Monday, July 12, 2021

Michael Asimow Discusses His New Book on Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies

What movie fan doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?

In Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies, co-authors Michael Asimow and Paul Bergman dissect over 200 movies that “take place in a courtroom, defined broadly enough to include pretrial discovery, plea negotiations, jury deliberations and appellate court arguments.” Michael Asimow is a professor at Santa Clara Law School and a professor of law emeritus at UCLA Law School. Paul Bergman is a professor of law emeritus at UCLA Law School.

The films in their book range from classics like To Kill a Mockingbird to fact-based dramas (Judgment at Nuremburg), comedies (My Cousin Vinny), and intriguing lesser-known fare such as Never Take Candy from a Stranger. Each film review includes a synopsis, an analysis of the courtroom events that “distinguishes truth from trickery,” and production notes. The authors also provide extensive details on the actual cases that served as the basis for fact-inspired films.

We had the opportunity to recently discuss Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies with co-author Michael Asimow.

Café:  What inspired you and your co-author Paul Bergman to embark on the fascinating endeavor of analyzing the courtroom scenes of over 200 movies from their legal and ethical perspectives?

Michael Asimow:  Paul and I love old movies and we love the law. We’ve had long and great careers as law professors. And we thought we’d bring our passions together by providing a guidebook to courtroom movies. It will enable our readers to find courtroom movies from the 1930s to the present that they’ve never seen or to revisit the ones they saw years ago. We provide a rating scheme (of one to four gavels) for each film to help readers select the best ones. We hope our discussions will help answer the questions viewers might have after watching the films. 

Café:  Aside from tracking down all the movies, what was the most challenging aspect of writing Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies?

Michael Asimow:  One challenge was to provide a gentle analysis of the films that would be fun for non-lawyer readers to think about without getting too technical, yet not oversimplifying serious issues. Another big challenge was dealing with "reality." Of course, courtroom films aren’t "realistic." If they were, they would last for eight days and be indescribably boring. These films aren’t documentaries, they are entertainment vehicles. Filmmakers have to select the best bits of the trial process and make them as dramatic as possible. We don’t want to criticize the filmmakers for taking those necessary shortcuts, yet we wanted to let readers know when the films depart too far from courtroom procedures or legal ethics. That was a serious challenge. 

Café:  Based on your analyses, which movies feature the most believable lawyers or do the best job of presenting a case realistically?  

George C. Scott and Lee Remick in Anatomy of a Murder.
Michael Asimow:  Our all-time favorite is Anatomy of a Murder (1959), the classic film starring Jimmy Stewart and George C. Scott. Almost all of it is a gripping murder trial, with two great lawyers going after each other, full of twists and turns and with an ambiguous ending. Watch this movie—you’ll be amazed at how good it is.  

Café:  I know you teach a course on "Law and Popular Culture," but have you ever used a movie’s courtroom scene to emphasize a point or stimulate discussion in other law school courses?

Michael Asimow:  Oh, sure. Paul uses courtroom scenes in teaching evidence and trial practice and I use them in teaching contract law. When students see the great actors entangled in legal problems and procedure, they remember it long after they’ve forgotten what the professor said. 

Café:  One of the most interesting aspects of your book is where you describe the actual cases behind fact-based films such as Compulsion, Inherit the Wind, and Marshall. What are your favorite fact-based courtroom dramas and why?

Humphrey Bogart in Marked Woman.
Michael Asimow:  So many of the films we discuss are based on actual trials like the three ones you name. We love the recent ones like The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), which is closely based on the famous Chicago conspiracy case of 1969, and Denial (2016) which retells the story of Holocaust-denier David Irving’s libel suit against historian Deborah Lipstadt who had called him out. But some oldies are equally good. Marked Woman (1937) is based on the trial in which crusading prosecutor Thomas Dewey puts away gangster Lucky Luciano, who controlled New York rackets and prostitution.   

Café:  You note that the lawyers in many films violate certain principles of law or ethics—such as when James Stewart’s defense attorney coaches the defendant (Ben Gazzara) in Anatomy of a Murder. Are you surprised that more movies don’t have legal experts who review the screenplays for inaccuracies?  

Michael Asimow:  They often have experts, but filmmakers love ethical dilemmas. These aren’t inaccuracies, they are deliberate attempts to tell great stories. We try to identify ethical lapses in our discussions, but we don’t criticize the filmmakers for putting them there. Lawyers often find themselves in terrible ethical positions as in And Justice for All (1979), in which lawyer Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) is stuck with a client who confesses his guilt, but insists that Kirkland give him a full defense complete with testimony that Kirkland knows will be perjured. 

Café:  What are your five favorite courtroom movies and why?

Paul Newman in The Verdict.
Michael Asimow:  It’s a tough call as there have been so many great ones. Besides Anatomy of a Murder, which we already talked about, I’d have to choose: Witness for the Prosecution (1957), which has the best twist ending; To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) which will tear your heart out; My Cousin Vinny (1992) which is by far the best comedy; The Verdict (1992) for best lawyer epiphany; and A Few Good Men (1992) for best military justice movie and terrific cross-examination.  

Café:  You’ve also written Lawyers in Your Living Room: Law on Television, so I must ask your opinion on one of my favorite legal shows: The Defenders.

Michael Asimow:  Me too! The Defenders (1961-65) involved a father and son law firm (played by the great E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed). Each week they took up another big social or legal problem and framed it in the context of a trial.  Some especially memorable shows concerned the anti-Communist blacklist, defending Nazi protestors, and abortion. The first season of The Defenders is available on DVD.  Well worth watching! 

Café:  Thank you so much, Michael, for taking the time to talk with us.

Michael Asimow:  My pleasure, Rick!  

You can purchase Real to Reel: Truth and Trickery in Courtroom Movies from booksellers such as Amazon.


  1. Fascinating. I am going to need to add these books to my library.

    While in the hospital I discovered The Defenders uploaded on YouTube and found myself as impressed as my mother always told me I would be by the series.

    One of my favourite jury deliberation scenes is from the western Pursued, 1947. Did it find a spot with your esteemed guests?

    1. I didn't see an entry for Pursued, but another Robert Mitchum movie, Angel Face, gets an interesting write-up.

  2. I remember "The Defenders" and was already impressed with E.G. Marshall. If "The Defenders" is your favorite TV legal drama, what is your opinion of "Perry Mason"?

    1. Perry Mason is a highly entertaining TV series and I love the entire cast (plus the guest stars, many of whom later became famous). It's very different from The Defenders, which tackled more ambiguous cases and ethical dilemmas.

  3. I'm going to look for this book at the library. It sounds thought-provoking.

    Also, I was heartened to hear they introduce classic film to illustrate some points in their lectures. Good job!