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Top five legal movies: A Sandy-inspired list

Billy Cannon//November 1, 2012

Top five legal movies: A Sandy-inspired list

By Billy Cannon

//November 1, 2012

tom cruise in a few good menAs my family settled in to weather Hurricane Sandy (yes, bad pun intended), we prepared some movies for the children, hoping with wild optimism that we would not lose electricity. We also, of course, prepared the flashlights, candles, books and board games that we thought much more likely to help us pass the time. (We made the other necessary preparations, too, purchasing ice, milk, water and other necessities in quantities appropriate for a baseball team, if not an army.)

Luckily, we did not lose power throughout the storm. Our kids were happily entertained while held indoors all day on Monday and Tuesday with a healthy mix of Disney movies, kids’ books and board games. This preparation got me thinking, however, about movies in general . . .  and then this blog got me thinking about legal movies in particular. So, herewith, my top five legal movies.

1. A Few Good Men
This was one of the first movies that got me interested in the law when I was in high school. I was initially drawn to it because of the famous scenes (“You can’t handle the truth!”) and the edgy intensity that Jack Nicholson brings to the whole movie. However, I still like it because it takes the time to show how important the preparation of a case is and how meticulous attorneys must be when presenting a case to the jury. Also, the ending, while inspirational for the personal transformation of Lt. Junior Grade Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), does not sugarcoat the reality of a legal battle: sometimes a win is also a loss.

2. Michael Clayton
George Clooney plays the title character, an attorney who handles all of the nitty-gritty, dirty matters for a prestigious big-time law firm. He refers to himself as a “janitor” in one scene. Some great scenes with both George Clooney and Tilda Swinton (in an Oscar-winning role), who stars as general counsel for a large corporation that has retained Clayton’s firm to keep a huge lawsuit out of court. There are lots of plot twists in this movie, but importantly, there is a continuing and mounting tension for Michael Clayton between doing the what he considers the right things, representing his firm’s client and shoring up his personal financial future.

3. A Civil Action
Based on the nonfiction book by Jonathan Harr, this film stars John Travolta as a plaintiff’s attorney and Robert Duvall as defense counsel in a big dollar plaintiff’s case. Travolta’s character pushes his settlement demand and Duvall attempts to stonewall him at every turn, even filing a Rule 11 motion for sanctions. I like this movie because of the high focus on civil procedure and the actual internal battles that occur at a law firm and among lawyers while both prosecuting and defending a large case.

4. My Cousin Vinny
Hilarious performance by Joe Pesci as Vincent Gambini, a Brooklyn lawyer who has just passed the New York bar on his sixth try. Equally hilarious (and Academy-award-winning) performance by Marisa Tomei as Gambini’s fiance. Great introduction to the rules of civil procedure, the rules of evidence and how not to make an opening statement (“Everything that guy just said is b—–.”). This also will forever hold a special place in my heart because my evidence professor showed selected clips from this movie to illustrate cross-examination with use of documents and photographs. It was a welcome change of pace from Irving Younger.

5. The Verdict
Paul Newman stars in this movie about a washed-up, alcoholic plaintiffs’ lawyer who goes from passing out his business card at funeral homes to trying a big-time and very good medical malpractice case. Great acting all-around and a good look at the intoxicating power of preparing a case and battling it out against a worthy courtroom adversary. I like this movie because it is ultimately inspirational but does not pull punches about the ups and downs of life as a litigator, even within the duration of a single trial.

So there is my top five. Please feel free to offer your own and critique my list. At least that way, you’ll know what you need to have at the ready for the next stay-indoors-for-two-days storm.


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