Great Courtroom Dramas

Greatest Courtroom Dramas


Greatest Courtroom Dramas
(chronological by film title)
Introduction | 1920s-1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s
| 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s

Greatest Courtroom Dramas: 2000s
(chronological by title)
Movie Title Screen
Film Title/Year/Director/Length/Studio, Academy Awards, Brief Description

Erin Brockovich (2000)
d. Steven Soderbergh, 131 minutes, Universal/Columbia/Jersey Films, 5 nominations (1 win: Best Actress)

This biographical drama about corporate pollution, based upon a true case of toxic waste and environmental activism, was similar in theme to the previous A Civil Action (1998). Unemployed, flirtatious, and dogged single mother Erin Brockovich (Julia Roberts) was able to secure a low-paying job as a legal assistant/file clerk in the Van Nuys offices of jaded and beleaguered lawyer Ed Masry (Albert Finney). On her own initiative, she did some digging into the background of unusual medical cases related to a pro-bono case involving San Francisco-based Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E). She discovered land purchased by the company in the town of Hinkley, California had been previously contaminated by the company's irresponsibility. The water supply of the town was toxic with poisonous hexavalent chromium (known as Chromium 6), illegally and improperly dumped. The carcinogenic substance was causing residents, including Donna Jensen (Marg Helgenberger) and her husband Peter (Michael Harney), to suffer serious health effects (tumors, miscarriages, and Hodgkin's Disease). She and Ed became a team to bring a major class action lawsuit against the multi-billion dollar energy corporation, for its systematic coverup of the industrial poisoning of the community. The terms of the defense: Masry's fee would be 40% of whatever was awarded if they won, but if they lost, his fee would be zero. One of the key pieces of evidence was an incriminating 1966 memo proving that the corporate headquarters knew the water was contaminated with hexavalent chromium prior to 1987, but did nothing about it. It was clear that PG&E had advised the Hinkley operation to keep this secret. During a meeting with PG&E's lawyers, Brockovich reacted emotionally to a statement by Ms. Sanchez (Gina Gallego) that her offer of a $20 million settlement was more than any of the defendants had ever dreamed of. Brockovich and Masry declined the miniscule "lame-ass" offer.

Verdict: The case was decided with binding arbitration - the case would be heard only by a judge, whose decision was final and could not be appealed. The judge ordered PG&E to pay a settlement amount of $333 million to be distributed among the hundreds of plaintiffs. It was one of the largest settlements ever paid in a direct-action lawsuit. The Jensens received a check for five million dollars, while Brockovich herself was rewarded with $2 million for her work.

Rules of Engagement (2000)
d. William Friedkin, 128 minutes, Paramount Pictures, 0 nominations

In this war film and courtroom drama (very similar to A Few Good Men (1992) and Courage Under Fire (1996)), the opening sequence was set in the Vietnamese jungles in 1968, where a Marine platoon led by 2nd Lt. Terry Childers (Samuel L. Jackson) and 2nd Lt. Hayes "Hodge" Hodges (Tommy Lee Jones) was proceeding into direct M-16 gunfire by ambushing Vietcong snipers. When Hodges was wounded, Childers executed an unarmed POW to save Hodges' life. Almost thirty years later, Childers (as the Commanding Officer of a Marine Expeditionary Unit) involved in the massacre of 83 angry civilian Yemeni protesters outside the U.S. Embassy during a helicopter evacuation of the threatened staff, including the rattled Ambassador Mourain (Ben Kingsley) and his wife (Anne Archer). Three Marines were killed during the incident, and Childers could have possibly ignored "the rules of engagement." To deflect blame from falling directly on the US and to ease tensions, National Security Advisor Bill Sokal (Bruce Greenwood) conspired to pin everything on Childers by having him court-martialed. A prosecutorial team was assembled, led by pugnacious Major Mark Biggs (Guy Pearce). Childers called upon his former comrade in arms - washed-up, second-rate lawyer Hodges, who was enjoying retirement by fishing and teaching part-time at Virginia Military Institute, to represent him during the military tribunal. At first, Hodges was reluctant ("I'm a good enough lawyer to know you need a better lawyer than me"). Childers was charged with the offense of conduct unbecoming an officer (that could lead to a dishonorable discharge), and murder (that could lead to imprisonment or the death penalty).

