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Buchanan Law Silver Screen Recommendations

February 13, 2024

Most folks enjoy a good legal thriller, and the list of options is long: Michael Clayton, A Few Good Men, Presumed Innocent, Witness for the Prosecution, Erin Brockovich, Jagged Edge, and The Lincoln Lawyer are some of the films that make any critic or movie fan’s list in the genre. A lot of legal thrillers are who dunnits, and others are slow burns.

No matter how the story is told, we at Buchanan Law have picked out a handful that we think are truly the best.

First, the “Classics”

The Paper Chase (1973). For those of a certain generation, this film was a significant motivator or deterrent to attending law school. The film follows the challenges of first-year Harvard law school student James Hart (played by Timothy Bottoms). The highlights include his classroom interplay with the quintessential law professor, Charles W. Kingsfield (played by John Houseman). For example, Kingsfield  says, “Mr. Hart, here’s a dime. Call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you becoming a lawyer.”

12 Angry Men (1957). This has to be of the all-time legal classics. It’s a jury room drama directed by the great Sidney Lumet (Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Network (1976)). The motion picture details the deliberations of a dozen jurors deciding the fate of a man accused of murder. As the picture begins, 11 of the jurors agree that the defendant is 100% guilty. “Juror 8,” played by Henry Fonda, is the only holdout. He wants his fellow jurors to discuss the defendant’s case before sentencing him to death. As they deliberate, the jurors change their minds once they delve more deeply into the evidence and testimony.

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962). Atticus Finch is a widower in Depression-era Alabama who defends a Black man for rape. Based on the Harper Lee novel of the same name, the landmark film stars Gregory Peck in a case study of morals, civil rights, and the fight against racial prejudice.

Anatomy of a Murder (1959). Thought by many to be one of the best courtroom dramas of all time, the story follows a semi-retired attorney in a small Michigan town,  Paul Biegler (played by James Stewart) in his defense of an army lieutenant (played by Ben Gazzara). Biegler’s client is accused of the murder a local bar owner after learning he’s been accused of rape. Biegler must go up against big-city prosecutor Claude Dancer (played by George C. Scott). Produced and directed by legendary filmmaker Otto Preminger (Exodus (1960), The Cardinal (1963), and In Harm’s Way (1965)), the novel upon which the film is based was written by John D. Voelker (under the pseudonym Robert Traver), who was a Michigan Supreme Court Justice.

Some Modern Gems

The Verdict (1982). Frank Galvin (Paul Newman) is a once-promising attorney who’s on the skids after being fired from a Boston law firm for accusations of jury tampering. The movie begins with Frank agreeing to take a medical malpractice case as a favor to his friend (played by Jack Warden). The movie is directed by Sidney Lumet and written by David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross (1984) and The Untouchables (1987)). And in the “Did you know” Department, two of the film’s cast members, Jack Warden and Edward Binns, starred in 12 Angry Men, which Lumet also directed (see above).

The Rainmaker (1997). The film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, tells the story of a new attorney, Rudy Baylor, who takes a case under another lawyer of dubious character, played by Mickey Rourke. Baylor teams with a paralegal played by Danny DeVito to fight for a client (played by Mary Kay Place) whose insurance provider won’t provide coverage for her dying son. Fighting the insurance company means facing off against their big firm attorney, Leo F. Drummond (played by Jon Voight).

The Firm (1993). Directed by Sydney Pollack (The Way We Were (1973), Absence of Malice (1981), and Tootsie (1982)), the story is based on the legal thriller by John Grisham of a young lawyer, Mitch McDeere (played by Tom Cruise) who joins a small and prestigious firm in Memphis, Tennessee. Although at first thrilled with the job, he soon learns that his employer is involved with the mob. McDeere finds himself in a pickle when the FBI asks him to gather evidence about the firm, forcing him to decide between doing what’s best for his clients and staying alive.

And on the lighter side….

Legally Blonde (2001). This courtroom comedy stars Reese Witherspoon as Elle Woods, a California sorority girl who follows her ex-boyfriend to Harvard Law School after he breaks up with her when she expects him to propose. Although her initial goal is to win back her man, Elle realizes she has what it takes to become a great lawyer.

My Cousin Vinny. A pair college kids from New York are accused of murder in rural Alabama. They call their cousin—a sassy, smart aleck lawyer with no trial experience. The movie stars Joe Pesci as Vinny, along with Marisa Tomei and “The Karate Kid’s” Ralph Macchio. Also, Fred Gwynne—who played Herman on the 60’s TV series, “The Munster’s” plays Judge Chamberlain Haller.

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