8 Best Courtroom Dramas Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

From Aaron Sorkin, the creator of every liberal's favorite 2000s political drama, The West Wing, The Social Network, and the master of the “walk and talk”, comes the dramatization of a sadly true American story from the mid-last century. In 1968, different groups from all over the country travelled to Chicago to protest the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention. The Chicago police greeted them in full riot gear, purposely attacking the peaceful protesters. Five months later, eight of them (charges against Black Panther leader Bobby Seale were dismissed) were arrested for inciting riot. As the title suggests, the film details the trials that followed, which highlight the still ongoing battles within American society and politics: racism, ineptness, corruption, complacency, you name it. On a lighter note, while you wouldn't necessarily call this an ensemble cast, the number of unlikely familiar faces in this film is off the charts: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sascha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Eddie Redmayne. It also features some of the greatest supporting actors in American TV history like John Carrol Lynch, Frank Langella, and the amazing John Doman aka Bill Rawls from The Wire.

Genre: Drama, History, Thriller

Actor: Alan Metoskie, Alex Henderson, Alex Sharp, Alice Kremelberg, Ben Kass, Ben Shenkman, Blair Lewin, Brady Jenness, Brandon Fierro, Brendan Burke, C.J. Wilson, Caitlin Fitzgerald, Christian Litke, Damian Young, Danny Flaherty, David Fierro, Ed Flynn, Eddie Redmayne, Edward Fletcher, Frank Langella, Gavin Haag, J. C. MacKenzie, James Pravasilis, Jeremy Strong, John Carroll Lynch, John Doman, John F. Carpenter, John Quilty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Juliette Angelo, Kate Miller, Kathleen Garrett, Keeley Morris, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Kevin O'Donnell, Larry Mitchell, Lex Elle, Mark Rylance, Max Adler, Meghan Rafferty, Michael A. Dean, Michael Keaton, Michelle Hurst, Mike Brunlieb, Noah Robbins, Sacha Baron Cohen, Shawn Parsons, Steve Routman, Tah von Allmen, Tiffany Denise Hobbs, Wayne Duvall, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rating: R

, 2016

Here’s a based-on-a-true-story courtroom drama that transcends the limits of its genre by virtue of an incisive and unexpectedly prescient script. Twenty years before 2016 sent us hurtling through the looking glass and into a post-truth era, the idea that you could deny the facts as you pleased teetered terrifyingly on the brink of legitimacy when author David Irving (a suitably odious Timothy Spall) brought a UK libel suit against Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), an academic whom he claimed had defamed him for calling him exactly what he was: a Holocaust denier.

The case was complicated by the fact that, at the time, the UK placed the burden of proof on the defendant — in other words, Lipstadt’s hotshot legal team needed to prove that the Holocaust happened and that Irving had wilfully misrepresented evidence demonstrating this. Denial captures that terrifying farcicality and the defense’s cleverly counterintuitive strategy: not allowing Lipstadt or Holocaust survivors to speak. If that sounds unsatisfying — this is the rare courtroom drama with no grandstanding speech from the protagonist — that’s the point, something the film’s title cleverly alludes to. Perhaps unexpectedly, Denial’s relevance has ballooned since its release, a fact that might hobble its hopeful ending but that only makes the rest all the more powerful.

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Abigail Cruttenden, Alex Jennings, Amanda Lawrence, Andrea Deck, Andrew Scott, Caren Pistorius, Daniel Cerqueira, Edward Franklin, Elliot Levey, Harriet Walter, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Ian Bartholomew, Jack Lowden, Jackie Clune, Jeremy Paxman, John Sessions, Lachele Carl, Laura Evelyn, Mark Gatiss, Max Befort, Mick Jackson, Nicholas Tennant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Paul Bailey, Paul Hunter, Pip Carter, Rachel Weisz, Sally Messham, Sara Powell, Sean Power, Timothy Spall, Todd Boyce, Tom Clarke Hill, Tom Wilkinson, Will Attenborough, Ziggy Heath

Director: Mick Jackson

Rating: PG-13

Even a director of William Friedkin’s caliber had his work cut out for him with this remake of the towering 1957 drama tracking a jury's fraught deliberations in an apparently open-and-shut murder trial. Wisely, he changes little: most of the incisive dialogue remains the same, and the film still only takes place in one sweltering room on New York’s hottest day.

