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Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies

By Michael Asimow and Paul Bergman

Reel Justice.gifIn Reel Justice, two professors examine Hollywood's version of the courtroom.

338 pages
Andrews & McMeel Books (1996)

Reviewed by: Jeffrey C. Freedman
Hollywood has been fascinated by the courtroom ever since the movie screen learned to talk. Since the 1930s, producers and directors have turned out one legal thriller and courtroom drama after another. Some of these efforts have been magnificent. Others, to be blunt, have simply stunk. Some have achieved recognition, and many have received Academy Awards. Others, thankfully, have been forgotten.

Now, two UCLA law school professors, Michael Asimow and Paul Bergman, have put their heads together to create Reel Justice: The Courtroom Goes to the Movies, a guide to 69 feature-length motion pictures analyzed for their dramatic attributes and also for their accuracy in describing how the judicial process works. This is a fun book worth reading, even if you are not one who spends evening after evening watching old movies rented from your local video store.

The authors have drawn examples from the cinematic literature over seven decades, beginning in the 1930s with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and The Life of Emile Zola, all the way up to A Few Good Men and The Advocate from the 1990s. They have chosen for discussion some true classics such as A Man for All Seasons, Inherit the Wind, and To Kill a Mockingbird. Sixteen films featured in the book were either nominated for or won the Oscar for best picture. The winners include A Man for All Seasons, The Life of Emile Zola, The Oxbow Incident, and the more recentKramer vs. Kramer. Recent films with courtroom themes nominated for best picture were A Few Good Men and In the Name of the Father.

A number of prominent actors have been nominated for, or actually received, Oscars for their portrayals in courtroom dramas. Henry Fonda received the nod four times and Spencer Tracy was nominated thrice. Meryl Streep, Humphrey Bogart, Dana Andrews, Gregory Peck, Paul Newman, and Orson Welles were acknowledged twice each.

The authors group their 69 chosen films into categories such as those based on true stories (Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, and The Onion Field), stories with military settings (The Caine Mutiny, A Few Good Men, and Paths of Glory), and those involving some serious contemporary social issues under the title "Dollars and Sense" (Kramer vs. Kramer, Losing Isaiah, Nuts, and Whose Life Is It Anyway?). The authors spend three-to-five pages providing a factual summary of each script followed by a discussion of whether the courtroom portions of the film are accurate, fair, and legally correct. One drawback to their approach may be that they reveal the ending of each movie, removing any mystery of a film for those who have yet to view it.
A good example of the authors' approach is their discussion of the 1990 Oliver Stone/Edward Pressman film Reversal of Fortune, based upon the true-life prosecution of Claus von Bulow for the murder of his wife, Sunny, and the successful effort of Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz to win a reversal of von Bulow's conviction. The authors summarize the story in two pages and then devote another page and a half analyzing the evidence. Then, in a section called "Trial Briefs," Bergman and Asimow present some background from the real trial and discuss some legal errors (such as an unlawful search and seizure) that led to the reversal.

A similar approach is used in analyzing the 1959 classic Anatomy of a Murder, a fictional story in which an army officer is charged with killing a man who allegedly raped his wife. After summarizing the story and analyzing the legal aspects of the film, the authors provide some interesting background information, including the fact that the judge in the film was played by Joseph Welch, the attorney who represented the military in the 1950s Army-McCarthy hearings, and who asked the now famous question, "Senator McCarthy, have you no decency?"

With their analysis of the various movies, the authors include very perceptive comments and observations on the types of product Hollywood gives us. For example, Asimow and Bergman present the hypothesis, supported by strong documentation, that the movies invariably present female attorneys in a very negative light.

In fact, there is strong evidence that trial movies, almost without exception, present women lawyers in viciously stereotypical terms. It is a wonder why female attorneys have not publicly boycotted these films. If they were to do so, they would be justified. The authors note very negative depictions of female attorneys even in such recent movies as A Few Good Men (Demi Moore), The Music Box (Jessica Lange), Philadelphia (Mary Steenburgen), and Class Action (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). According to Bergman and Asimow, women attorneys in film have affairs with clients, bosses, or professors, or engage in unethical behavior such as conspiring with the opposite side to the detriment of clients, planting incriminating evidence so that a guilty client won't be found innocent, and allowing a juror to be an investigator in a murder case.

While some screenplays from an earlier era might be excused because they were written when few women were attorneys, there is no excuse for such depictions in the 1990s. One must conclude that most screenwriters are male and ignorant of the legal process.

The authors also provide examples of how film depictions of trial procedures vary from what courtrooms are really like. In the movies, the rules of evidence often don't exist, ethical behavior seems to be rare, and judges are far from impartial. Even in the recent film A Time to Kill, released after Reel Justice went to press, the trial environment includes a judge with questionable ethics at best (named "Noose" no less) and a jury-selection system that bears no resemblance to reality-at least to the process in California.

The simple truth is that real courtroom trials are long and boring and would make very poor entertainment, which, of course, is the business of Hollywood. So, to avoid putting their audiences to sleep, motion picture makers have had to use artistic license freely to create good courtroom drama. The niceties of procedure, ethics, and due process go out the window to ensure that entertainment value is not jeopardized. Still, in spite of this uneasy marriage of law and film, the courtroom has been a favorite haunt of screenwriters and directors for more than 60 years, probably due to the simple fact that real human drama does get played out in courtrooms day after day, and the public finds these stories interesting. As a result, Hollywood has compromised the procedural niceties so that the underlying human stories could be told. At the end of the day, this is probably not a bad compromise.

The book is peppered with awful gratuitous jokes (this reader counted 28 before giving up), but fortunately, this does not detract from what otherwise is a very valuable source of information on motion pictures set in courtroom surroundings.

Reel Justice should be owned by anyone who likes this genre of movies. Many of the greatest feature-length motion pictures ever made centered on courtroom trials. Some of the greatest acting was performed in these films. Anyone with an interest in movies, and who has any thought of buying or renting a classic courtroom drama, would enjoy Reel Justice.

Jeffrey C. Freedman is a partner in the law firm of Rexon, Freedman, Klepetar & Hambleton where he specializes in labor and employment law.