The Thirteen All-Time Best Movies About Attorneys and/or the Legal Profession
1. A Civil Action “A Civil Action” is my all-time favorite movie with a legal theme. I read the book on Pismo Beach one summer . . . couldn’t put it down. I was completely engrossed, even though I had no idea then what lay just ahead for me. I ended up having an experience that very much paralleled that of real-life attorney Jan Schlichtmann depicted in “A Civil Action.” Like Mr. Schlichtmann, I litigated a case that could have easily have been my undoing — and might have been had I not read this book when my case was gearing up. Robert Duvall was robbed of an Academy Award for his portrayal of the shrewd defense counsel who appears to outwit Mr. Schlichtmann. My favorite actor, James Gandolfini, has a pivotal role and the movie’s ending — which I won’t spoil here in case you haven’t seen it and plan to take my advice and get the DVD — is chilling and sobering, with Kathy Bates giving a brief but credible performance.
2. The Verdict Why is this my second-favorite? Simple answer: Paul Newman. If any other actor had portrayed Frank Galvin, this movie would have been just a run-of-the-mill legal tale. This was another case of Oscar-theft which I am convinced is why Mr. Newman ended up winning a couple of years later for “The Color of Money.” Throw in Jack Warden and the incomparable James Mason as the lead defense counsel, not to mention Milo O’Shea as the complacent judge, and you have a masterpiece. Released in 1982, this is a classic.
3. And Justice for All
Another Jack Warden tour de force! Yes, Al Pacino, John Forsythe and Jeffrey Tambor are all at the top of their game, but Jack Warden stole this movie from all of them as a judge with a death wish who is, in reality, one of the more sane members of the legal profession. If you’ve never seen this movie, rent the DVD if only to watch the last 20 minutes or so which includes the classic Al Pacino line, “I have just concluded my opening statement!” 4. Erin Brockovich Can you tell that I love movies about ordinary people who do extraordinary things? Julia Roberts deserved the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of a woman who finally discovers her calling and self-worth. Albert Finney is equally as good.
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
Gregory Peck’s portrayal of Atticus Fitch is as relevant, poignant and inspiring as it was when this movie was released in 1962. 6. The Firm
Before Tom Cruise started jumping on couches, he was extremely believable and sympathetic as a naive young law school graduate who accepts an offer that seems too good to be true with a Memphis law firm. As good as Cruise is, this film would not be the crisp thriller that it is without an unbelievable ensemble that includes Hal Holbrook, Gene Hackman, Holly Hunter, Wilford Brimley, and David Straithairn. I read the book in no time . . . I just couldn’t stop turning the pages! And went to see the movie with my mother the day after I finished taking the Bar Exam.
7. A Time to KillAnother excellent movie adapted from a John Grisham novel which was published before “The Firm,” but did not do very well. After “The Firm” was a monster hit, readers discovered “A Time to Kill.” Samuel L. Jackson gives a heartbreaking performance.
8. Runaway Jury Based upon yet another John Grisham novel, the story was changed. In the book, the trial revolves around tobacco manufacturers — in the movie, the plaintiff is suing gun manufacturers after her husband is murdered during an office rampage. What’s delicious about this film is not just John Cusack (although that would be enough). It’s the chance to watch old pros Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman square off in an all-too-brief scene in the men’s room of the courthouse. Get the DVD so that you can watch the interviews with them and hear their discussion about the painstaking preparation, improvisation and rehearsal that went into making that one short scene absolutely perfect. It should be required watching in every drama classroom in America.
9. Liar, Liar I don’t usually like Jim Carrey movies because the joke has worn itself out long before the movie ends. (“Bruce Almighty” is an exception because of Morgan Freeman, the funniest God since George Burns.) But this one kept me laughing all the way. Probably an occupational hazard. 10. Chicago
I wish I could have seen the original Broadway production starring Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon and Jerry Orbach, and directed by Bob Fosse. The movie is outstanding, though, and my favorite scene is Richard Gere’s tap dance as he leads Catherine Zeta-Jones (Velma) through her testimony at Roxie Hart’s trial. Every litigator can relate. If they say they can’t, they’re a liar! (See #9 above.) 11. Presumed Innocent Raul Julia was wonderful as Sandy Stern, the flamboyant defense attorney who must prove that Harrison Ford didn’t murder his mistress. And the late, great John Spencer as Detective Lipranzer was excellent in a supporting role filmed between his “LA Law” and “West Wing” gigs. This is one of the rare instances when the movie was every bit as good as the novel — and the novel was very good indeed.
12. The Paper Chase Another classic. I re-watched it not too long ago and it was just as wonderful as when I first saw it in 1973. I was addicted to the series on Showtime in the ’80’s starring John Houseman, Jane Kaczmarek, James Stephens, Michael Tucci and Robert Ginty. In fact, I should see if it has been released on DVD’s. It was a great series that accurately portrayed the pressures we all face in law school and the ways students learn to cope — or don’t.
13. Philadelphia Last but by no means least, I’d like to tell you that “Philadelphia” is about the way things were “back in the day” but if you watch it again now, you will realize that we just haven’t come that far. Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington should have shared the Oscar, and the supporting players, including the always-astonishing Joanne Woodward, Antonio Banderas, Jason Robards (in my mind, he will always be Ben Bradlee) and Bradley Whitford are all outstanding. Mary Steenburgen is superb, cast against type, as the icy attorney defending the law firm that discriminated against Tom Hanks’ character because of his sexual orientation and physical disability (AIDS).