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Best Criminal Defense Movies
Being a lawyer is not nearly as glamorous as the movies make it out to be. Still, it’s fun to watch courtroom dramas and legal thrillers on the big screen – especially when they get it right (albeit with hefty exaggerations and sometimes infinitely higher stakes).
If you think it’s hard to come up with a list of movies involving court room scenes or lawyers, think again. There are movies ripe with divorce, malpractice, and even discrimination, but nothing beats a great criminal defense flick.
Maybe it’s because so many of them focus on defending the wrongly accused, or maybe we like watching the epic internal struggles some of these silver screen attorneys have within themselves when defending someone they suspect may actually be guilty. Or could it be that we all hope that, were we ever accused of wrong-doing, someone like Gregory Peck or Jimmy Stewart would step up to the bench in our defense?
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
Not only is Atticus Finch the lawyer we’d all want defending us, but he’s the father we’d all love to have, and he was voted the greatest screen hero of all time by the American Film Institute in May 2003. Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Harper Lee, this 1962 drama stars Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, a lawyer in living in Alabama during the Depression era, who is tapped to defend a black man, Tom Robinson (Brock Peters), accused of raping a white woman. Though Finch (a widower) is raising two kids (Scout and Jem), he refuses to knuckle under to the racism of the town for his defense of Robinson, vowing to defend him to the very best of his ability. Mockingbird explores the topics of racism, isolation, and growing up in the South, through the eyes of a six-year-old child. It is the very best of what a criminal defense attorney can hope to be.
THE LINCOLN LAWYER
Based on Michael Connelly’s crime novel, this 2011 release stars Matthew McConaughey, Ryan Phillipe, Josh Lucas, William Macy and Marisa Tomei in a tale filled with plenty of surprises. McConaughey plays an unscrupulous LA defense attorney named Mick Haller, a heavy drinker who likes to do business from the backseat of his Lincoln Town Car (thus the title.) Though Haller regularly hangs with some pretty unsavory clients, he suspects he may just be a pawn in someone’s game. What he finds leaves him in a conundrum that no lawyer ever wants.
ANATOMY OF A MURDER
This 1959 film directed by Otto Preminger and starring Jimmy Stewart, Lee Remick, and George C. Scott may just be the beginning of true life crime movies. Written by Michigan Supreme Court Justice John D. Voelker under the pen name Robert Traver, Anatomy of a Murder is said to be based upon a client/case for which Voelker was the defense attorney.One of the first films to address sex and rape in graphic terms, Anatomy follows small-town lawyer Paul Biegler (Stewart) in his quest to defend U.S. Army Lieutenant Frederick “Manny” Manion (played by Ben Gazzara), who has been charged with first degree murder of an innkeeper, whom Manion claims raped his wife (played by Remick.)
Adapted from the Broadway musical of the same name, 2002’s Chicago features Catherine Zeta Jones and Renee Zellweger as Velma Kelly (killed her husband and sister after finding them in bed together) and Roxie Hart (killed her boyfriend) respectively. It is a snapshot of Chicago’s jazz era, based on the stories of two real-life killers, Beulah Annan and Belva Gaertner. These murderesses end up on death row together, fighting for their lives and the fame they both desire in 1920s Chicago. The only man that can keep them both from a death sentence is the fame-loving, goes to the highest-bidder defense attorney Billy Flynn (played by Richard Gere.) Though being a defense attorney can at times, feel like tap dancing, it’s never quite the show that Chicago is.
Though the plot for this 1996 movie is as stellar as its cast, it’s not one that an attorney for the defense or the prosecution can advocate for. Way outside the lines of the ethics of the law, this movie is a taut, systematic game of cat and mouse that turns in phenomenal performances by the likes of Jason Patric, Brad Pitt, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, and Kevin Bacon. Bacon takes a truly reprehensible turn as the victim, an unscrupulous head guard at the Wilkinson Home for Boys, who is murdered for his crimes years later by two of the boys (now men) that he raped.
MY COUSIN VINNY
Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei star in this comedic look at the criminal justice system in a polarized America. Pesci stars as the loud-mouth, wise-cracking, Brooklyn-based, newly-minted personal injury attorney who is called in to help his young cousin and friend when they are arrested for attempted murder in a case of mistaken identity. Hilarity ensues as Pesci bumps up against the local Alabama judge, stumbling his way through his first trial. Tomei won an Oscar for her performance as Vinny’s fiancée and auto expert Mona Lisa Vito.
MURDER IN THE FIRST
1995’s Murder in the First with Christian Slater and Kevin Bacon is a defense attorney’s nightmare. It involves a nearly impossible client to defend – a life-long convict who is technically guilty of murder in the first degree, Henri Young (Bacon). His circumstances (3 years in solitary confinement) were so extenuating, that the murder he committed may be understandable, but legally unforgiveable. Bacon’s performance is unbelievably committed, with the actor having spent days on set, naked, cold, wet, and shackled to a cell wall with live bugs in his hair, and filming during the 1994 Northridge earthquake. This is a film not to be missed.
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