Verdict: During an attempted cover-up, Sokal was seen destroying crucial evidence - a videotape of security camera footage from the US Embassy that showed part of the crowd was indeed armed and attacking, and Sokal also persuaded Ambassador Mourain to perjure himself and testify against Childers' actions. At the conclusion of the trial, Childers was found guilty of a lesser charge of breaching the peace. A title card revealed that both Sokal and Mourain were found guilty of destroying evidence and perjury.

High Crimes (2002)
d. Carl Franklin, 115 minutes, 20th Century Fox, 0 nominations

In this action-oriented legal thriller, the opening sequence was the shocking arrest by the FBI of handsome husband Tom Kubik (Jim Caviezel) at Christmas time in San Francisco's Union Square. An ex-Marine, Tom was charged with the frenzied murder of nine innocent villagers in El Salvador in 1988 fifteen years earlier and he faced court-martial. His newly-wed wife Claire Kubik (Ashley Judd), with a comfortable domestic life in Marin County, became distraught when she learned that novice military attorney Lieutenant Terrence Embry (Adam Scott) had been assigned to the case, and was up against seasoned military prosecutor Major Waldron (Michael Gaston). As a slick and determined high-profile SF defense attorney herself, Claire formed her own defense team with crafty, recovering alcoholic, TV-addicted, lazy ex-military attorney Charles Grimes (Morgan Freeman) (with a canine named Delilah) as her co-counsel. She was also assisted by her irresponsible, chain-smoking, apartment-evicted sister Jackie (Amanda Peet). Tom admitted that he had been a clandestine, covert military operative named Ron Chapman, but that there had been a cover-up. He claimed that his commanding officer, Major Jim Hernandez (Juan Carlos Hernandez), who was now assistant to Brig. General William Marks (Bruce Davison), had committed the crime.

Verdict: During Claire's investigation (there was no climactic courtroom scene), she discovered that the key witnesses (who previously testified that Tom was guilty) mysteriously died. At the same time, one of the Salvadoran residents (Emilio Rivera), originally a youngster in the village where the massacre occurred, reappeared and told Claire that he witnessed Hernandez throw a bomb into a cafe to kill a suspected terrorist, but three other Americans were accidentally killed. To cover-up the embarrassing incident, the military blamed the bombing on a terrorist group. They also sent a platoon to a remote Salvadoran village to search for the non-existent terrorist group - and massacred many of the inhabitants. After Claire appeared victorious and was able to have the case dismissed against Tom, she learned some horrifying facts in the twist ending: Tom had murdered the key witnesses, and he had also committed the massacre. In the conclusion, Tom attacked his suspicious wife Claire, but was saved by the Salvadoran who shot and killed Tom.

Runaway Jury (2003)
d. Gary Fleder, 127 minutes, 20th Century Fox, 0 nominations

Director Fleder's legal thriller was adapted from John Grisham's 1996 novel The Runaway Jury. The potboiling plot was about a legal case brought against a gun manufacturer. A young New Orleans widowed wife named Celeste Wood (Joanna Going) brought a multi-million dollar civil lawsuit against the corporate manufacturer Vicksburg Firearms, after her stockbroker husband Jacob (Dylan McDermott) died in a shooting rampage by a crazed gunman in a brokerage office, and the shop that sold the murder weapon had bent federal regulations during the sale. She was to be defended by courtly, principled Southern lawyer Wendell Rohr (Dustin Hoffman), while the gun company hired defense attorney Durwood Cable (Bruce Davison) and ruthless, amoral "jury consultant" Rankin Fitch (Gene Hackman) to guarantee that the selected jurors could be manipulated in the defendant's favor. Rankin's core belief was: "Trials are too important to be left up to juries." The case would be presided over by Judge Frederick Harkin (Bruce McGill). Fitch and his team were confident, after illegal electronic surveillance of potential jurors, that they could predict which would be the best choices for their client. Two of the jury members, however, proved very unpredictable: "class clown" Nick Easter (John Cusack), a video game store manager, and a mysterious female known as Marlee (Rachel Weisz) (Easter's high-school girlfriend) who proposed to sell her vote to the highest bidder.

