Courtroom dramas always attract people’s morbid attention, whether they occur in reality or only in movies.
Is it the desire for justice that drives us to follow them? Or is it perhaps more simply the desire to pry into the lives of others?
What, after all, are our laws, I wonder. Of whatever nation you are, if not a miserable human attempt to codify concepts of dignity and protection of those in need?
American trials are especially highly theatrically built, almost on purpose to merchandise them to the masses.
So let’s take this show to the extreme, capturing and squeezing it into the movie frames of these courtroom dramas.
Table of contents
Runaway Jury (2003)
A pair of lovers and accomplices manage to infiltrate the jury in a trial against a large arms manufacturer.
The case involves a disgruntled employee who massacred his colleagues with an automatic weapon purchased on the black market.
A guilty verdict would spell doom for the gun company, setting a legal precedent that would pave the way for countless civil and criminal lawsuits.
Their plan is simple: fool everyone and extort as much money as possible from the lawyers handling the case.
First, they psychologically plagiarize the weaker members of the jury so that they can then sell a verdict of guilt or innocence to the highest bidder.
Initially, the lawyers refuse to take them seriously, but as the trial progresses, the tension rises, and the outcome is increasingly uncertain.
The two lovers take significant risks by challenging enemies inside and outside the courtroom. The only way out is to endure persevering through deception to make their way out alive and finally get justice.
Order and law for sale
Runaway Jury is a legal thriller that tackles the hot topic of gun control intelligently and excitingly.
The man sits among the jurors, placating them without their knowledge. Meanwhile, the woman deals with contacts by extricating the lawyers outside of the courtroom.
They play a small but honest lawyer who wants to change gun control laws against a ruthless and expert jury manipulator.
Gary Fleder directs with a good pace the story from the book by John Grisham, a veteran writer of the legal thriller genre.
It is a story that is tense but full of brilliant, cynical, and witty dialogue, beautifully played by a cast of outstanding actors.
A Few Good Men (1992)
For the second courtroom drama, we move to the Guantanamo military base, where a young soldier dies early in the movie after two comrades’ attack.
A young man with little legal experience, but the son of a famous lawyer, is called in to deal in their defense.
Through a pushy female colleague, they discover a very different reality. Indeed, what initially appeared to be a bullying incident is a much more complex affair.
The superiors ordered two killers to teach the victim a lesson, guilty of betraying the body by testifying against a friend to get a transfer in return.
On the base, an unwritten but unofficially accepted rule as Code Red has always existed. It states that any traitor will suffer punishment from his fellow soldiers.
It will be tough for defense attorneys to bring out the truth because of the rigid respect in the chain of command in Guantanamo’s military ranks.
Nevertheless, one of the senior commanders, fed up with lying, seems willing to testify. However, breaking the wall of silence surrounding the base, at last, won’t be as easy without risking anything.
You Can’t Handle the Truth!
A Few Good Men is an intelligent and engaging judicial film about the dynamics of a highly exalted and rigorous military environment.
Indeed, behind honor and duty lie petty plans to get ahead, exploiting and trampling on the weakest for their ends.
Young, handsome and passionate about the cause, they fight ardently against the closed and privileged system of senior army officers.
Kevin Bacon is also funny and firm in his role, somewhere between the good and bad guys.
While he has to do his duty for the prosecution, he also sympathizes with the young marines.
Finally, the immense Jack Nicholson plots to hide his guilt behind the scenes.
A mad colonel exalted by his power of command, summed up in the famous phrase You Can’t Handle the Truth!
A line that has become an iconic instant quote from the famous actor, underscoring his magnificent over-the-top performance.
Rob Reiner handles the story’s timing perfectly, alternating the heated courtroom debate with the personal conflicts between the various characters.
A Few Good Men is an extraordinarily paced 90s legal movie but without a single action scene, relying only on tight, intense dialogue that leaves you breathless.
True Believer (1989)
This time the story begins already in prison, with a convict killing a fellow inmate during a fight.
A cynical lawyer takes up his defense, starting completely uncaring and thus already resigned to an inevitable guilty result.
Without knowing what to do, he investigates the crime that landed his client in prison the first time.
At that point, he finds evidence utterly inconsistent with the conviction verdict and coverage of high-ranking power.
Aided by a young colleague and an investigator friend, he decides to prove his client’s innocence of the crime ten years earlier.
Immediately, a powerful prosecutor bars his way along with his trusted police colleagues.
