I think a big part of why I decided to study law is due to the influence of all the legal films I’d watched growing up, which regularly featured thrilling trials, witty banter between lawyers, and the dramatic uncovering of evidence that would help to blow the case wide open. So, what better way to avoid doing any real study than to present a list of what I consider to be five of the best legal films ever made.
A Few Good Men
90s power music – check; montages of the gang eating Chinese takeaway and pulling all-nighters – check; a young Tom Cruise and Kevin Bacon riffing both inside the courtroom and on the basketball court – check; Jack Nicholson saying things like, ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ – check. A Few Good Men basically ticks all the boxes for what a good legal drama should be. It’s got the young hotshot lawyer (Tom Cruise), the uptight superior who doesn’t believe the hotshot has what it takes (Demi Moore), and a myriad of other supporting characters, some fun and some genuinely menacing (like Jack Nicholson). It’s got twists, turns, memorable quotes, and one of the most gripping final courtroom scenes of any film to date.
Much like A Few Good Men, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker just ticks so many of the boxes for what I think a good legal drama should be. The Rainmaker really capitalises on the appeal of the underdog: it follows struggling new attorney Rudy Baylor who resorts to working for a crooked firm, where he ultimately fights to take down a corrupt corporation that is cheating the sick and the elderly. It’s got that real satisfying legal drama feel: good guys versus The Man, justice versus corruption. It’s also got a young Matt Damon, which doesn’t hurt either.
To Kill a Mockingbird
I was young when I first read To Kill a Mockingbird, and it quickly became one of my most beloved books. The 1962 film, adapted from Harper Lee’s original text and directed by Robert Mulligan, had a similar impact on me. It beautifully chronicles the story of Scout and Jem Finch as they navigate the world under the guidance of their father, a lawyer named Atticus Finch, in the racially-divided town of Maycomb, Alabama. This Hollywood masterpiece explores racial hatred as an affliction that riddles an entire town and affects that towns’ inhabitants in various ways, and seeing Atticus through his children’s eyes, we learn the importance of integrity, compassion, fairness, humility, and justice. It sounds simple, and in many ways, it is, but the themes the film explores are deeply complex and enduring. This story inspired me in many ways, and Atticus Finch remains one of my favourite characters in literary history.
If you’ve seen a lot of legal films, you’ll know most of them feature male protagonists. Here’s where Legally Blonde enters. Released in 2001 at a time when bro-ey teen college films and light-hearted rom-coms had control of the Box Office, it might be easy to think Legally Blonde is just another film of that ilk. Starring Reese Witherspoon as the vivacious and fashion-obsessed Elle Woods, the film features sorority sisters, mean girls, and a mission to win back a boyfriend, but it ultimately subverts the cultural perception of a 2000s college experience and what a smart, driven women looks and acts like. It’s not a game of ‘either / or’ (you’re either blonde and fashionable or you’re intelligent and successful), it’s ‘both / and’. Elle is both blonde and intelligent, she’s fun and ambitious, and she is ultimately successful in her pursuits. The film also manages to circumvent the stereotype of women being jealous of, or hating, other women by giving Elle a group of sorority friends who are genuinely supportive of her endeavours. The film dismantles female rivalry and instead builds an unlikely friendship between Elle and a fellow student, who is more focused and typically ‘Harvard’. Elle Woods is hardworking, she is loving, she encourages other women and is encouraged by them in turn, and she proves to be a pretty talented lawyer (‘What, like it’s hard?’).
The Social Network
Okay, so it’s not what I’d describe as a traditional ‘legal’ film, but David Fincher’s The Social Network is underpinned by complex ideas about the intersection of morality and the law and provides a more exciting perspective into the functions of contracts, intellectual property, and lawsuits generally. The film paints a picture of Mark Zuckerberg and the rise of Facebook, as he changed the way we perceive and use the internet. It’s deeply troubling in many ways, but it’s also just a thrilling film that gives us an insight into the rise of Facebook, the man at its helm, and the consequences (some of them legal) of the ruthless pursuit of success.