Verdict: In the plot-twisting conclusion, Nick Easter was revealed to be law school drop-out Jeff Kerr, while Marlee was really Gabby Brandt - an anti-gun proponent whose sister had been killed in a high-school shooting in the town of Gardner. In the current case, they encouraged the jury to vote in favor of the plaintiff, and the firearms company was charged with paying $110 million to Celeste for damages. Nick and Marlee had also been paid a $15 million bribe (wired to an off-shore account) that Fitch had paid them for their vote, although he was double-crossed. [Note: In the school shooting case years earlier, Fitch had fixed the case, which bankrupted the town.] In their final words, the vengeful two claimed to Fitch that the $15 million would help restore the town's victims.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005)
d. Scott Derrickson, 119/122 minutes, Screen Gems/Lakeshore Entertainment/Firm Films, 0 nominations

Director Scott Derrickson's horror film (and courtroom drama) loosely documented the true story of a tragic exorcism. In real-life, German-Catholic Anneliese Michel was allegedly possessed and began to have exorcisms in September of 1975, lasting until mid-1976 when she passed away. In the disturbing film, marked by many flashbacks to tell the backstory and the failed exorcism, 19 year-old Catholic college girl Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) died under the care of parish priest Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson), who was performing an exorcism on the demonically-possessed female. He was accused of negligent homicide. The Archdiocese decided to have Moore defended and represented by career-minded, successful agnostic lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney), while the prosecution was headed by devout Christian Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott). It was clear that Emily Rose was possessed as a college student alone in her room late one night at 3 am ("the devil's hour") during a thunderstorm. She displayed double-jointed and contortionist positions and grotesque convulsions as she moaned and screamed. In the frightening scenes of Emily's rapidly-evolving, self-destructive, demonic spiritual possession, she spoke in tongues and destroyed religious symbols. She ate bugs, starved herself, practiced physical self-abuse (tore her hair out), and saw people's faces transformed into demonic faces. She lashed out at the parish priest who wanted to rid her of the "dark, powerful forces."

Verdict: Medical experts testified in the trial for the prosecution that she probably suffered from both psychosis (visions) and epilepsy, while Father Moore expounded superstition. Bruner countered by having an expert claim that Emily was likely to be spiritually possessed. The audio-taped exorcism was played during the court case - it was performed on a wet and wild Halloween night, mostly in a barn, buffeted by winds and her violent screams. She ultimately revealed that there were six demons inhabiting her. With her death a few weeks later, the court prosecutor claimed that Moore ignored Emily's epilepsy and schizophrenia, and instead concentrated on superstition, letting her become emaciated from dehydration and starvation when she stopped taking her anti-psychotic medication. Although the priest was found guilty, he did not serve jail time. The epitaph on Emily's gravesite tombstone was from the Bible (Philippians 2:12): "Work out your own Salvation, with fear and trembling" - words that Emily had spoken the night before she died.