All seem intent on covering up evidence of the old murder, which could ruin a broader investigation into a Colombian drug cartel.
Attorneys, policemen and criminals cheerfully together
True Believer is a gripping indictment of the moral dilemma of the law amid disturbing secrets and the corruption of law enforcers to obtain justice.
Lawyers and police officers live on the border between good and evil. Offering favors to shady individuals, they cover up their crimes in the name of a greater good.
James Woods leads the feisty trio of lawyers. His evolution from cynical bastard to unabashed protector might be over the top, but it is undoubtedly spectacular to watch.
The two young people will open the eyes of the initially grumpy and neurotic lawyer. When his struggle becomes a crusade, he will be a true hero/anti-hero alone against society.
Finally, Kurtwood Smith is the relentless prosecutor who enacts the worst deceptions and crimes to pursue his ends.
However, he still firmly believes that he is the good guy and has done nothing wrong, as those who distort the meaning of the law in this way do.
Joseph Ruben constructs an excellent legal thriller, blending the thriller with the legal side and the explosive arguments between the lawyers in an entertaining way.
True Believer is probably the most enjoyable of these Courtroom Movies. Although some have forgotten it since its 1980s release, still today, it is all worth rediscovering for new cinema enthusiasts.
In this case, we have a movie in court that has not yet made it to trial.
In fact, we closely follow three days of a white woman who is the daughter of a wealthy family. During this time, the judge must determine whether the defendant can psychologically withstand the trial.
Given her highly aggressive behavior and the murder charge, the judge temporarily locks her in an asylum.
But her lawyer thinks otherwise and requests a hearing to determine her client’s actual psychological capacity.
Establishing a relationship with her will not be easy, given her extreme distrust of anyone, especially men.
Slowly, the lawyer wins her trust, finally listening to her and allowing her to express her point of view.
Confronting her parents, they will discover that such aggression hides terrible childhood traumas.
One-woman performance dominant star
Barbra Streisand dominates the movie, succeeding in the not-so-easy task of irritating and enthralling us with her complicated courtroom drama.
The actress casts herself to perfection in the role of a high-class prostitute, as elegant and sexy as she is, a furious and unstoppable talker.
Richard Dreyfuss sometimes struggles to get into the wild protagonist’s dialogue, but he keeps his character interesting.
Here the actor plays a dull-witted psychologist who is determined to lock up the protagonist at any cost.
To sum up, Martin Ritt starts with a subject that is perhaps not even too original yet carves out a unique little cinematic gem.
For Barbra Streisand lovers, it is an absolute must-see, but for everyone else, if you don’t see it, it would be you to call Nuts.
The Verdict (1982)
Finally, after the fabulous Barbra Streisand, we end on a high note with another legendary movie star, Paul Newman.
In his late 50s, the great actor plays a lawyer consumed by alcohol and distrust of the justice system in which he has worked all his life.
When a colleague offers him to take on a long-stalled medical malpractice case, he agrees, immediately proposing a plea bargain.
He is stunned, however, when the other side turns out to be strangely willing to pay a massive sum without even discussing the case in court.
With a reaction of pride he has not felt in a long time, he decides to defend his clients. They are the parents of a poor girl, left disabled after an abortion in the operating room.
Suddenly and violently, he will have the entire judicial system against him. Everyone attacks him, from the judge down to the last of his colleagues, whom he thought were friends.
A chance of justice for everyone
Among the various genres he has tackled in his career, Sidney Lumet, over the years, has taught everyone how to shoot a courtroom movie drama.
It is no coincidence that his debut was the lightning-fast 12 Angry Men, where he follows a group of jurors’ long and passionate decision after a trial.
Here the late American director enjoys taking himself seriously, as Paul Newman said during interviews.
Ingeniously, it completely deconstructs the twists and turns that the audience usually expects. Even the narrative proceeds in a hostile way to the hapless protagonist, without any forced climax scenes.
But in the finale, with incredible simplicity, everything changes in the space of a minute.
Finally, in a parallel story to the courtroom drama, there is room in this movie for the wonderful Charlotte Rampling.
In those years, she grew into a late 40s woman whose charm changed in a quieter and more sophisticated way.
Although The Verdict is one of the least remembered movies of both Newman and Lumet, I consider it one of the most important in both careers.
David Mamet‘s perfect script becomes the cinematic song for two monsters of cinema, in front of and behind the camera.
Therefore, the hammer drops, sounding the BLAME indictment against anyone who has never seen it, condemning without appeal to retrieve it immediately.