There are some key differences, though: namely, in a few of the characters (most notably Mykelti Williamson’s ex-Nation of Islam member Juror #10, who helps update the story to the '90s) and the intensification of the ensemble’s star power. The all-star quality of the cast is never wielded to call attention to itself, though; everyone, from James Gandolfini and William Petersen to Tony Danza and Edward James Olmos is on fine character acting form here. Replacing the unforgettable Henry Fonda is Jack Lemmon (exuding warmth and good sense) as the principled lone dissenter who calmly wages a war of words with George C. Scott’s bigoted Juror #3 to give real justice a chance. The 1957 version is admittedly a timeless classic, but Friedkin's version isn't very far off from reaching its predecessor’s dazzling heft plus, this stands as a compelling argument that every era should have its own 12 Angry Men.

Genre: Crime, Drama, TV Movie

Actor: Armin Mueller-Stahl, Courtney B. Vance, Dorian Harewood, Douglas Spain, Edward James Olmos, George C. Scott, Hume Cronyn, Jack Lemmon, James Gandolfini, Mary McDonnell, Mykelti Williamson, Ossie Davis, Tony Danza, Tyrees Allen, William Petersen

Director: William Friedkin

Rating: PG-13

The late, great William Friedkin’s final film is staged with all the military precision of its naval court setting. We never leave the courtroom from the moment we’re plunged into it — the first minute — meaning the contentious action around which the film revolves happens only in our imagination, spurred on by the competing accounts of Lieutenant Maryk (Jake Lacy) and Commander Queeg (Kiefer Sutherland). Maryk is accused of mutiny, but, as he tells it, he only seized command from Queeg during a typhoon because he feared that the Commander was experiencing an episode of mental instability that would endanger the lives of everyone onboard. 

The lack of flashbacks to this crucial moment places the burden of bearing out the truth on the cast, which includes Jason Clarke as Maryk’s lawyer, Monica Raymund as Queeg’s counsel, and Lance Reddick — the naturally authoritative late actor to whom the film is dedicated — as the judge. The film's lack of visual pizzazz is to its advantage, then, because it allows this excellent cast (and Friedkin’s searing script) to flex under the full, burning gaze of the spotlight. Clarke, in particular, emerges as the standout as the reluctant navy lawyer — a man caught between the impulse to expose one truth and conceal another.

Genre: Drama, TV Movie, War

Actor: Dale Dye, Denzel Johnson, Elizabeth Anweis, Francois Battiste, Gabe Kessler, Gina Garcia, Jake Lacy, Jason Clarke, Jay Duplass, Kiefer Sutherland, Lance Reddick, Lewis Pullman, Monica Raymund, Stephanie Erb, Tom Riley

Director: William Friedkin

Rating: PG-13

, 2015

A War (Krigen) is a Danish war drama that focuses on Commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) as he leads a company of soldiers in modern day Afghanistan, while his wife at home in Denmark struggles to care for their three children. During a mission to rescue a family from Taliban threat, Claus’ unit is overcome by enemy fire, forcing him to make a dramatic decision that has a complicated effect upon himself, his fellow soldiers, and his family back home. A War is a tense yet thoroughly involving drama that offers a profound example of moral ambiguity and the repercussions of warfare. The acting and direction are utterly superb across the board—another enthralling and superbly humanistic affair from Danish filmmaker Tobias Lindholm (A Hijacking).