North Country (2005)
d. Niki Caro, 126 minutes, Warner Bros., 2 nominations (no wins)

The film's tagline referred to an historic case regarding womens' rights and female empowerment: "All She Wanted Was To Make A Living. Instead She Made History." Similar to Norma Rae (1979), it was inspired by the semi-fictionalized true story of the first major successful sexual harassment case in the United States -- Jenson v. Eveleth Taconite Company, lasting from 1984 to 1998. In the film's backstory, single mom Josey Aimes (Charlize Theron) (originally Lois Jenson) had been badly abused by her wife-beating husband. In 1989 with her two young children Karen (Elle Peterson) and troubled illegitimate son Sammy (Thomas Curtis), she moved back to her small northern Minnesota hometown. Encouraged by her mining trucker friend Glory Dodge (Frances McDormand) and Glory's husband Kyle (Sean Bean), she began working as one of only a few female iron miners at the Eveleth Mines (with a male/female ratio of 30:1). She was subjected to unwanted, degrading, and intimidating sexual advances from the other miners, especially from her supervisor Bobby Sharp (Jeremy Renner), her ex-HS boyfriend. Josey's dismissive, unapproving mining father Hank (Richard Jenkins) was angered at his seemingly-promiscuous daughter for bearing Sammy out of wedlock, and for causing dissension at his workplace. Josey's complaints about work conditions fell on deaf supervisory ears when she spoke to mine owner Don Pearson (James Cada), and the board of directors refused to hear her concerns or do anything. When Bobby sexually assaulted Josey, she quit - and sued the mining company for sexual harassment under a new workplace law designed to strengthen equal opportunity. She was represented by reluctant NY lawyer, Bill White (Woody Harrelson), a one-time hockey star, who urged her to receive support and backing from other disgruntled female workers with the same complaints - most of whom were reluctant to speak out. To explain her side of the issue, in the film's most dramatic scene, Josey addressed hostile union members during a union meeting who were vehemently opposed to her lawsuit, and succeeded only when her father came to her backing with an emotional speech. The mining company was represented by female lawyer Leslie Conlin (Linda Emond), while Judge Halsted (John Aylward) presided.

Verdict: During the trial, the mining company attempted to accuse Josey of having a long history of promiscuity, focusing on her teenage past (seen in flashback, young Josey portrayed by Amber Heard) when she was raped by a high-school teacher (resulting in her illegitimate pregnancy with son Sammy). Young Bobby Slade (Cole Williams), a witness to the rape, claimed it was consensual sex, although his testimony was declared perjured by Josey's lawyer. The case became a class-action suit when she was finally joined by others, led by Glory. In the film, the case was left unresolved, except for explanatory title cards. In fact, the judge ruled against the mining company, declaring that it should have prevented the misconduct. It was ordered to pay out compensatory damages to the plaintiffs. The company was also compelled to set up a sexual harrassment policy and educate its workers.

Find Me Guilty (2006)
d. Sidney Lumet, 125 minutes, Yari Film Group/Bob Yari Productions, 0 nominations

This based-on-a-true story courtroom crime drama from aging co-writer/director Lumet claimed that most of the trial dialogue was taken from court transcripts. It was a chronicling of the longest (and most bizarre) criminal trial in US history - the 1987-1988 conspiracy mobster trial of 20 members of the notorious New Jersey Lucchese crime family. In the opening scene, Mafia gangster Giacomo "Jackie D" DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) was shot four times while sleeping in his bed by his drug-addicted cousin Tony Compagna (Raul Esparza). He survived the assault, but refused to compromise his ideals, rat out his colleague, and name his assailant while he was hospitalized. On separate narcotics drug-dealing charges, Jackie was sent to prison for 30 years. An undercover sting investigation had also gone after the entire crime family, after Tony (fearing retribution) provided state's evidence to the FBI. The Lucchese mobsters, including Jackie and the kingpin mob boss Nick Calabrese (Alex Rocco), were charged with conspiracy under the RICO Act (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act), and a trial of the many crime figures was scheduled.

