A-List: Top Five Courtroom Dramas

By J. Don Birnam

May 28, 2015

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From Michael Jackson to the Boston Marathon Bomber, Americans love their courtroom dramas. Legal sagas that span decades, like Anna Nicole Smith’s quest for a millionaire’s fortune, to bizarre falls of our beloved sports heroes like O.J. and Hernandez, all captivate audiences. The flair for the dramatic of these situations makes it obvious that Hollywood would seek to profit. What are, then, the best courtroom dramas of all time?

This idea came to me after reflecting on the recent, under-the-radar Woman in Gold, which recounts the true story of a woman in her quest to recuperate a valuable work of art that was wrongfully taken from her family during World War II. In it, her dashing lawyer (played by, who else?, Ryan Reynolds) takes her case all the way to the United States Supreme Court. But rarer are the dramas that feature scenes of the dry, legal-focused art of appellate practice such as this movie. Much more common is the real-life testimony of witnesses, and the drama it entails, of trial court scenes.

Today, I will focus on legal-oriented movies with good courtroom scenes, and pick my favorite five amongst those. If this column were to instead list the five best courtroom scenes alone, one may land on the touching scene in, for example, A Miracle on 34th Street or on the hysterical and surprising antics of Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar. But both of those movies, viewed more broadly, are hardly “courtroom” dramas on a grander scale. For the same reason, I will resist including Chicago, a favorite of mine, on this list.


Nor are legal but mostly-court and judge free legal thrillers like the plethora of John Grisham novels, or Erin Brokovich, or even A Civil Action under consideration today. Instead, today I focus on movies in which a trial, or a key courtroom scene, play a pivotal part.

Today the list of honorable mentions is short and sweet. First, I have to give a shout-out to The Verdict, the 1982 Sidney Lumet vehicle that carried Paul Newman’s career into its final stages. An alcoholic, disaffected lawyer finds he has a soul when he helps an unsympathetic victim fight the Catholic hospital that wronged her. Doing what he believes is right against all odds finds him personal redemption. The courtroom, then, is what it symbolizes in many of these movies: a place of penance and rediscovery.

In sixth place I have to say – and don’t laugh – is the 2001 now classic Legally Blonde. Cementing Reese Witherspoon’s career as a mainstay American Sweetheart, Legally Blonde is a ridiculous romantic comedy from the very beginning. Elle’s admission to Harvard Law School, her prestigious internship, and her stunning discovery of the true murderer in a state court trial, are all as improbable as my columns winning a Pulitzer Prize. But the charm and heart with which they are delivered, and the wit and fun with which each scene is carried, both make for a refreshing approach to the normally somber tones that one sees in courtroom dramas and provide now-classic one-liners Where one normally finds selfish, brutal characters, in Legally Blonde one finds loving, happy-go-lucky girls. In place of hardened judges and evil defendants, one finds witting accomplices and nitwits. A guilty pleasure to be sure, but when it comes to slapstick courtroom flicks, none compare to Legally Blonde.

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