Underrated Movies Based On Real-Life Trials

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Vote up the movies that turned real trials into great drama.

Frequently, courtroom dramas deliver on a central premise: immersing viewers in the sound and fury of a climactic moment during the trial, when a lawyer gets a confession from a person on the stand. However, some of the most gripping, if often underrated, examples of courtroom drama films are those which are based on real events.

These films, while using the same conventions of their fictional counterparts, also ask the viewer to become emotionally invested in the injustices of the past and the efforts of those who sought to right them. In doing so, they once again prove just how powerful films can be when it comes to creating an investment in the past.


  • Throughout her career, Meryl Streep has excelled at playing a wide variety of dynamic female characters. She brings her considerable acting talents to bear in the film A Cry in the Dark, about two parents who were believed to have been involved in the death of their baby, Azaria. Remarkably, Streep gives viewers a performance which is not especially likable or, really, understandable. Though it’s impossible not to sympathize with Streep’s Lindy Chamberlain, the film is astute in helping the contemporary audience understand why the Australian public itself found it so easy to dislike and distrust her. However, A Cry in the Dark also never lets the audience believe she is actually guilty of the crime of which she is convicted. 

    The real case was truly a staggering one. Lindy Chamberlain’s baby disappeared while the family was camping. At the time, Chamberlain insisted she had seen a dingo near the tent where the baby was sleeping. Unfortunately, she was still convicted of the crime, though she was later exonerated once a piece of cloth matching the description of clothing Azaria was wearing on the night of her disappearance was found outside of a dingo den.

  • The Holocaust was, of course, one of the most devastating genocides of the 20th century. Not only did it involve tremendous loss of life, but it also demonstrated the extent to which human beings could sink in their persecution of one another. Judgment of Nuremberg, as one of the first films to depict actual footage of the concentration camps, definitely deserves its place as one of the best courtroom dramas. Tightly woven and superbly acted by the likes of Montgomery Clift, Spencer Tracy, Burt Lancaster, and Judy Garland, it uses its trial scenes to shed light on the crimes which were committed by the Nazis and those who were far too willing to provide legal cover for their heinous actions. And, because it so deftly employs the emotion of cinematic storytelling, it systematically draws the audience into its moral message. 

    Indeed, the Nuremberg Trials were a vital part of the postwar efforts to see the Nazis and their accomplices brought to justice. The International Military Tribunal, the organization charged with overseeing the trials, drew its authority from the London Agreement, which was signed by the various victors of World War II in 1945. The trials were notable for, among other things, helping to establish the principle of individuals being subject to criminal prosecution for war crimes rather than just individuals.

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  • Throughout his career, Daniel Day-Lewis has established a reputation as one of the finest actors of his generation. In In The Name of the Father, he plays Gerard Patrick “Gerry” Conlon, an Irish man who, along with several others, was wrongly convicted of a bombing in Belfast. The film dramatizes the circumstances which led to his arrest, including his brutal interrogation and torture at the hands of the police. While the men are ultimately exonerated, the film makes sure to point out the actual perpetrators of the crime were never charged, nor were the police who wrongly arrested Gerry and his fellow inmates.

    In the Name of the Father never loses sight of the human drama which is the heart of its story. In large part, this is because Day-Lewis is just such a riveting performer, able to truly inhibit the body and mind of his character. At the same time, the film’s brilliance also lies in its ability to show how even the institutions of criminal justice can, instead, be the agents of injustice, perpetrating wrongs which often go without proper redress.

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  • Few men have exerted quite the hold on the American landscape as Larry Flynt. Famous as the founder of Hustler magazine, he made a point of flouting the conventions of public taste, and as this film dramatizes, morality. Like many biopics, it spans several decades of his life, but particular attention is drawn to his court battle with Jerry Falwell. Woody Harrelson portrays Flynt, bringing out the many rich complexities of this bewilderingly complex man. The court scenes are especially memorable, and Harrelson brings his familiar charm and irascibility to the role, turning Flynt into someone the audience can cheer for, even if they don’t always approve of what he does.

    The trial was a particularly significant one in American jurisprudence. Focusing as it did on Flynt’s publishing of a cartoon mocking Falwell, it raised important issues regarding free speech. For this reason, even those who didn’t approve of Flynt, his magazines, or his general influence on American society, nevertheless saw in him a champion for civil liberties.

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