What are the elements of a great courtroom drama? A case that's more complicated than it appears, lawyers who grapple with moral quandaries, witnesses who offer surprises in their testimony, a connection to suspenseful events outside the courtroom and (just maybe) Matthew McConaughey.
McConaughey gave up pre-law college studies to pursue acting, but he's made up for it by playing trial lawyers in such movies as 'A Time to Kill,' 'Amistad,' and now 'The Lincoln Lawyer.' In this new film, based on the character created by author Michael Connelly, McConaughey plays Mickey Haller, a slick Los Angeles defense attorney whose office is the back of his sedan. His latest case, defending a playboy (Ryan Phillippe) accused of attempted murder, presents Mickey with some unexpected twists and moral dilemmas.
It's no wonder that McConaughey is drawn to such dramas. The courtroom is an inherently dramatic stage, where conflict is built into the proceedings, where everyone has a part to play but none of them knows what the outcome will be, and where life-and-death issues are distilled into individual, personal stories.
Prompted by the release of 'Lincoln Lawyer,' we've compiled a list of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time. See if you think 'Lincoln Lawyer' will ultimately merit a place on this list, and let us know if we've left out any of your favorites.
25. 'A Time to Kill' (1996). In this John Grisham adaptation, McConaughey is a Southern lawyer defending a black man (Samuel L. Jackson) who has killed the bigots who raped his pre-teen daughter. McConaughey must also protect his own family from violent Klansmen, forestall a potential race war, and resist the charms of a comely law student (Sandra Bullock). There's a lot of shameless pandering and button-pushing in the movie, none of which makes it any less effective or cathartic.
24. 'Intruder in the Dust' (1949). The best film version of any William Faulkner story, 'Intruder' stars the dignified Juano Hernandez as an aloof black man unjustly accused of murder in the Jim Crow South. He has an able white lawyer, but the movie's real hero is the lawyer's nephew ('The Yearling's' Claude Jarman Jr.), a boy who knows the defendant to be a man of integrity and is one of the few white people in town who can see past race and is willing to sift through the evidence to find the real killer. Years before 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' or even the advent of the civil rights movement, the film paints an unsparing, documentary-like portrait (it was shot on location in Faulkner's hometown of Oxford, Miss.) of how justice in that time and place was far from blind to racial differences.
23. 'Kramer vs. Kramer' (1979). Most of the movie is about how Dustin Hoffman learns to be a good single dad to his little boy, but it's the last third of the film, which contains the custody battle that gives the movie its title, that's the real gut-puncher. In the courtroom, ex-wife Meryl Streep's lawyer successfully smears the responsible dad we've seen Hoffman become, painting him instead as a reckless cad. The moral: No one's really a winner in a legal system that only amplifies the bitterness that tears families apart.
22. 'Primal Fear' (1996). Richard Gere is an unscrupulous, showboating defense attorney who gets his karmic comeuppance in the form of a murder defendant (Edward Norton) who appears harmless but whose twisted psyche harbors horrible secrets. There's a massive plot twist here that makes all the smart characters played by smart actors (Gere, Laura Linney, Frances McDormand, Alfre Woodard, and others) look like suckers, but then, viewers who saw this movie when it first came out were happily suckered as well. It was Norton's debut, and we had no idea then what a protean talent he was; his astonishing performance depends largely on his anonymity. Not entirely, though. Seen today, his is still a clever, chilling performance that makes the whole movie work.
21. 'Breaker Morant' (1980). In this real-life drama set during the Boer War, Edward Woodward and Bryan Brown give feisty performances as Australian officers under British command who are court-martialed for war crimes. Their we-were-just-following-orders defense probably wouldn't wash today in a post-Nuremberg world, but it's also clear that the Aussies are scapegoats being railroaded in order to serve the British Empire's political aims. What's really on trial here is the dehumanizing nature of modern guerrilla warfare, in which expedience trumps honor and the line between soldiers and murderers is easily blurred.
