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The Best Legal and Courtroom Dramas

Movies set in a law or court-based arena are ripe for potent cinematic drama. After all, there’s some sort of conflict—often an actual lawsuit—at the center. But the great films have more than that. First, there is the case at issue, and the stakes can often be life-and-death. (For example, someone’s on death row or a company is on the brink of disaster.) Next, the legal professionals are usually facing personal jeopardy relating to the main case. Finally, the best legal films accurately portray the law, using its actual twists and turns to impact the story itself.

The Classic Courtroom Drama

12 Angry Men” (1957): Almost the entire action of “12 Angry Men” takes place within a jury room, as a jury argues about the case of a young man accused of murder. With Henry Fonda starring as the lone holdout juror who votes “not guilty,” the film retains its power today, as it dives into how individuals’ perceptions, racism, social class, and family history all impact a jury’s outcome. (Tubi, Amazon, MGM+, Pluto, Apple+)

“Anatomy of a Murder” (1959): Frequently included in lists of the best legal movies ever made, this movie features Jimmy Stewart as a disillusioned defense attorney representing a client accused of murder. With much of the film set within the courtroom, “Anatomy” unsettlingly reveals that trials are more about lawyering than truth. And seeing Stewart play the attorney, without a shred of the charm he’s so well known for, packs an added punch that underscores the skepticism over the entire proceeding. (YouTube, Apple+, Vudu, Amazon) (Its 2023 descendent “Anatomy of a Fall” offers a modern, equally close examination of how facts are revealed, and distorted, during a trial.)

A Few Good Men (1992): Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson go head-to-head in this courtroom drama about two marines who stand trial for murdering another member of their unit. Their courtroom exchange is arguably one of the most famous moments in film and still worth quoting today. You may find yourself worth watching for that scene, but the rest of the film is an intriguing examination of how honor and courtroom ethics aren’t always copacetic. Demi Moore, Kevin Pollack, and Kevin Bacon also star. (AMC+, Apple+, Amazon)

The Trial of the Chicago 7” (2020): With an all-star cast, this Aaron Sorkin–directed film is the legal equivalent to an epic, as it examines the trial of political leaders at the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention to decide if they were culpable for the violence that ensued. The plot is fairly straightforward, but its use of flashbacks and courtroom narration gives the film a larger scope. And it’s a window into another time, while asking how much of politics and the law have really changed. (Netflix)

“Witness for the Prosecution” (1957): Due to its terrific plot and captivating performances, this adaptation of an Agatha Christie play is not to be missed. Charles Laughton is a British barrister who takes on a new client accused of murder, even though the barrister has recently had a heart attack. Tyrone Power plays the accused, while Marlene Dietrich is his war bride. Beyond that, the film itself asks that audiences swear themselves to secrecy. (MGM+, Apple+, Roku, Amazon)

Real-Life Heroes

These films, based on true stories, will fill you with rage at the injustice of it all, cheer the protagonists’ fearlessness, and perhaps inspire you to consider how you make a difference—even apply to law school or, for lawyers, consider a new practice).

Erin Brockovich (2000): One of the few legal movies that is carried by a non-lawyer, this film is about a single mother who gets a job working for a personal injury lawyer and ends up stumbling upon a mass tort case—helping hundreds of families being poisoned by a local power plant. Julia Roberts carries the film with her portrayal of Brockovich, who is torn between serving the needs of her clients and her family. (Amazon, Netflix, Vudu)

(For another compelling film about a true class action case, check out “A Civil Action,” starring John Travolta.) (Netflix, Amazon, Apple+)

“Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961): With an all-star cast that includes Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, and Judy Garland, “Nuremberg” is the true story of judges who served on the bench after the Nazi government took over Germany. The film is a searing look at how, by rulings in individual cases, judges can give legitimacy to a profoundly corrupt system, and ultimately became collaborators in the Nazi government’s atrocities. (Pluto, Tubi, Amazon)

“Judgment in Berlin” (1988): This small film, shot entirely in the still-divided West and East Berlin, is the true story of U.S. federal judge Herbert Stern (played by Martin Sheen), presiding over the prosecution of two East Berliners who hijacked a plane into the West. When the film was released, it was largely dismissed by critics and audiences, but lawyers and “West Wing” fans especially may find it gratifying to watch Sheen’s Stern wrestle with the case’s constitutional questions, and, in doing so, remind us just how much of the Constitution’s power depends on the character of individuals. (Sling, Roku, Amazon)

Just Mercy” (2018): “Just Mercy” tells the true story of Bryan Stevenson (played by Michael B. Jordan), a Harvard-trained lawyer who decides to start a tiny office that provides free legal services to those on Alabama’s death row—and especially the case of Walter McMillian (played by Jamie Foxx) who has been convicted for a murder. As Stevenson deals with a profoundly racist legal system stacked against his clients and himself, don’t be surprised if you want to go to Alabama and help him fight the good fight. (Max, Amazon, Apple+)

