Here's my own verdict.
What is your favorite law-related movie? Is it “The Verdict,” one of Paul Newman’s best movies about a down and out alcoholic lawyer handling a major medical malpractice case that he actually obtains by going to the funeral home to solicit the case? He is in way over his head, but somehow manages to pull out a great victory for his client.
Maybe for some it is “Anatomy of a Murder” with Jimmy Stewart playing a defense attorney defending an Army lieutenant who has been charged with murdering a bartender in front of several witnesses. Stewart must prove that his client was temporarily insane. Jimmy Stewart’s cross examination should be shown to every trial advocacy class in every law school in America as it is actually quite good.
Others might point to “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Gregory Peck playing the great Atticus Finch, repesenting an African American man charged with raping a white woman. His courageous defense of his client in front of an all white jury is classic. Atticus Finch should be the role model for every lawyer.
One of my favorites is “My Cousin Vinny” with Joe Pesci defending his cousin on murder charges in a small town where the scales of justice are slanted in against him. Vinny has never tried a case and finally passed the bar exam on his sixth attempt. Vinny plays cat and mouse over his qualifications with the judge who is played by Fred Gwynne (also known as Herman Munster). The movie takes liberty with courtroom etiquette, but it is entertaining. Vinny Gambini should probably not be the role model for every lawyer.
A couple of lesser known movies are my favorites. “Judgment at Nuremberg” is the dramatic story of a series of trials held in Nuremberg Germany following World War II. An international tribunal led by American judges faced the question of how much responsibility someone held who had “just followed orders.” Four German judges were put on trial for knowingly colluding with the Nazis to sentence innocent men to death.
“The Andersonville Trial,” directed by George C. Scott tells the story of a trial in 1865 in which Captain Harry Wirz is brought to answer charges of murder and crimes against humanity arising from administration of the Andersonville Prison during the Civil War. At Andersonville, 13,700 prisoners of war died due to inadequate medical care, unchecked spread of dysentery, poor sanitation and lack of proper food.
The captain’s defense was that he was only following orders, and the prosecution countered that the chain of command did not supersede his moral and ethical obligations to the men under his watch. The cast included William Shatner (Denny Crain), Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett), and Martin Sheen. The cross examinations in the movie are among some of the best ever in a trial. It is well-written with remarkable acting.
Page 2 of 2 - “Inherit the Wind” with Spencer Tracy is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial which resulted in a Tennessee teacher being convicted for teaching evolution in a high school science class in violation of a law that only permitted creationism to be taught. Excellent courtroom scenes are plentiful in this classic.
Another great movie is “A Man for All Seasons.” The plot is based on the true story of Sir Thomas More, the Lord Chancellor of England who refused to sign a letter asking the Pope to annul King Henry VIII’s marriage and resigned rather than sign an oath declaring the King to be the head of the Church of England. He is put on trial for treason and ultimately beheaded after he was convicted. The trial contains some of the great quotations in legal history.
Americans love a great trial. I suspect it is because the courtroom is a place where drama occurs, and while not all trials are dramatic, when we see one that is, it moves us and inspires us.
If you ever get bored with all of the reality shows on television, rent a couple of these movies and examine the trial skills of the actors. There are many great lawyers in this country, some in our back yard, but there are also some great actors who have played lawyers. And although they are acting, many are examples of what lawyers should be.