Genre: Drama, War

Actor: Alex Høgh Andersen, Charlotte Munck, Dar Salim, Dulfi Al-Jabouri, Petrine Agger, Pilou Asbæk, Pilou Asbæk, Søren Malling, Søren Malling, Tuva Novotny

Director: Tobias Lindholm

Rating: R

This gripping legal drama is based on a case we still don’t know the truth of — which might make it seem like a pointless exercise, were it not for the fact that it’s infectiously fascinated by greater questions than whether wealthy socialite Claus von Bülow (Jeremy Irons) really did attempt to kill wife Sunny (Glenn Close), who was left comatose by the mysterious event. After being convicted, Claus recruited for his appeal then-hotshot lawyer Alan Dershowitz (Ron Silver), now better known for personal allegations and his defense of men even more nefarious than Claus. Reversal follows the tricky legal argument-crafting process, embedding us with Dershowitz’s elite team as they meticulously comb through the prosecution’s theory to find the hairline crack they need to break the case open.

But why go to all this effort to exonerate an unlikeable and frustratingly enigmatic man like Claus, whom Dershowitz apparently doesn’t even believe himself? While we’re morbidly fascinated by unknowable cases like this, it’s the passion of the defense that’s really puzzling — something Reversal shrewdly gets as it wrestles with the ethical arguments for and against Dershowitz’s involvement, making for a pre-courtroom drama whose power extends beyond that of the particular case it documents.

Genre: Drama

Actor: Alan Pottinger, Annabella Sciorra, Bill Camp, Brian Delate, Bruno Eyron, Christine Baranski, Christine Dunford, Constance Shulman, Ericka Klein, Felicity Huffman, Fisher Stevens, Frederick Neumann, Glenn Close, Gordon Joseph Weiss, Jack Gilpin, Jad Mager, JD Cullum, Jeremy Irons, Jessika Cardinahl, Johann Carlo, Julie Hagerty, Keith Reddin, Larry Sherman, Leo Leyden, LisaGay Hamilton, Malachy McCourt, Mitchell Whitfield, Redman Maxfield, Ron Silver, Stephen Mailer, Tom Wright, Uta Hagen

Director: Barbet Schroeder

Miranda’s Victim often feels like two different movies smushed into one. On the one hand, it tells the story of how Trish finds the courage to speak up against her abuser, who happens to be a person of color. On the other hand, it shows us the legal intricacies that led to the founding of what we now know as Miranda Rights. In better hands, these two stories (one emotional and one technical) could’ve worked well together, and they would’ve spoken to the intersectionality at the heart of this complicated case. But instead of going for nuance, instead of exploring the complex racial and gender politics that inform this case, Director Michelle Danner goes in all sorts of odd directions as if herself confused about what the focus should be. 

Breslin is heartbreaking and powerful as Trish, but she’s only given so much to act with. Despite being based on a real person, her character is reduced to trauma and tears—a caricature of abuse—and nothing more. The movie is at its strongest when it converts into pure courtroom drama by the third act. Suddenly, it’s brisk and intelligent, bolstered by the compelling one-two punches of the judge (a commanding Donald Sutherland) and the two lawyers (Ryan Philippe, a revelation, and Luke Wilson, only slightly better here than in his earlier turn in Legally Blonde). As a story about violation and abuse, there’s surprisingly little compassion to be found, despite the title. But as a legal drama, it’s as informative as it can be. 

Genre: Drama, History

Actor: Abigail Breslin, Andy Garcia, Brent Sexton, Brian Colin Foley, Dan Lauria, Donald Sutherland, Emily VanCamp, Enrique Murciano, James Healy Jr., Jann Ellis, Josephine Hies, Joshua Bowman, Kyle MacLachlan, Luke Wilson, Michael Mulheren, Mireille Enos, Najah Bradley, Nolan Gould, Ryan Phillippe, Sheilagh Weymouth, Taryn Manning

Director: Michelle Danner