As a lawyer, I often find myself being asked for my opinion on the latest legal drama, so I thought I’d start taking notes on what I’ve been watching lately. This list is geared towards the law student who’s looking to take a law-related study break.
A Few Good Men
Tom Cruise is a JAG defense lawyer who was known for getting his clients to plead guilty until he’s assigned to defend one of two marines who are accused of murder at Guantanamo Bay. The story follows Cruise as he builds his client’s defense, spends several nights in trial prep, and finally takes his first case to trial. Demi Moore represents the other defendant, but she takes a back seat at trial. She’s famous for objecting in court, being overruled, and then telling the judge, “We strenuously object.” Of course, the most well-known line in this movie occurs during Cruise’s direct examination of Jack Nicholson when Nicholson yells, “You can’t handle the truth!”
This is a fantastic movie for the budding trial lawyer because it walks you through working up a case, trial strategy, and conducting a trial. The trial scenes are priceless. The direct and cross examinations are fairly realistic as far as movies go, but there’s still a lot of dramatization to keep things interesting. How often do you get a hostile witness to admit a cover up while on the stand?
Anatomy of a Murder
Jimmy Stewart stars as a simple country lawyer who is gone fishin’ so often that there’s no room for anything but fish in his office refrigerator. One day, he returns from one such fishing trip to discover a murder has taken place, and he’s been asked to represent the defendant. The movie takes you through Stewart’s meetings with his client, interviews with the witnesses, the defendant’s arraignment, and finally the trial. The setting is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, presumably during the three months out of the year when that area of the country isn’t covered in a foot of snow. The book on which the movie is based was written by a Michigan Supreme Court justice. Also, a really exciting non-law-related aspect of this movie is that Duke Ellington composed the music and makes a cameo appearance.
Famously called “probably the finest pure trial movie ever made” by Professor Michael Asimow of UCLA and Stanford Law Schools, the trial is the real centerpiece of the film and occupies about 2/3 of the runtime. But there are a lot of other little details that I found particularly interesting. For instance, the movie starts with a scene in which Stewart and his co-counsel relax drinking whiskey and reading bound volumes of the United States Reports. Who has these books anymore? Real law books also play a role in the plot later when the two lawyers find an old case from 1886 that makes their defense viable. The movie gives the impression that they’ve found buried treasure in these law books, which is a quaint notion in the Westlaw era (as an aside: wasn’t that case a little dated, even for 1959?). As for the trial judge, he’s played by Joseph Welch, a real-life lawyer. Welch is a visiting judge from another part of Michigan. His first appearance is at the arraignment when he shrugs off the fact that the defendant has been sent to Detroit for a mental examination without his knowledge (“I’ve always heard that this Upper Peninsula of our fair state was a queer place.”).
But again, the real reason to see this movie is the long trial. For the trial alone, I would highly recommend this movie.
This is a cop drama disguised as a movie about lawyers. George Clooney works for a stereotypical “big corporate law firm” in New York, but doesn’t seem to ever practice law there. Instead, he spends most of his time acting like a henchman for a mafia boss, engaging in various illegal activities on behalf of the firm’s high profile clients. But Clooney just can’t seem to shake his past as a successful ADA in Queens from a family of NYPD officers. There’s a point about 3/4 of the way through the movie where his NYPD brother tells him: “You got all these cops thinking you’re a lawyer. Then you got all these lawyers thinking you’re some kind of cop. You’ve got everybody fooled, don’t you? Everybody but you. You know exactly what you are.” This outburst just about sums up the movie from a legal perspective.
So is there anything of value here to the budding lawyer? Well, the movie does offer a glimpse into life at a firm. You see the firm’s high-rise Manhattan office building. You see the firm’s younger associates crammed into a hotel room in Milwaukee preparing for depositions. These are both fairly realistic depictions of offices and depositions. Overall, though, I wouldn’t recommend this movie for a law student, unless you’re interested in ditching the law and becoming a detective.
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