The legal thriller has been part of the American culture for decades, if not longer. CBS began broadcasting Perry Mason in 1957, a mainstay of its television arsenal during the early years of television, based upon Erle Stanley Gardner’s novels from the 1930s and 40s. To Kill A Mockingbird is both a literary and cinematic masterpiece. Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent in 1987 reinvigorated the literary genre. The patriarch of the legal thriller, John Grisham, has written: “Though Americans distrust the profession as a whole, we have an insatiable appetite for stories about crimes, criminals, trials and all sorts of juicy lawyer stuff.” (“The Rise of the Legal Thriller: Why Lawyers are Throwing the Books at Us,” New York Times, Book Review Section, 33, Oct. 18, 1992).
As Grisham notes, however, the genre has focused almost exclusively on criminal law and criminal trials. Our “insatiable appetite” for legal fiction does not extend to the “drama” of breach of contract actions, will contests, patent lawsuits, or antitrust claims. Forensic evidence and witness interviews trumps the excitement of reviewing thousands of pages of documents or grueling day-long depositions. Civil litigation has failed to spark the imagination in the same way the criminal justice system has.
But there are many exceptions to this rule, and Hollywood has produced a fair number of movies involving the civil litigation process. My goal is to highlight my favorite ten movies that celebrate those of us who practice in the civil, rather than criminal, areas of law.
Medical Malpractice: The Verdict (1982). Paul Newman plays a washed-up attorney, Frank Galvin, whose partner hands him a “sure win” medical malpractice case to help him get back on his feet. However, not surprisingly, things go terribly wrong before Frank is able to pull himself, and the case, together at the last moment. A wonderful performance by Newman. This movie is listed as the 254th “greatest movies of all time” in Empire magazine’s list of the top 500 films. However, the concept of a scotch-swilling medical malpractice lawyer is inherently unbelievable.
Environmental Law: Erin Brockovich (2000). Julia Roberts plays real life paralegal (now attorney) Erin Brockovich. In the movie, Brockovich was a single mother of three, working as a file clerk for her personal injury attorney. She stumbles upon a case of groundwater contamination involving a California utility. Roberts won an Academy Award for best actress for her role in the movie, and the film was also nominated for best picture.
Employment Law: Philadelphia (1993). Tom Hanks plays an AIDS-infected attorney, Andrew Beckett, at a large Philadelphia-based law firm. Fired from the law firm, purportedly for work-related issues, Beckett hires his own attorney, played by Denzel Washington, and proceeds to sue his prior employer. As usual, solid performances by both Hanks and Washington.
Family Law: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979). Dustin Hoffman plays Ted Kramer, a New York based advertising executive who finds himself caring for his young son when his wife leaves him. An early “father’s rights” movie, with excellent performances from Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep.
Products Liability: Class Action (1991). A defective car and one attorney’s efforts to obtain relief provide the backdrop for this 1991 legal thriller. Gene Hackman plays the plaintiff’s attorney, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is his estranged daughter and, coincidentally, the manufacturer’s lawyer. In one particularly accurate scene depicting modern litigation, the manufacturer seeks to hide a particularly damning piece of evidence by hiding it in boxes and boxes of documents delivered to the plaintiff’s attorney. Trust me, this is a real life litigation strategy.
Appellate Law: The Pelican Brief (1993). I liked it, but the book isn’t even close to one of Grisham’s best. However, it does star Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington, has plenty of action, and does involve appellate law (the murder of two Supreme Court justices as special interests seek to gain an advantage on the Court). Probably the weakest link on my list, but I’m including it anyway.
Environmental Law (again): A Civil Action (1996): Like Erin Brockovich, this movie, starring John Travolta, is based upon a true case, and again, another groundwater contamination case.
Mental Health/Family Law: I Am Sam (2006). Sean Penn plays a father with a developmental disability seeking custody of his seven year old daughter (played by Dakota Fanning). Michelle Pfeiffer plays his lawyer.
The Hereafter: Defending Your Life (1991): I’m probably cheating with this one, but I’m including it anyway. Albert Brooks plays a Los Angeles advertising executive who dies in a car accident on his birthday and, at “Judgment City,” must defend his life. Good performances by Brooks, Meryl Streep, and Rip Torn.
Mental Health: Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Is there really a Santa Claus? This issue is addressed in a commitment hearing in this Christmas classic. Starring Maureen O’Hara and Natalie Wood, among others, and awarded Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Edmund Gwenn), Best Writing, Original Story, and Best Writing/Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Picture.