The Top 10 Courtroom Battles


AS A PROFESSION, LAWYERS ARE GENERALLY DESPISED, which makes it surprising that one was voted (by the AFI) the greatest hero in movie history. But then Atticus Finch (George Peck) is a paragon of dignity, probity and virtue in this 1962 classic. Defending his black client against a rape charge with tenacity and conviction, he refuses to accept the sad truth that his client’s skin colour has already condemned him. His efforts culminate in a closing speech, shot almost entirely from the jury’s point of view, which is pleading and severe by turns but never grandstanding. Then he walks alone from the court, having lost the case but not hope that justice will prevail, and those in the segregated gallery above rise to their feet in silent, heartfelt tribute. Inspiring stuff.

  1. A FEW GOOD MEN (1992)

IT’S A RARE WITNESS who can steal the show from the lawyer cross-examining him – but if anyone can do it, Jack Nicholson can, Securely wrapped in the Stars And Stripes, his Colonel Nathan R. Jessep takes the stand with a smirk and a barely concealed shrug of impatience. But rookie naval lawyer Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise) needles his witness like an acupuncturist, until Jessep spills his guts in a venomous tirade that’s all the more impressive because he barely cares that he’s condemning himself.


JUSTIFIABLY REGARDED as a Coens misfire, it’s machine-gun dialogue nevertheless perfectly fits the courtroom setting, playing like the divorce-case prequel to His Girl Friday. As Marylin Rexroth (Catherine Zeta- Jones) fights her first case, there are great lines galore (“Objection, Your Honour: strangling the witness”; I’m going to allow it”), but the finest moment is the introduction of surprise witness Heinz, the Baron Krauss von Espy. Portentous – music and the sound of the Baron’s name ringing through the courthouse creates a fabulous sense of terse anticipation, only for the appearance of a fop with a poodle to brilliantly deflate it.

  1. JFK (1991)

KEVIN COSTNER WAS born to play hangdog underdogs, and he was never better cast than as the terrier-like Jim Garrison, determined to expose the conspiracy behind the John F. Kennedy assassination, finally bringing to trial one of the pieces of the puzzle he assembles over the three hours of Oliver Stone’s film. In the emotional finale he begs his jury to convict Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones), the man he feels is guilty of a role in this coup d’état, laying out the pieces of inconsistent evidence in the case and closing with Kennedy’s words: “Ask not what your country can do for you….” With tears streaming down his face and his voice cracking it’s the emotional closing speech to end them all, even if the jury, and the cold-blooded, chain-smoking defendant, remain stony-faced.

  1. PRIMAL FEAR (1996)

NO LIST OF COURTROOM battles would be complete without some actual violence, and Edward Norton’s career-making performance as schizophrenic defendant Aaron Stampler in this underrated legal thriller is a perfect example. As Laura Linney’s tough prosecutor pushes him hard on his alleged murder of an Archbishop, the meek, timid Aaron persona gives way, and his violent alter-ego Roy comes through, lunging at Linney and stunning the court.

  1. LEGALLY BLONDE (2001)

NOW, BEFORE YOU STOP reading in disgust, consider this: the purpose of cross-examination is to persuade a witness to weaken their own case and strengthen yours. And Elle Woods’ (Reese Witherspoon) questioning of Chutney Windham (Linda Cardellini) does exactly that to spectacular effect, earning the beautifully coiffed law student her place here. With winsome charm and no small amount of flattery. Woods uses Chutney’s hair-care routine to disprove her claim that she was in the shower at the time of her father’s fatal shooting, thereby exposing her alibi as false and Chutney herself as the killer. All this, and she can accessories Elle Woods is the epitome of the modern lawyer.

  1. ADAM’S RIB (1949)

BATTLING A CASE THAT revolves on the difference between the sexes, there could be no better leads than regular sparring partners Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. On top form as Amanda and Adam Bonner, they blow kisses under the counsellor’s bench while going for each other’s throats above it. Adam is reduced to incoherent by his wife’s antics (to the point .it accidentally calling her “Pinkie” during the closing speeches), while Amanda is manipulative, arch and on u mission No single scene stands out, unless it’s Tracy’s “strenuous objection” to his wife’s antics (predating Demi Moore in A Few Good Men by decades), but the whole effort is a courtroom classic.


THERE HAD TO BE A BRITISH entrant in the charts, if only for those fetching wigs and gowns, hut this makes it on merit. Jamie Lee Curtis’ Wanda is to testify in the trial of Georges (Tom Georgeson) and clear his name, but instead decides to frame him and drop sufficient hints about her affair with Georges’ barrister Archie Leach (John Cleese) to convince Leach’s wife to leave him. Cleese flounders, increasingly out of his depth, as Wanda takes charge with testimony like, “I was saying to myself. It’s five to seven: where could he be going with the sawn-off shotgun?” in an immensely entertaining court room reversal.


JUST BEATING YOUNG GUNS II IN THE LUDICROUS- show-trial stakes is this sequence, in which Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy stand trial for the murder of the Klingon Chancellor. When they appear, in a dramatic spotlight amid hostile spectators chanting Kirk’s name, it’s clear that a fair hearing isn’t in store. It’s silly even standards, but as Kirk and McCoy are condemned to the mines of Rura Penthe, it’s a taste of the good old days of ‘Hanging’ Judge Jeffreys.


THE CROSS-EXAMINATION of moral majority leader Jerry Falwell is more fun, but the standout battle is the pure legal argument in the Supreme Court. Ed Norton makes a second appearance on this list as pornographer Larry Flynt’s nebbish lawyer, arguing his client’s case for freedom of speech before the highest judicial authority in the l S. This being an appeal, there are no witnesses or new evidence just jurisprudence theory, with probing interjections by the justices and intelligent debate. And for lawyers, that’s as exciting as it gets.



An understated, well-acted two hours of sex discrimination and determination is ruined by this “O-Captain-my-Captain” – style mawkish courtroom finish.



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