20. 'Philadelphia' (1993). The first mainstream Hollywood movie to address AIDS and the prejudices surrounding it, 'Philadelphia' smartly uses the courtroom as a forum to ask viewers to look beyond those prejudices to see issues of basic fairness. As the ailing defendant wrongfully fired from his law firm, Tom Hanks is a little too saintly and perfect (he's like a gay Sidney Poitier character), but as the everyman who is the audience surrogate in learning to look past Hanks' sexual orientation and disease to see a man worthy of respect and justice, Denzel Washington gives one of the warmest, most human performances of his career.
19. 'A Civil Action' (1998). John Travolta uses his formidable reserves of charisma as real-life lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, fighting a deep-pocketed corporation on behalf of townsfolk made ill by polluted water. But this is not an 'Erin Brockovich' story about a heroic underdog winning against all odds; rather, it's about a hotshot who discovers that his passion and courtroom skills can take him only so far in a system where the deck is stacked against those of limited means, where litigation is a game of financial chicken in which whoever blinks first loses.
18. 'The Caine Mutiny' (1954). Humphrey Bogart is unforgettable as Lt. Cmdr. Queeg, the petty, power-mad ship captain who sparks a mutiny and a court-martial over pilfered strawberries. He's not afraid to look unsympathetic, even ridiculous, but he's still Bogart, so he's still the most commanding person in the movie.
17. 'Witness for the Prosecution' (1957). Charles Laughton is on top of his game as a wily old defense attorney, and Marlene Dietrich is at her sly best as the title character, who's the sole alibi witness for her husband, accused killer Tyrone Power, but who chooses to testify against him instead. Billy Wilder's adaptation of Agatha Christie's hit play is full of the cynical snap that is Wilder's trademark.
16. 'The People vs. Larry Flynt' (1996). As a First Amendment martyr, pornographer Flynt (Woody Harrelson, in his career-best performance) tends to treat the courtroom as a circus, showing up in a diaper made from an American flag or pelting the judge with oranges. He's the only one present who seems to realize how ridiculous it is that it keeps falling to the publisher of Hustler to defend free speech rights. After all, he notes, if the Constitution will protect a scumbag like himself, it'll protect us all. Milos Forman's direction finds both outrageous comedy and genuine pathos amid the Flynt spectacle; as an artist who fled communist Czechoslovakia, Forman knew all too well the importance of free expression, which can't afford to be picky about its champions.
15. 'Paths of Glory' (1957). Kirk Douglas is a French officer in World War I who's given the thankless task of defending three poor grunts being court-martialed as scapegoats for the bungling of their superior officers. In his first of many anti-war movies, Stanley Kubrick expertly mixes the surreal spectacle of combat with the stark emptiness of the courtroom and the prison cell.
14. 'In the Name of the Father' (1993). Director Jim Sheridan addresses the Irish "Troubles" through the prism of a story about a father and son at odds. Both Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his father Giuseppe are wrongly imprisoned for an IRA bombing, based on coerced confessions. The lifelong tensions between the hardworking D.A. and the son he considers a disappointment continue behind bars, as their lawyer (a tart-tongued Emma Thompson) spends 15 years trying to get them released. The acting is top-notch, especially Day-Lewis, as a ne'er-do-well who finally learns, via the most extreme circumstances, how to make his father proud.
13. 'Presumed Innocent' (1990). In this adaptation of the Scott Turow bestseller, prosecutor Harrison Ford finds himself on the other side of the aisle when he stands trial for the murder of a colleague who was also his mistress. No one does righteous, wounded anger like Ford, but here, his usual slow burn becomes a slow dawning of horror as he gradually discovers over the course of the film what really happened, forcing him to learn new meanings for words like "guilt" and "punishment."
12. 'Anatomy of a Murder' (1959). Never one to shy away from controversy, director Otto Preminger touches on several taboos with this drama about an army lieutenant (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the bartender he says raped and beat his wife (Lee Remick). James Stewart shines as the aw-shucks defense lawyer who must determine what really happened.
