The 10 Best Closing Arguments in Movies to Watch Ahead of the Trump Trial’s Conclusion

From “To Kill a Mockingbird” to “The Verdict”

to-kill-a-mockingbird-atticus-finch
Universal Pictures

This week, two attorneys will stand and make their cases to the jury. Yes, that jury and that trial, which may put a former—and future?—president behind bars. This is when the pressure falls on the prosecution and defense to make their final claims of guilt or innocence.

“At this point, parties are free to use hypothetical analogies to make their points; to comment on the credibility of the witnesses, to discuss how they believe the various pieces of the puzzle fit into a compelling whole, and to advocate why jurors should decide the case in their favor,” explains the official site of the Federal Court System.

Or, we can just recall the most memorable, decisive arguments made on screen. Hey, we can handle the truth!  Here is my list of 10 to remember.

“To Kill A Mockingbird”

Gregory Peck won the Oscar — even though he didn’t win the case — as Atticus Finch, the courageous lawyer defending an innocent Black man in Maycomb, Alabama. “To begin with, this case should have never have come to trial,” he said. “It is as simple as black and white. The state has not produced one iota of medical evidence to the effect that the crime Tom Robinson is charged with ever took place. The defendant is not guilty, but somebody in this courtroom is.” The jury — all white — votes for conviction.

“Judgment at Nuremberg”

judgment-at-nuremberg
United Artists

In this case, Maximilian Schell won an Oscar — and lost his case — defending those who followed orders in the concentration camps. He not only reminded jurors that the accused were simply following orders, but that other countries — including our own — were possibly no better. “What about the rest of the world? Did you not know the intentions of the Third Reich?” He goes on to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ouch. The man who will face his fate this coming week is already promising a “unified Reich.” Ouch again.

“The Verdict”

the-verdict-paul-newman
20th Century Fox

This is the movie that started Paul Newman’s incredible final run of great performances. As Frank Galvin, a formerly down-on-his-luck lawyer, he rises to the occasion on a medical negligence case. Reading David Mamet’s powerful and relatable words: “You know, so much of the time we’re just lost. We say, ‘Please, God, tell us what is right; tell us what is true. And there is no justice: the rich win, the poor are powerless. We become tired of hearing people lie. And after a time, we become dead… a little dead.’” The verdict – as well as “The Verdict” — was a positive one.

“Inherit the Wind”

Who can forget Spencer Tracy’s outraged and horrifyingly prescient words as he reaches the boiling point, repeating the expertise of six noted scientists? “Their testimony is basic to the defense of my client… This community is an insult to the world. I think my client has already been found guilty. If you make it a crime about teaching evolution in the public school, tomorrow it will be in the private schools and soon you may ban books and newspapers.”

“My Cousin Vinny”

my-cousin-vinny
20th Century Fox

As a murder trial, in a backwater Alabama town, progresses, New York lawyer Vinny—who has never won a case–agrees to represent his cousin and another friend. He ultimately sways the jury, earns the respect of district attorney Jim Trotter, and wins over several of the small town’s residents. (His girlfriend, played by Marisa Tomei, won over Oscar voters) Ultimately, when Vinny emerges victorious, even the judge is full of praise. Vinny, he claimed, is “one hell of a trial lawyer.”

“Philadelphia”

philadelphia-tom-hanks-denzel-washington
TriStar Pictures

Tom Hanks won the Oscar as the AIDS victim at the center of this case, but Denzel Washington’s defense is nothing short of brilliant. “Let’s talk about what this case is really about,” he says. “Our loathing and our fear of homosexuals. (Both of which he himself had early in the film) And how that translated into the firing of my client.” The jury votes in Hanks’ favor, awarding him back pay, damages for pain and suffering, and punitive damages, totaling over $5 million.

“Legally Blonde”

legally-blonde-reese-witherspoon
MGM

In the final court scene in the film, Elle Woods, played by Reese Witherspoon, confidently defends her client and proves herself as a capable lawyer. The scene showcases the power of determination, intelligence, and resilience in the legal field.  Okay, it wasn’t her closing argument, per se, but her commencement speech. Yet, it is what young women, in particular, remember. And what Donald Trump heavily “lifted” for his 2017 speech at Liberty University. Suffice to say, the late night shows had a blast with that one.

“Adam’s Rib”

adams-rib
MGM

In this 1949 “romcom,” a married couple played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy end up on opposite sides in court. Hepburn represents a woman who shot her cheating husband, arguing, “consider this unfortunate woman’s act as though you yourselves had each committed it. Assault lies dormant within us all. It requires only circumstance to set it in violent motion. There was no murder attempt here, only a pathetic attempt to save a home.” She wins the case, and her own marriage survives.

“On The Basis of Sex”

on-the-basis-of-sex-felicity-jones
Focus Features

In this 2018 film, Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a struggling attorney and new mother. When she takes on a groundbreaking case—one dealing with discrimination of both sexes–she knows it could change the direction of her career. In the title role, Felicity Jones argues, “The principle purpose of Section 214 is to provide caregivers the opportunity to work outside the home. Therefore, this court should fix the law [in the way] most in line with the legislative intent. Extend the deduction to never-married men. Help all caregivers equally.” The case was a winner.

“Knock on Any Door”

knock-on-any-door
Columbia Pictures

This 1949 drama gave Humphrey Bogart one of his best roles, as defense attorney Andrew Morton. Just as he is about to be made a partner at a snazzy law firm, a voice from the past—that of his old client Pretty Boy Romano—yanks him back to his roots. Ultimately, Morton’s only hope is to argue against the death penalty itself. “Nick Romano is guilty,” he says. “He’s guilty of knowing his father died in prison, of having lived in slums, of the foul treatment of a primitive reform school. He is guilty, but so are we, and so is that precious thing called society. If he dies in the electric chair, we killed him.“

Michele Willens’ theatre podcast is “Stage Right..Or Not”

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