Verdict: During the marathon, circus-like trial lasting 21 months, the presiding judge was Judge Finestein (Ron Silver), while the determined, career-minded prosecutor and US DA was Sean Kierney (Linus Roache). Uneducated anti-hero Jackie D was the only mobster who chose to serve as his own defense lawyer, while the rest of the mob's legal team was led by small-statured attorney Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage). Although extremely effective but disruptive, Jackie was unqualified to represent himself - he strayed from the facts, told dirty jokes ("I'm not a gangster, I'm a gagster!") and personally-emotional stories, inappropriately pressured witnesses, and made a mockery and farce of the proceedings. In the end, the likeable Jackie had charmed the jury enough that they ruled not-guilty in the case (after only 14 hours of deliberation). Jackie returned to prison, receiving wild applause and cheers from other inmates.

Fracture (2007)
d. Gregory Hoblit, 113 minutes, New Line Cinema, 0 nominations

Director Gregory Hoblit's intense legal thriller and crime mystery involved an attempted murder and the subsequent trial, with the tagline: "I SHOT MY WIFE...PROVE IT." The two main protagonists who became engaged in a battle of wits in an attempted-murder trial were Theodore "Ted" Crawford (Anthony Hopkins) - the defendant, a smartly intelligent, meticulous Irish aeronautical structural engineer in Los Angeles, interested in marble drop structures and in the study of what made things fracture, and Deputy DA William "Willy" Beachum (Ryan Gosling) - an ambitious, hot shot lawyer. Crawford had found out that his young attractive 'trophy' wife Jennifer (or "Jen") (Embeth Davidtz) was having an affair with virile Lt. Robert Nunally (Billy Burke), LAPD's head hostage negotiator. He seriously wounded her with a gunshot to the head, after which Nunally was charged with the crime when he was called to the scene of the shooting in the Crawford home.

Verdict: During an immediate courtroom trial, Beachum thought he had a 'foolproof' open-and-shut attempted murder case against Crawford (with a weapon and a signed confession), but it was not meant to be. Other developments helped to acquit Crawford: (1) There was no evidence tying Crawford to the murder weapon, (2) depressed, Nunally committed suicide outside the courtroom with his own gun, using the murder weapon on himself, (3) Jennifer's life-support was disconnected by Beachum and she flat-lined, making it impossible for her to testify against her husband. Egotistical and feeling invulnerable, Crawford confessed his guilt to Beachum while believing he was fully protected by the "double jeopardy clause": "Doesn't matter what you know. I mean, she could come back from the dead, you see and testify, spill the beans, and it would mean nothing. So you can't touch me, ever." In the conclusion of their cat-and-mouse game, Beachum cleverly countered that now that Crawford had actually killed his wife, he could be charged with murder (not just attempted murder): "When you first went to trial for attempted murder, your wife was still alive. But you just had to pull that plug, didn't ya? Hmm? Well, now she's dead, and that's murder. That's homicide, first degree, and that's new charges. There's new evidence. That's a new trial." Once again, Beachum was back in court trying Crawford for the new crime as the film ended.

Michael Clayton (2007)
d. Tony Gilroy, 119 minutes, Samuels Media/Castle Rock/Warner Bros., 7 nominations (1 win: Best Supporting Actress)

In writer Tony Gilroy's directorial debut film, Michael Clayton (George Clooney) was a ruthless, high-powered former prosecutor turned troubled "fixer" corporate lawyer (or "special counsel") in New York for Kenner, Bach and Ledeen (headed by Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack)). His job was "janitor" - to clean up various problems and keep high-paying clients out of trouble, although he had problems of his own: a divorce, gambling addiction to poker, and a remaining debt of $75,000 (for a sour deal regarding a failed restaurant business) that he was struggling to pay off for his alcoholic brother Timmy Clayton (David Lansbury). The film opened with issues involving the law firm's involvement in a multi-billion-dollar class-action lawsuit (that was about to be settled pre-trial) against their client, an agro-chemical company named U/North. The company was accused of using a cancer-causing pesticide, and there were additional problems with the firm's top litigator -- unstable, guilt-ridden defense lawyer Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson). Edens had been working on the U/North case for 6 years and suffered a ranting/raving breakdown during a deposition in the case in Milwaukee when he stopped taking his medications. Also, Clayton found himself in a deadly predicament when there was a failed car-bombing designed to kill him. The key to the film was that Edens was planning to sabotage the pre-trial settlement of the lawsuit with U/North's ruthless chief in-house counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), by distributing large numbers of red-bound copies of a confidential scientific report (Memorandum # 229). The report, from one of U-North's own internal research teams (and signed by CEO Don Jefferies (Ken Howard)), told about the hazardous effects of human exposure to the weed killer involved in the lawsuit. Edens had been persuaded to turn against U/North (and blow the case) by one of the young plaintiffs in the case - a farm-girl named Anna (Merritt Wever), with whom he had became infatuated. To stifle Edens, Crowder had hired henchmen to track and spy on Arthur's phone-calls and whereabouts - and then to kill him - by faking his suicidal death from an overdose (by injecting him between the toes). They also plotted to kill Michael with a car bomb, because he was suspicious that Arthur didn't leave a suicide note at the scene, and that Arthur was on his way to meet Anna at the airport on the same evening he died.