Marshall” (2017): With glowing performances, this period drama portrays NAACP legend (and future justice) Thurgood Marshall’s involvement in one of his early cases. Chadwick Boseman’s Marshall wants to defend his client, Sterling Brown, accused of raping his employer (Kate Hudson). However, he’s not admitted to the bar in Connecticut, so a local attorney, Sam Friedman, is drafted into litigating the case on Marshall’s behalf—to the horror and chagrin of both Marshall and Friedman. (Netflix, Apple+, Amazon)

On the Basis of Sex” (2018): Similar to “Marshall”’s approach, this fictionalized drama about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (with Felicity Jones starring as Ruth) explores Ginsberg’s early years—her fight to become an attorney and the one case that began her work to end gender discrimination in the law. And the film is as much about how her role as wife and mother shaped her practice and vice versa. Ginsberg fans may also consider the equally notable documentary, “RBG.” (Apple+, Amazon, Vudu)

The Best of the Legal Thrillers

Even though they may have a requisite car chase or other genre standards, what makes a legal thriller truly great is when the terror arises out of an ethical decision that an attorney must make or has already made. At some point, they must choose between what the law requires and their own—and others’—safety.

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011): Star Matthew McConaughey at once plays to and against type as an oily but brilliant criminal defense attorney, defending a wealthy young man against a brutal rape charge. Character driven more than plot driven, the film is a troubling window into the ethical quandaries an attorney faces when their client just might be a monster. (Peacock, Vudu, Apple+)

Michael Clayton” (2007): This star-studded film received seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture. George Clooney plays the titular character, a burned-out “fixer” who dreams of returning to a more-esteemed practice of law. Instead, he must fix a problem for his own firm: his boss (played by Tom Wilkinson) may have been driven mad, or achieved a new clarity, due to a corporate client’s wrongdoing and the law firm’s role in covering up—even facilitating—the malfeasance. (Hulu, Sling, Apple+)

Primal Fear” (1996): Richard Gere plays a cynical criminal defense attorney defending his client, a literal altar boy accused of murdering a Chicago archbishop. And the stakes become much higher when he starts to believe his client, flawlessly played by Edward Norton (nominated for an Oscar), is innocent. The supporting cast is jaw-dropping: Laura Linney, Andre Braugher, Maura Tierney, John Mahoney, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodward, and the list goes on. (Amazon, Apple+)

On the Lighter Side….

Law-related films don’t have to be tragedies, or even dramas, to fit the bill, as these three comedies demonstrate. And part of the fun is that, as silly as each’s premise is, the legal issues—especially procedural ones—are smart and hidden between the laugh lines are some truly savvy takes on the law.

“Miracle on 34th Street” (1947): While a beloved Christmas film, many people forget the fact that the plot is centered on a New York City courtroom: a judge must decide if Macy’s Santa Claus is the real Santa, and if he’s not, should Santa be institutionalized. And don’t be so hung up on the premise to miss the film’s jabs at how the law is so influenced by politics, media, personal agendas, and money. (Hulu, Disney+ Apple+, Amazon)

My Cousin Vinny” (1992): While the slapstick outside of the courtroom is a more than bit cartoonish, this fish-out-of-water comedy, starring Joe Pesci as a Brooklyn attorney struggling to figure out how to save his cousin, accused of murder in a small Alabama town, has some of the all-time best courtroom scenes. Marisa Tomei gives an Oscar-winning performance as Pesci’s wisecracking fiancée, while Fred Gwynne is a delight as the exasperated judge overseeing Pesci’s antics. (Amazon, AMC+, Sling, Apple+)

Legally Blonde” (2001): With another fish-out-of-water premise, "Legally Blonde" is a giddy legal romp that is mostly about the challenges Elle Woods (played by Reese Witherspoon) faces being a beautiful blonde whose brains are consistently underestimated. But ultimately it all truly pays off in the courtroom scenes at the end of the movie. (YouTube, Hulu, Amazon)

The Best Legal Movies with Hardly Any Law in Them

“Kramer v. Kramer” (1979): This family drama about a couple’s divorce, starring Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep, is as affecting now as when it was first released, as Hoffman’s father struggles with assuming custodial responsibility of their young child. (There are just a couple jarring moments that feel dated.) But since this is a list of best legal films, the truth is there are only a couple scenes in a courtroom or relating directly to the litigation. The reason you think this is a big courtroom drama is more because of the title than the movie. (Amazon, Apple+)

To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962): This adaptation of Harper Lee’s Depression-era novel is told through the eyes of Scout, an attorney’s young daughter, while her father (Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch) is the white attorney defending a Black man charged with rape of a white woman in a segregated Georgia town. It’s a great film. But the focus on Scout means there’s very little law in the film, and if it weren’t for Gregory Peck’s stature, this wouldn’t be a “law film” at all. (Amazon, Apple+, Vudu and others)

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