The Sentries turn their gaze to films where the courtroom setting is an important element and make the case for their favorites.
12 Angry Men (1957) by Greg Barbrick
The premise of Reginald Rose's script was a deceptively simple method of conveying the raging emotions of the 12 jurors who are tasked with deciding a murder trial. It is a blisteringly hot day in New York City, there is no A/C, and the dilapidated fans in the room do not work. All anyone wants to do is leave, but they have one little matter they must resolve before adjourning: guilty or not guilty. The initial vote comes in at 11-1 guilty, with Juror 8 (Henry Fonda) the lone holdout. While not convinced of the suspect's innocence, he is not convinced of his guilt either. And so the deliberations begin.
Step by step, the jurors go through the trial, and in doing so, more and more is revealed about each man. This is a powerfully effective expository device, as it shows that this "jury of peers" are anything but. In a larger sense, it shows that the whole concept of trial by a jury of equals is a wonderful ideal, but does not really exist in practice.
12 Angry Men caught the country at the very cusp of the Civil Rights movement, and is an indicator of the explosions to come. It is masterfully directed by Sidney Lumet, who was making his feaure film debut, with nothing but the emotions of the players to provide the action. The fact that it remains a compelling film from start to finish is a testament to his talent. For these reasons and more, 12 Angry Men is a cinema classic.
To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) by El Bicho
Based on Harper Lee's Pulitizer Prize-winning novel, Gregory Peck won an Academy Award for his performance as Atticus Finch, an Alabama lawyer who epitomizes the ideal form of the profession. Set during the 1930s when an African American could be jailed and killed in this country for little more than being an African American, Atticus defends Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) who stands accused of raping Mayella Ewell (Collin Wilcox), a young white woman. At great risk to his standing in the community and that of his family's well-being, Atticus has to work against the prosecution's evidence and the jury members' prejudice. Released at a time when African Americans were fighting for their Civil Rights, the story explores the concepts of justice and heroism in a manner that still rings true 50 years later.
Suspect (1987) by Mary K. Williams
I only just saw Suspect a few months ago. I was impressed with what quiet, yet hardworking little movie this was - a courtroom drama with restraint. The acting is topnotch; Dennis Quaid was right on as a nosy and a bit full-of-himself lobbyist turned juror, and John Mahoney who's most familiar role as Fraiser's comic relief father Martin Crane was almost unrecognizable as a no-nonsense federal judge.
Cher however was the most surprising. After seeing her in other roles, you are used to her more "outgoing" characters. Her famous line "snap out of it" (in response to Nic Cage's profession of love), from 1987's Moonstruck, personified the hutzpah that is synonymous with the "idea" of Cher. Other roles like the feisty drug addict in Mask, or queen of the stage from Burlesque are what we are used to.
In Suspect, Cher gives a terrific understated performance. She is truly, entirely believable as the frustrated and nearly desperate public defender Kathleen Riley, who is trying to keep her client, a not-quite-famous Liam Neeson, free from a murder conviction.
A Few Good Men (1992) by Paige MacGregor
In director Rob Reiner's classic courtroom drama A Few Good Men, inexperienced but cocky Naval lawyer Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) and his partner Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) reluctantly join forces with the overzealous and inexperienced Lt. Cdr. JoAnne Galloway (Demi Moore) to defend two Marines charged with murdering one of their fellow PFCs. The Marines claim they were following a "Code Red," an extrajudicial punishment order--issued, of course, by their commanding officers--that's designed to teach Marines who step out of line or break the chain of command a very painful (although usually not lethal) lesson. Unfortunately for Kaffee and his legal team, the commanding officers in question are the highly respected, decorated, and renowned Col. Nathan Jessup (Jack Nicholson) and Lt. Col. Matthew Andrew Markinson (J.T. Walsh), each of whom commands a tremendous amount of clout and is virtually untouchable in terms of military legal action.
A Few Good Men is, without a doubt, one of the greatest courtroom dramas released in the past twenty-five years. The film is both well written and acted, and the casting is phenomenal. The tension between Tom Cruise's Kaffree and Nicholson's Jessup makes the explosive "You can't handle the truth!" courtroom scene that marks the film's climax utterly unforgettable and a delight to watch time and time again.
My Cousin Vinny (1992) by Tim Gebhart
In addition to putting a humorous spin on the situations where it seems that there are obstacles everywhere, including the judge, Joe Pesci does (gets away with) things in the courtroom many litigators would love to do. "Everything that guy just said is bullshit. Thank you" may be the most succinct, to the point opening statement ever and sums up how attorneys sometimes feel about the other side's version of a case. "I'm finished with this guy" is what a lawyer thinks, but doesn't say, after a cross-examination that demolishes a witness without making the jury feel sorry for them. There are other gems in Pesci's exchanges with the judge (Fred Gwynne) and his "negotiation" with a pool hustler who owes Lisa (Marisa Tomei) $200. It is one of a handful of movies that I don't tire of watching and it still it makes me laugh every time.
Philadelphia (1993) by Jordan Richardson
As courtroom dramas go, Jonathan Demme's Philadelphia isn't one of the very best from a traditional standpoint. The scenes in the hallowed halls of justice serve as the connective tissue to human drama, not the film's defining aspects. But what makes Philadelphia special is the ground it breaks and the way it uses the judge and jury to serve as consciousness to the issues of HIV and homophobia that still plague us today. Tom Hanks puts in one of the best performances of his career and Denzel Washington is no slouch either, but it's the humanity that makes this one sing in and out of the courtroom.
Primal Fear (1996) by Senora Bicho
Martin Vail (Richard Gere) is a high-profile defense attorney who defends the dregs of society. When a well-known and beloved archbishop is murdered, Martin jumps at the chance to defend Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) the 19-year-old alter boy accused of the crime for all of the attention that the case will garner. Aaron claims to experience blackouts, so Martin hires a psychiatrist (Frances McDormand) to try and uncover the truth. After intense questioning, Aaron turns into "Roy," an angry and hostile persona that confesses to killing the archbishop. The psychiatrist believes Aaron suffers from multiple personality disorder. Since the trial is already underway, Vail is unable to change Aaron's "not guilty" plea to insanity and so he must resort to unorthodox methods to save his client.
This is an excellent film from the solid writing and intriguing story to the brilliant performances. Gere is at his best as the slick attorney who has his world turned upside down, and I can't say enough about Norton. Every time he is on screen, you can't take your eyes off of him regardless of if he is sweet Aaron or hostile Roy. He is completely believable and engrossing as both characters.
Did your favorite make the list? If not, join the discussion by revealing yours in the comment section below.