Reasonable Doubt (2014)
Short Review: If you like plodding, convoluted courtroom dramas starring quality actors, and you well might, Reasonable Doubt is the movie for you. A young ADA in Chicago (Dominic Cooper) is involved in a DUI / hit-and-run, rushes away from the scene, and ends up prosecuting the man they picked up for the very same crime (Samuel L. Jackson), who may also be…a serial killer. Or something like that. Go ahead, try to make sense of it.
Shadow of Doubt (1998)
Short Review: Right at the tail end of an epic run through 1990s cinema, Melanie Griffith went for a powerhouse role as a defense attorney struggling to figure out a years-long conspiracy, as old clients come out of the woodwork and pressure comes down from high places. It…doesn’t quite hold together as a performance, or as a film, but it’s still enjoyable enough, especially if you’re into the 1990s as a time period and you can put aside some of the more troubling sexual and racial politics at play here. (Remember, this was aiming to be an ‘important’ 90s movie.) Tom Berenger puts in solid work in a supporting role.
Devil’s Knot (2013)
Short Review: What a difference a few years makes. A prestige project about the West Memphis Three starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth, in 2018, would absolutely be a miniseries on HBO, received to great acclaim. In 2013, it was a mostly forgotten feature film with a minuscule release. In part, that’s because this movie wasn’t all that great. Witherspoon and Firth double down on some strange Memphis accents, and the whole project is a little heavy-handed, and doesn’t stand up too well against the better documentaries covering the trial and the satan ritual scare that briefly sent the region into a frenzy.
The Judge (2014)
Short Review: Nobody was quite at the top of their game in The Judge, but even at half strength it’s hard to beat this cast, with Robert Downey, Jr. in the leading role as an attorney who goes back home to defend his father, the judge (Robert Duvall) now suspected of murder, and coincidentally reconnects with the standard old flame, played by Vera Farmiga. You’ll forget this one soon after you see it, and may well have already done so.
Changing Lanes (2002)
Short Review: Ben Affleck + Samuel L. Jackson + a bunch of court proceedings + a missing file = a pretty decent movie. Affleck is a young hotshot attorney and Jackson is a man in the middle of a divorce who needs a break and a bank loan. They have a collision on the highway that throws both their lives into disarray, as they go increasingly ballistic on one another. There are some solid beratings from judges and senior partners, including Sidney Pollack, and Jackson schools Affleck in a few solid back-and-forth scenes. You won’t be telling your kids about the first time you saw Changing Lanes, but you probably won’t completely regret streaming it some rainy Saturday afternoon.
Find Me Guilty (2006)
Short Review: What if I told you that in 2006 Sidney Lumet wrote and directed a legal comedy / drama based on a true story and starring Vin Diesel as a small-time Philadelphia gangster caught up in one of the biggest RICO cases ever brought in the US? You’d probably be surprised. And here’s an even bigger surprise: it’s actually pretty good! Diesel is in his element, playing Jackie DiNorscio, the man who decided to defend himself pro se and had some solid zingers, lifted straight out of some truly unusual court records.
Gingerbread Man (1998)
Short Review: This one is a mostly forgotten Grisham adaptation done by none other than Robert Altman, who, as he did with Chandler’s classic The Long Goodbye, gave this noir-ish thriller his own particular twist, with unusual blockings, uncanny frames, and some searching conversation about the nature of justice, adultery, and all that other good stuff. The star of the show might well be Kenneth Branagh’s deep South accent, as he tries to convince family and colleagues that he didn’t cross an ethical line with his client in an elaborate scheme and cover-up.
You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
Short Review: Barry Levinson’s 2010 Kevorkian biopic was, at the time, a big achievement for HBO, and still holds up as a nuanced take on a social issue still being sorted out in courts around the country. Pacino, of course, has the title role and steals just about every scene that’s there for the taking, doing some deep character work and not the Pacino caricature he sometimes falls into late career. The legal scenes are not the most compelling thing about this movie, but they still manage to show how courts grapple with difficult and intimate issues, and how publicity has come to play its own role in the staid halls of justice.
Double Jeopardy (1999)
Short Review: This high-concept thriller features every two-bit wanna-be lawyer’s favorite get-out-jail-misunderstood legal concept: double jeopardy. Also, Ashley Judd, doing Ashley Judd things, which means the flick’s not half bad. Judd is duped by her adulterous husband, who fakes his own death and pins it on her. But, as one of Judd’s fellow ex cons explains to her, if she can get out of jail, she’ll have a free ticket to kill him, this time for real, because of “double jeopardy.” Tommy Lee Jones co-stars as the most proactive parole officer in history, who also happens to be, luckily enough, a former law professor.
Short Review: This 2017 drama about the early barnstorming days of Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court Justice, suffered some from indecision about what kind of movie it wanted to be: an historically aware important biopic or a swaggering legal drama. Viewed solely as a courtroom movie and a vehicle for Chadwick Boseman’s charisma, Marshall is a success. The movie occasionally stumbles over the broader historical significance of what the NAACP and Marshall were actually about, but that’s a tall order, and with any luck a few more movies will be made on Marshall’s life. And Boseman will star in them all.
Short Review: A very dramatic rendition of Irving v Penguin Books Ltd, in which an American professor, Deborah Lipstadt, was sued for libel by a Holocaust denier she’d called out in various public forums, and who brought her to court in Britain, where she soon learns about some very important distinctions between libel law in the US and the UK. Rachel Weisz does an admirable job in the lead role, and the movie handles some provocative ideas with aplomb, but loses a few points for a sloppy presentation of legal concepts: presumption of innocence, freedom of speech, to name a few of the more important ones.