- Entertainment and Media»
- Movies & Movie Reviews
List of Best - Most Accurate - Legal / Law Movies
Travolta as the Renegade Jan Schlictmann
A Civil Action with Jon Travolta
The movie A Civil Action is based on one of my all-time favorite books, a 1996 work of non-fiction by Jonathan Harr. This book describes in excruciating detail a mass tort action that unfolded after families living in Woburn, Massachusetts noticed a striking cancer cluster in their community, specifically, leukemia, predominantly in young children. They narrowed down the common denominator to a few of the City's badly-tainted wells which provided the public with their everyday water supply (drinking water, water for bathing, brushing teeth, to fill pools, etc.).
The Plaintiffs are represented by the talented Jan Schlichtmann, a very successful personal injury trial attorney whose out-of-the-box and extravagant methods had theretofore achieved some exceptional results for his clients, but whose past successes using his out-of-the box methods proved dangerous in this case.
The book follows Schlichtmann, representing the affected families, pitted against the experienced curmudgeon Jerome Facher and William Cheeseman, representing two of the defendants, Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, respectively. The nerdy-but-well-regarded Cheeseman (a senior partner at Foley, Hoag and Eliot), and the enigmatic Facher (Chair of litigation at Hale and Dorr and part-time professor at Harvard law school), whose clients' interests are both inherently intertwined but also conflicted in some key ways.
The detailed nature and sound description of the law and procedure in this book is astonishing, and many of those details and accurate depictions made their way into the movie. Of particular note to me was Schlichtmann's (portrayed by John Travolta) interaction with his clients, where his law firm's and the clients' best interests (from a litigation standpoint) conflicted with what they wanted to do (punish the defendants for what they've done.)
The families' lofty-but-understandable goals ultimately become their cases' undoing, as the veteran Facher (portrayed by Robert Duvall, outmaneuvers Schlicthtmann in various ways. Below is a video of Facher teaching his Harvard Law students the cardinal rule, that you don't ask "why?" on cross-examination. The Courtroom scene where SChlictmann breaks this cardinal rule is at the very end of this Facher teaching montage, and the stunned-by-your-own-error, terrified look of Schlicthmann is something all trial attorneys can sympathize with from something that they experienced in their careers at one time or another.
Never Ask "Why?" on Cross!
The Rainmaker (Based on a John Grisham Novel)
There are some over-the-top aspects of the movie adaptation of John Grisham's novel The Rainmaker, but certain aspects of it ring true.
Most notably in this regard is probably when the original trial Judge (an older white guy / good old boy who has a cozy relationship with the defense attorney) died and is replaced by Danny Glover (a younger black dude who is more progressive and Plaintiff-friendly).
I say that this is realistic for a few reasons, chiefly that it accurately reflects the great extent to which attorneys prefer one Judge over another for any given case, or, alternatively, have a preference against a certain Judge. I like Danny Glover's character in the movie. He was clearly pulling for the Plaintiff, while seemingly being relatively even-handed with respect to evidentiary issues at the trial with respect to objections raised, etc.
Some of the courtroom scenes will also be very familiar to trial attorneys from their real-life experience. Specifically, I am referring to the scenes where Matt Damon's character - a newly-minted young lawyer as green as Kentucky blue grass - fumbles and bumbles his way through various aspects of the trial. It is almost a rite of passage to awkwardly maneuver Court appearances and certain aspects of a trial when you're doing trials or hearings for the first time, no matter how often you observed other attorneys handling them in-person.
"Guess who died last night!"
More to Come
I will be adding additional movies to this list, including The Judge starring Robert Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. (I know, I did not expect this to be a movie with any accurate poyrayals of the law, whatsoever, but with the exception of the personal drama that unfolds at the end of the movie, between father (on the witness stand) and and son (who called the witness and was doing a re-re-direct, the concept of "re-direct" being something that I appreciated as a real concept that lay people probably have never heard of), The Rainmaker starring Matt Damon and Danny DeVito (based on a classic John Grisham novel), and more.
Thanks for reading!