By Professor Poland
David Letterman has his top ten lists and I have mine. Analyzing legal film has long been an avid interest of mine. Using some of my favorite films in the classroom as legal text has greatly enhanced the learning experience for my students during the past decade. In fact, I have structured one course, Justice and the Judicial Process, around film and the controversial legal issues raised in those film. Those legal movies which inspire, motivate, inform, and provide realistic courtroom scenes are strongly preferred by me over those which merely entertain. This, in fact, comprises my personal four-prong test for using any particular film in the classroom. All of the following legal movies should inspire you, inform you, and provide realistic courtroom depictions for you. If you are contemplating a career in the law, take the time to view each one of them. You should then be motivated to make a difference in this world with a law degree in hand.
Nominated for seven Academy Awards in 1959, this classic legal film is not simply the best criminal law movie of all time; it is the best legal movie ever produced. The law is sound, the courtroom scenes are realistic, and the trial tactics are worthy of emulating. Jimmy Stewart plays a small-town defense attorney representing a hot-headed Army Lieutenant who, while allegedly temporarily insane, shot his wife’s alleged bartending rapist. Note the clever manner by which Stewart convinces his client to choose the legal excuse of insanity as his defense rather than justification. George C. Scott proves a worthy opponent as the big-time prosecuting attorney from Lansing. The sparring between Scott and Stewart provides riveting courtroom drama. Difficult moral and legal issues surrounding the insanity defense are explored in some depth. You may reexamine your view on the insanity defense as a legal excuse for homicide. Should the M’Naghten right-wrong test apply or should the irresistible impulse test be employed to determine Lieutenant Manion’s (Ben Gazzara) criminal culpability? A hint: The Lieutenant knows the difference between right and wrong. Perhaps People v. Durfee, 62 Michigan 486, 1886, will be helpful in answering the defense’s dilemma. After a very slow beginning, the action moves quickly. You judge whether or not justice was accomplished.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, this Grisham film presents a number of legal issues for consideration: civil fraud, breach of warranty, divorce, probate, and even justifiable homicide. The movie begins with recent law school graduate Rudy Baylor, played by Matt Damon, searching for a job – a rite of passage for every rookie lawyer. He ends up working for the sleaziest attorney in Memphis and with side-kick Danny DeVito who has failed the bar exam several times. A very high profile insurance case is given to Rudy as a law student. His client, whose death is imminent without a bone marrow transplant, signs the contingency agreement as his blood drips onto the contract. Despite facing very long odds against a battery of corporate lawyers, Rudy seeks to unveil the truth to the jury. In this film, the reward is truly in the journey. In the end, the rookie gets the girl and hero status; corporate America once again is the villain
Angry doesn’t begin to describe it in this 1957 classic. The two fundamental underpinnings of our criminal justice system are the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt. I have found nothing – in film or otherwise - which better explains the legal concept of reasonable doubt to undergraduate students. Henry Fonda, as the voice of reason, represents Justice; while E.G. Marshall, as a man of logic, represents the Law. The initial jury vote is 11-1 to convict the son for the crime of murdering his father. But through a gradual reexamination of the testimony and the other evidence, doubt raises its head and the vote becomes 11-1 to acquit. How many reasonable doubts are there? Count them as you watch this movie a second and a third time – and you will.
Based on an actual New Bedford case involving a gang-rape prosecution, this compelling film will strike you at your core. You will never again think that a woman may have provocatively “asked for it.” Gender bias, plea bargaining, criminal solicitation, and rape are the legal themes examined by this film starring Oscar winning Jody Foster, who once said that the seven minute rape scene which took all day to film was the most difficult performance of her career. This movie tests the limits of legal justice and social responsibility. Kelly McGillis plays the prosecutor who plea bargains away the rape case for a charge with a minimal sentence. She then fights a male dominated system to maximize the light sentences of the rapists and to convict those onlookers who cheered and encouraged the barroom rape for the crime of solicitation. This film will impact victims of sexual assault in a manner similar to the way that Saving Private Ryan affected World War II veterans and The Amistad affected African-Americans.
Based on Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize novel, this film was not well received in the South when it was first released. But over time, Atticus Finch, played by Best Actor Gregory Peck, has become Hollywood’s movie hero of all time. Atticus capably defends a black man who is wrongfully accused of sexually assaulting a white girl. Set in a racially divided, small rural town in the 1930’s, Mr. Robinson is found guilty for the sole reason that the word of so-called white trash (the alleged victim and her despicable father) must be taken as gospel over the word of a respectable black man in the courtrooms of that era - despite the eloquent closing argument of Atticus Finch who implored the jury, “Do the right thing; in the name of God, do the right thing.” The cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses provides valuable tactical lessons.
Based upon the 1841 United States Supreme Court case, The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, this film focuses on a major turning point in U.S. history. The courtroom scenes confront the foundations of the American justice system and are accurate depictions of the judicial process in Colonial America. The legal question becomes whether the Africans are people or property. Unlike in the Dred Scott case, the Supreme Court justices reach the correct decision. Cinque’s personal story and John Quincy Adam’s argument will move you. Contrast this case with a similar case decided by John Marshall, The Antelope, 23 U.S. 66. The Verdict: If you have lawyers somewhere in your life, Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) may remind you of someone you know. While this film teaches many lessons about professional responsibility and legal ethics, it is, along with The Rainmaker, one of the cornerstones of tort cinema. This film also provides a powerful example of how not to practice as an attorney and how not to preside as a judge. Alcoholic Galvin has a very winnable, big judgment medical malpractice suit fall in his lap. He can settle or he can try the case; unwisely, he chooses to try it. Everything goes wrong at the trial including his expert witness not showing and the judge making an erroneous hearsay ruling from the bench. Despite all the negative energy, in his closing argument Galvin begs the jury to “act as if you believe and faith will be given to you.” The jury gets religion and Galvin’s client gets her judgment.
Is there? A time to kill, that is. If you don’t think so now, you may rethink your position after viewing this film. If your ten year daughter were brutalized, raped, and left for dead - and it did not appear to you that justice would be done - would you consider taking the law into your own hands? The father, played by Samuel L. Jackson, decides to lay in wait at the county courthouse and shoot the despicable defendants as they slowly walk to their arraignment. This looks like murder in the first degree, doesn’t it? That’s what the Klan thinks as they terrorize the judicial process. Matthew McConaughey argues otherwise in his compelling closing argument. Jury nullification is one of the key legal concepts explored in this film. This movie is generally the student favorite.
This landmark film explores the tort of wrongful termination when homophobic senior law partners fire, for pretextual reasons, rising legal star Andy Beckett (Tom Hanks) who is HIV positive. Denzel Washington, who must overcome his own phobias, ably represents Hanks in captivating court scenes. “Explain to me like I’m a seven year old,” is a line which Washington makes famous. Employers who discriminate against the disabled in hiring and promotion practices are examined in some depth.
All pre-law students should watch this movie before applying for law school. Contract Professor Kingsley is old school when it comes to using the Socratic method in the classroom. If you do not feel the pain of the 1L’s, it’s only because you have not yet walked in their shoes. You’ll observe how law school study groups work and how law school classes differ from undergraduate classes. The best scene is at the end when grades are given their appropriate due.
Judgment at Nuremberg, Inherit The Wind, Runaway Jury, A Civil Action, A Class Action, And Justice For All, Kramer v. Kramer, Presumed Innocent, The Wrong Man, and Witness For The Prosecution.
Now let the debate begin. What are your top ten?