Verdict: In the film's final scene, U/North's Karen Crowder calmly assured her executives at a board meeting about the impending successful settlement of the lawsuit. Then outside in the hallway, she was surprised with a live confrontation by Michael Clayton - not dead from the car-bomb but quite alive. He blackmailed her, proposing that he could be bought off for $10 million to keep quiet ("$10 million dollars, bank of my choosing, offshore, immediately!"). She agreed ("You have a deal"), but didn't realize that he had secretly broadcast their conversation about her offer of hush money. He then told her: "You're f--ked" - after which he snapped her picture with his cellphone's camera and then identified himself: "I'm Shiva, the God of Death." As she collapsed to the floor, she was arrested by Michael's police detective brother Raymond (Kevin Hagan), who had heard everything. The end credits played over Michael Clayton's $50 drive around town ("Just drive") in a taxi, viewed in a long-held shot.

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (2009)
d. Peter Hyams, 106 minutes, Autonomous Films/Foresight Unlimited/Signature Entertainment/RKO, 0 nominations

Hyams' dramatic, cat-and-mouse crime thriller was an unnecessary remake of director Fritz Lang's great RKO film noir Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956). Set in Shreveport, Louisiana, it followed the efforts of ambitious, rookie TV reporter C.J. Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe) to expose and bring to justice the suspected criminal behavior of slick, corrupt high-profile district attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas) who was running for governor. With help from the DA's Assistant Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn), CJ's own girlfriend, he set up a situation to try and catch Hunter planting evidence (the reason for his stellar number of convictions). CJ planned to frame himself for the unsolved murder of a prostitute. CJ's smart-alec video cameraman-co-worker Corey Finley (Joel David Moore) recorded everything to prove that the evidence was planted and that CJ was innocent. CJ then awaited the DA's expected manipulative attempt to plant phony evidence (in the form of DNA samples).

Verdict: The plan convincingly worked and CJ was arrested for the murder, to be proved by his own fabricated circumstantial evidence. Suspicious of what was occurring, Hunter instructed his main investigator Lt. Merchant (Lawrence P. Beron) to destroy the video evidence that would exonerate CJ. Following a high-speed chase after Merchant, Finley was killed in a car crash. CJ found himself convicted of the crime and sentenced to death. Crystal was successful in alerting police authorities to Hunter's tampering of evidence (digitally-altered photos) in a previous case, and Hunter was arrested. CJ was released after his conviction was ruled a mistrial, and he became a celebrity, while Hunter's reputation was sullied. In the preposterous twist ending, however, Crystal determined that CJ had indeed murdered prostitute Taieesha (Krystal Kofie) in Shreveport, because she was going to blackmail him about a fake news report CJ had previously made in which she was involved. CJ's scheme was to rid himself of the blackmailer and expose DA Hunter simultaneously. Crystal told CJ that he wouldn't be subject to the double jeopardy clause because the previous case was a mistrial - he was arrested a second time.

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