11. 'In Cold Blood' (1967). Truman Capote's celebrated true-crime novel comes to the screen with a similar mixture of documentary-like realism and poetic psychological portraiture. The standout performance comes from Robert Blake (yes, that Robert Blake) as one of the two haunted, tormented killers.
10. 'The Passion of Joan of Arc' (1928). Carl Theodor Dryer's almost unbearably intimate film is shot mostly in close-up, with Renee Falconetti giving one of the most emotionally intense performances in film history as the martyred French warrior heroine. The dialogue comes from the actual transcripts of Joan's heresy trial, but in this silent drama, Falconetti says it all with her face, registering extreme states of determination, terror, and beatific joy.
9. 'The Accused' (1988). Jodie Foster won her first Oscar for this drama (loosely based on a true story) about a gang-rape victim who finds her own behavior and sexual history put on trial. She's a revelation as a slattern who is nobody's role model, but who learns (with the help of lawyer Kelly McGillis) to stand up for herself as she defends the right of all women not to be raped.
8. 'A Man for All Seasons' (1966). Paul Scofield has the role of his lifetime as Thomas More, who risks all by sticking to his principles in opposition to his friend Henry VIII's intention to divorce Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. His firm stand isn't just about religious faith in Catholic dogma but also about a humanist faith in the primacy of law.
7. 'Judgment at Nuremberg' (1961). No less a figure of moral rectitude than Spencer Tracy presides over this distillation of the postwar trials of alleged Nazi war criminals. An all-star cast that includes Burt Lancaster, Richard Widmark, Marlene Dietrich, Maximilian Schell, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift pays homage to the notion that sometimes, all that can be done to serve justice is to give testimony recounting injustice, to remember at a time when most people would rather forget.
6. 'The Crucible' (1996). Arthur Miller's play about the Salem witch trials gets a gritty, impassioned retelling here, with Daniel Day-Lewis in what might be called the Paul Scofield role as the principled martyr and Scofield himself doing a 180 from 'A Man for All Seasons' as the chief inquisitor.
5. 'Inherit the Wind' (1960). This exhilarating version of the Broadway hit about the Scopes Monkey Trial stars a rumpled Spencer Tracy as Clarence Darrow, arguing for the teaching of evolution in Tennessee public schools against a grandstanding Fredric March (as William Jennings Bryan). Gene Kelly is tops too as a cynical journalist based on H.L. Mencken.
4. 'A Few Good Men' (1992). The king of all court-martial movies, thanks to a crackling Aaron Sorkin script (based on his play) and a cast firing on all cylinders, including Tom Cruise, Demi Moore, Kevin Pollak, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, J.T. Walsh, and of course, Jack Nicholson. All together now: "You can't handle the truth!"
3. '12 Angry Men' (1957). Sidney Lumet's debut feature takes place entirely in the jury room, but it never feels stagy or less than compelling, thanks to the inherently dramatic deliberation over whether to convict or acquit a murder defendant. Henry Fonda and Lee J. Cobb stand out as the chief antagonists among the jurors.
2. 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962). This adaptation of Harper Lee's novel stars Gregory Peck as everyone's favorite movie lawyer/single dad, Atticus Finch. His defense of a black man (Brock Peters) framed for the rape of a white woman in the segregated South offers a surprising array of life lessons for young daughter Scout - and for the moviegoer as well.
1. 'The Verdict' (1982). Paul Newman gives the best performance of his later career as Frank Galvin, an alcoholic attorney who sees in a medical malpractice case against a Catholic hospital his last, best shot at redemption. Arrayed against him is wily old litigator James Mason, the Boston Archdiocese, the Boston medical/educational establishment, and the city's back-room power structure (a specialty of director Sidney Lumet's), all of whom have no compunction about playing dirty to win. And yet, David Mamet's searing script (based on Barry Reed's novel) dares to hope that the justice system can, when we all take our parts seriously, reflect our highest aspirations.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.