A Different Kind of Hero: Personal Injury and Criminal Defense Lawyers in the Movies

Personal injury and criminal defense lawyers sometimes get a bad rap in the media. However, with a justice system that is so often biased, unfair, and difficult for the average person to navigate, it’s no wonder that certain heroic legal characters have captured the imagination of millions as not-so-unlikely heroes in some of America’s most classic movies.
Atticus Fitch in To Kill a Mockingbird
There is perhaps no fictional attorney more revered than Atticus Finch. Gregory Peck’s portrayal of this notable father won the character the title of greatest hero in American film by the American Film Institute in 2003. Fitch’s defense of an innocent black character accused of raping a white woman in the Depression Era south made him a folk hero and a symbol for all who fight for justice in an often unfair world.
Rudy Baylor in The Rainmaker
Matt Damon plays the lead character in this film, which portrays the use of tort law to help bring justice to a family who has been mistreated by their insurance company. The insurance company denied a lifesaving treatment, a bone marrow transplant, to a boy dying of leukemia. Rudy files a personal injury case to protect the victim, whose life has been sacrificed in favor of millions of dollars of profit.
Martin Vail in Primal Fear
Played by Richard Gere, Martin Vail works for an altar boy accused of murdering a priest. Although at first Vail is only interested in the publicity the case may bring, he realizes that his client is truly innocent. He fights for justice against a system where the odds are stacked against those without political power.
Jan Schlichtmann in A Civil Action
In this film, which is based on a true story, Jan Schlichtmann (played by John Travolta) and his small firm of personal injury lawyers are presented with a case of groundwater contamination. Schlichtmann thinks of rejecting the case but decides to fight two giant corporations on this environmental and safety issue. While the deep pockets of the corporations make the odds insurmountable, the work that Schlichtmann does builds the foundation of the case the EPA brings against the companies, forcing them to bear responsibility for the cleanup of the land and groundwater.
Themes of David and Goliath
Many of these films draw inspiration from the tale of David and Goliath, which goes back thousands of years and has been told over and over in different forms. In modern cinema, this story is often told in an adapted form, where David is the average American, someone without extraordinary means or an extensive legal education, and Goliath is the court system, which often has unlimited money from corporations. The only way the little guys can fight this fight is with skilled, dedicated personal injury and criminal defense lawyers on their side.
Played by some of Hollywood’s most respected leading men, these movies’ personal injury and criminal defense lawyers use their knowledge and creativity against the sometimes flawed and biased system to bring justice to their clients.
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