible.
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.
Less of a courtroom drama than a jury room drama, 12 Angry Men spends very little time in the courtroom, with little more than a glimpse of the defendant in the dock before we adjourn with the jury to their increasingly claustrophobic and tense deliberations. All but Henry Fonda’s anonymous juror initially consider the defendant guilty and although Fonda himself is unsure, he at least wants to see the matter discussed, to give the defendant the dignity of some consideration of the evidence.
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.
In The Verdict, Sidney Lumet puts Paul Newman through the wringer, as a weary, ageing lawyer who has seen too many cases, emptied too many bottles of drink and generally worked himself into the ground. Despite Newman’s almost supernaturally bright eyes, here he seems hunched, subdued, haunted even, as he hauls himself through a complex but important medical malpractice case.
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.
Oliver Stone has a lot of important points to make in JFK and he makes them through a display of some of the most attention-grabbing film-making in decades – shifting through different film stocks, inter-cutting archive footage with shot footage, aged and grained to match, drawing career-best performances from all over – it is a phenomenal technical achievement. The problem for a lot of critics and audiences was that he pushed a bit too hard with the conspiracy theory and thereby lost a lot of the goodwill that his film had generated.
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.
Vigilantism is wrong. This position underpins the tension within Batman (for one) but also paints us into a corner in John Grisham’s A Time To Kill. Joel Schumacher delivered a hot and tempestuous courtroom battle (“Did they deserve to die?” “Yes they deserved to die and I hope they burn in hell!”) but plenty of courtroom dramas have done that. What we had here was an initial crime so horrendous and so unforgivable and perpetrators so relentlessly unpleasant that we find it nigh-on impossible to feel anything other than relief and approval when they get their comeuppance at the hands of Samuel L. Jackson’s distressed and vengeful father. Who would blame him? How could any father fail to do the same? Yet we are then faced with a conclusion that vigilantism is fine, in the right circumstances.
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)
The People vs Larry Flynt is about freedom of speech and is more of a bio-pic than a conventional courtroom drama, but it makes the cut for this article because of the way that Edward Norton’s Alan Isaacman delivers his speech to the Supreme Court. Despite all of the courtroom dramas out there that showcase almost superhuman eloquence, poise, effortless fluency and emotional heft, speaking in public is almost always characterised by hesitation, um-ing and ah-ing and occasionally fumbling your words. Norton gets his point across and makes his arguments incredibly convincingly, but does so in a way that avoids the grandstanding that (for example) Al Pacino and Richard Dreyfuss gave us in the finales of Scent of a Woman and Mr Holland’s Opus. That sort of thing gets you an Oscar nomination, but it doesn’t ring true for anyone who’s ever had to stand in front of a packed courtroom.
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.