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What makes a good courtroom drama

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Jury selection began this week in the hush money trial of former President Trump. Now, many people might be paying close attention to the case because it could have major consequences for the 2024 election. But for those of you who are looking for legal intrigue with lower stakes, well, may we suggest the courtroom drama?

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I will not stand here and listen to a pack of lies.

GREGORY PECK: (As Atticus Finch) In this country, our courts are the great levelers.

JACK WARDEN: (As Judge Rayford) You are out of order.

AL PACINO: (As Arthur Kirkland) You're out of order. You're out of order. The whole trial is out of order.

CHANG: Oh, yes. Courtroom dramas are more than just an opportunity for Hollywood's brightest to deliver big performances. They also push us to think about right and wrong from the safety of our couches or theater seats. NPR's Linda Holmes is a big fan of the genre, and she has lots of thoughts about what makes a courtroom drama good. Hey, Linda.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so what are the essential ingredients of a courtroom drama for you?

HOLMES: So for me, you need a compelling case. You need a reason to care what ultimately happens. I think that's why courtroom dramas are frequently about murders, though not always. It kind of brings high stakes automatically.

CHANG: Yeah.

HOLMES: You also need some surprises and usually some moments of despair where it seems like all is lost in the case. You need the lawyers to be interesting and flawed. If you think about Paul Newman in "The Verdict" or Denzel Washington in "Philadelphia"...

CHANG: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PHILADELPHIA")

DENZEL WASHINGTON: (As Joe Miller) I don't buy it, counselor. I don't see a case.

TOM HANKS: (As Andrew Beckett) I have a case. If you don't want it for personal reasons...

WASHINGTON: (As Joe Miller) Thank you. That's correct. I don't.

HOLMES: ...Other than maybe Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird," you rarely get really saintly lawyers in these movies.

CHANG: That's so true.

HOLMES: Yeah. And then ultimately, I think you need a final turn that changes the direction of the case like, boom. All of a sudden, everything is different.

CHANG: Right. OK. So what are some of the best examples of the genre as you describe it?

HOLMES: Well, subjectively speaking, I love "A Few Good Men." That was a...

CHANG: Oh, me, too.

HOLMES: ...Really formative movie for me when I was first paying attention to screenwriting. And that confrontation with Jack Nicholson is famous for good reason.

CHANG: You can't handle the truth.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "A FEW GOOD MEN")

JACK NICHOLSON: (As Colonel Jessep) You can't handle the truth.

CHANG: (Laughter).

HOLMES: Who has not yelled that in the middle of an argument? I know I certainly have. Certainly "12 Angry Men" is a movie that I love that I think contains actually a lot of interesting truths about how juries sometimes function.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "12 ANGRY MEN")

ROBERT WEBBER: (As Juror #12) I mean, you're asking us to believe that somebody else did the stabbing with exactly the same kind of knife.

WARDEN: (As Juror #7) The odds are a million to one. It's possible but not very probable.

HOLMES: And I'd put in a word for a couple of really fun courtroom comedies, too, like "My Cousin Vinny" and "Legally Blonde," both of which...

CHANG: Oh, yeah.

HOLMES: ...Have some of the same charms as a good courtroom drama plus jokes. So...

CHANG: Totally. Well, the thing is courtroom dramas and legal thrillers - they go way back in Hollywood, right? Like, I'm thinking about "Witness For The Prosecution" and "12 Angry Men." That was back in the late 1950s. But this genre - it seemed to get way bigger during the '80s and '90s, especially, you know, with John Grisham adaptations like "The Firm" and "A Time To Kill." I'm just curious. Like, what do you think made the genre so popular?

HOLMES: Courtroom dramas have a built-in structure that is both unpredictable and reassuring at the same time. You don't know what the witnesses are going to say. You don't know how the evidence is going to come out, but you know you're going to get those beats of the back and forth with the witness, the interplay with the judge. And then ultimately, you're going to get an answer from the jury, whether it's right or wrong. And that becomes a frame that you can hang a lot of story on. And some of the ones I really love have lawyers who aren't always perfect. My favorite of the Grisham adaptations is actually "The Rainmaker," which stars Matt Damon as a very inexperienced attorney taking on a huge insurance company. And he makes mistakes, and I think his fallibility adds to that sense that you have both structure and you have the capacity for some chaos.

CHANG: Well, thinking back to one of my favorite classics, "To Kill A Mockingbird" - it was based on the classic novel by Harper Lee. The climax - it's all about the legal system not delivering justice. What have these films said to you, Linda, about how our whole legal system works or doesn't work?

HOLMES: Yeah. So when the legal system doesn't deliver justice, it's often because it's not designed to. And if you look at the fact that, in "To Kill A Mockingbird," the Black spectators are sitting in a different, removed part of the courtroom from the white ones - it's all white men as jurors. It's taking place in a community where a mob tries to come to the jail and execute Tom before the trial even starts. So you're not going to get justice if your system is reinforcing a social order that's unjust, in this case, in part because it's racist. So it's not that the legal system doesn't work. It's that any legal system tends to repeat the injustices of the community where it's built.

CHANG: Exactly. Well, you know, something I've noticed - it doesn't seem like Hollywood is making many courtroom dramas now. Am I just imagining that?

HOLMES: I would definitely say the genre has cooled off in Hollywood. There are a couple of recent ones that are international films - "Anatomy Of A Fall," "Saint Omer," both marvelous courtroom...

CHANG: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Movies. I like to think streaming might offer some room for some new good ones, and obviously some of this has migrated to what we call prestige television. But for sure you don't get these with the frequency that you did when I was learning to love them. That is for sure.

CHANG: That is Linda Holmes, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. Thank you so much, Linda.

HOLMES: Thank you, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
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