Top 5 Legal Movies You Should See Before You Graduate

By Daniel Inacio

In honor of the 92nd Annual Academy awards, I felt it pertinent to share some of the best Hollywood depictions of the legal world. And while studying law may not always be the most exciting way to occupy your time, watching it in films certainly is. Unfortunately, many law students have not seen any legal movies beyond Legally Blonde. I have included a list below of legal movies that take you to all over, from jury deliberation rooms and English Inns of Court, to military tribunals and toxic tort battles against big chemical companies.

  1. Twelve Angry Men (1957)

Although ranked number 2 on AFI’s Top Ten Courtroom Dramas, you are sorely mistaken if you think you will see a courtroom for longer than 3 minutes.[1] Instead, this classic legal drama gives you an even more fraught and uncertain environment: the jury deliberation room.[2] There, 12 jurors weigh the fate of an 18-year old charged with the murder. Questions of reasonable doubt persist and throughout the movie jurors are forced to confront their own biases. A great film for any prospective law student who values critical thinking.

  1. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)

1957 was apparently a prime year for great legal movies. Coming in at number 6 on AFI’s Top Ten Courtroom Dramas, this movie delivers one of the best plot twists of all time, in any movie, ever. Having said that, I promptly re-watched the movie after writing this and still did not see it coming. It also is one of the most accurate courtroom depictions, albeit an English courtroom, with the protagonist being a very Churchill-esque presence. This movie, like many others, centers on a murder trial, with the protagonist as the accused’s defense attorney. By far my favorite legal film to date, and arguably one of the funniest legal movies you can see.

  1. Few Good Men (1992)

Arguably, there is no more memorable line in the dearth of legal films than Jack Nicholson’s famous, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH.” This film tells the story of a pair of marines stationed at Guantanamo Bay on trial for the murder of a fellow Marine represented by a young hotshot Navy JAG played by Tom Cruise. Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Kiefer Sutherland, and Cuba Gooding Jr. round out an all-star cast. Although Jack Nicholson does not have much time in the film[3], his brief lines truly steal the show, which ultimately earned him an Academy Award nomination.[4] 

  1. A Time to Kill

Besides being a young Matthew McConaughey’s[5] first starring role opposite a young Sandra Bullock, this film boasts one of the best opening statements of any legal film. Set in Mississippi, the story revolves around a murder trial of a man who kills two men accused of brutally sexual assaulting his daughter. The greatest moment of the movie is the closing argument. However, instead of giving a closing argument, the protagonist gives one of the most powerful opening statements you will have the privilege to see. Any future litigator must see this film on how to give a powerful opening. Unfortunately, McConaughey’s performance in this and subsequent legal films is eclipsed by his truly epic performances in the Lincoln commercials he continually does.

  1. Dark Waters (2019)

Lastly, I wanted to recommend a more recent film, that unlike the rest, is based on a true story. The story is so true in fact, the actual parties to the legal action appear in the film. You will not get much courtroom action though. The film offers a more realistic view: the discovery process.  The story centers around a corporate defense attorney who represents a farmer against big chemical company DuPont in a toxic tort lawsuit.[6] It will grip you and draw you in, and leave you constantly shaking your head and saying, “This can’t be true.” You will never look at non-stick cookware the same.

[1] The film is notable for its almost exclusive use of one set, where 93 out of 96 minutes of the film take place.

[2] Surprisingly, jury deliberation rooms are rarely a focus of Hollywood. For additional Hollywood takes on jury deliberation rooms, see Season 1, Episode 8, “We the Jury,” of American Crime Story’s People v. OJ Simpson (2016).

[3] Jack Nicholson was paid an exuberant amount, $5 million, for very little work on his part (ten days).

[4] In honor of the recent airing of the Oscars, this was one of Nicholson’s 12 Oscar nominations in total, with 3 wins. To date, Nicholson is the most Oscar nominated leading man in Hollywood history.

[5] This would not be McConaughey’s last performance as a lawyer. He reprised the legal role twice more, once in Amistad (1997), and again in The Lincoln Lawyer (2011). Unsure whether his affinity for the Lincoln came before or after the film.  

[6] This is not the first toxic tort legal film. An earlier predecessor, A Civil Action (1998), tried and failed to convey the medium in an interesting fashion despite a stellar cast (John Travolta, Robert Duvall, William Macy, Tony Shalhoub). However, Erin Brockovich (2000), did an amazing job representing this similar story, close to home as well for many Southern California locals. Erin Brockovich also earned Julia Roberts her first Oscar. All three films are based on true stories.

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