Movies About Appeals
An appeal is a dense, academic process waged almost entirely on paper. So, while numerous movies deal with all aspects of civil and criminal investigations and trials, very few focus on appeals.
But a few movies about appeals do exist and are described here – with video clips, where possible. Our recommendations are starred. Enjoy!
Chronicles the case of United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518 (1841), from its inception to its ultimate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which freed Africans who illegally had been kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Stars Morgan Freeman, Nigel Hawthorne (as President Martin van Buren), Anthony Hopkins (as President John Quincy Adams), Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConaughey, Anna Paquin (as Queen Isabella II of Spain), and Stellan Skarsgård. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Real-life U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun appears in an cameo as a U.S Supreme Court justice at oral argument. Hopkins was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and the film also was nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, and Best Original Dramatic Score.
The story of attorney James Donovan’s defense of accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, in which Donovan ultimately arranged Abel’s exchange for captured American U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. Follows Donovan’s entire defense of Abel, beginning in a federal trial court and ultimately on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its 5-4 decision, Abel v. United States, 362 U.S. 217 (1960), the Supreme Court affirmed Abel’s espionage conviction, holding that American immigration authorities did not violate the Fourth Amendment by arresting Abel for an immigration violation and then turning him over to the FBI to face criminal charges.
Stars Alan Alda, Tom Hanks (as Donovan), Amy Ryan, and Mark Rylance (as Abel). Directed by Steven Spielberg. Rylance won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor and the film also was nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, and Best Production Design.
Fictional Australian comedy about an eminent domain dispute involving a family living next to an airport who refuse to give up their home. Follows the case from its inception, through administrative proceedings, the lower courts, and ultimately on appeal to the High Court of Australia (Australia’s national supreme court). Surprisingly technical and realistic — and extremely funny.
Romantic comedy about the fictional appointment of the first female U.S. Supreme Court justice. Concentrates on the (highly unrealistic) briefing, arguing, and decision of an appeal involving freedom of speech. Stars Walter Matthau.
Chronicles the case of Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), from its inception to its ultimate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held the Fourteenth Amendment requires state courts to provide free attorneys to represent criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer. Stars Henry Fonda and John Houseman.
Depicts the early career of Alabama attorney Bryan Stevenson, with particular attention on his post-conviction relief proceedings for Walter McMillian, who had been convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Illustrates the briefing and argument of McMillian v. State, 616 So. 2d 933 (Ala. 1993), Stevenson’s appeal for McMillian from the denial of post conviction relief, in which the Supreme Court of Alabama reversed and ordered a new murder trial. Stars Jamie Foxx (as McMillian) and Michael B. Jordan (as Stevenson).
Depicts the background to and proceedings in Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), from its inception with a interracial couple in rural Virginia to its ultimate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down all state laws banning interracial marriage as violations of the Fourteenth Amendment. Stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
Chronicles the U.S. Supreme Court’s proceedings in Clay v. United States, 403 U.S. 698 (1971), in which boxer Muhammad Ali appealed his conviction for refusing to obey draft orders during the Vietnam War. The Supreme Court unanimously held Ali qualified as a conscientious objector and reversed his conviction and sentence.
Stars Ed Begley, Jr., Danny Glover, Frank Langella, Christopher Plummer, and Harris Yulin, all as U.S. Supreme Court justices. Directed by Stephen Frears.
Depicts the early legal career of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with particular attention on her appeal before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit in Moritz v. Commissioner, 469 F.2d 466 (10th Cir. 1972). Ginsburg successfully argued that discrimination on the basis of sex constitutes a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Tenth Circuit struck down a federal tax law limiting a caregiver deduction to women and formerly married men. Stars Felicity Jones (as Ginsburg) and Armie Hammer.
Chronicles the life of pornography magnate Larry Flynt, with particular attention on the entirety of the case of Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46 (1988), in which the U.S. Supreme Court held the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee prohibits awarding damages to public figures to compensate for alleged intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Stars Woody Harrelson (as Flynt), Courtney Love, and Edward Norton. Directed by Miloš Forman. Harrelson was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Forman was nominated for Best Director.
Depicts the background to and proceedings in the “Pentagon Papers” case, New York Times Co. v. United States, 403 U.S. 713 (1971). The U.S. Supreme Court held the First Amendment’s free-press guarantee outweighs some claims of national security privilege, so the Government could not prevent the Washington Post and New York Times from publishing classified documents they had obtained about the Vietnam War.
Stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Directed by Steven Spielberg. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Streep was nominated for Best Actress.
Chronicles the case of Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), from its inception, through multiple appellate levels, and to its ultimate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which essentially decided the 2000 U.S. presidential election.
Stars Bob Balaban, Ed Begley, Jr., Laura Dern, John Hurt (as U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher), Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey, and Tom Wilkinson (as U.S. Secretary of State James Baker). The film and its actors were nominated for numerous Emmy and Golden Globe awards. It won the Emmy Awards for Outstanding Made for Television Movie and Outstanding Directing, and Dern won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Motion Picture.
Chronicles the case of State v. von Bülow, 475 A.2d 995 (R.I. 1984), Claus von Bülow’s appeal before the Rhode Island Supreme Court after his high-profile conviction for the alleged attempted murder of his wife. Attorney and Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz successfully obtained a reversal of the conviction and a new trial. Highly realistic. Based on Dershowitz’s book of the same name.
Stars Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons (as von Bülow), and Ron Silver (as Dershowitz). Directed by Barbet Schroeder. Irons won the Academy Award for Best Actor, Schroeder was nominated for Best Director, and the film also was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Chronicles the case of Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), from its inception to its ultimate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down many federal and state restrictions on abortion in the United States. Stars Holly Hunter.
Chronicles the entirety of the case of Briggs v. Elliott, 342 U.S. 350 (1952), which pitted future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall against former U.S. presidential nominee John Davis and was a companion case to the more well-known Brown v. Bd. of Educ. of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483 (1954). In both cases, the U.S. Supreme Court held state laws mandating racial segregation in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws.
Stars Gloria Foster, Burt Lancaster (as Davis), Cleavon Little, and Sidney Poitier (as Marshall).
Made-for-TV movie set in an alternate reality in which the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), returning control of abortion policy to individual states. Depicts the U.S. Supreme Court’s subsequent (highly unrealistic) internal debate in an appeal questioning whether a state can charge a woman with first-degree murder for having an abortion. Stars Andy Garcia, Harry Belafonte, and Bob Balaban as Supreme Court justices.
Depicts an Austrian Holocaust refugee’s legal battle to reclaim a priceless painting the Nazis had stolen from her family, including proceedings before a federal trial court in which she was successful and an appeal by Austria to the U.S. Supreme Court. In its decision, Republic of Austria v. Altman, 541 U.S. 677 (2004), the Supreme Court held that federal law allowed the refugee to sue Austria in an American court.
Stars Katie Holmes, Elizabeth McGovern, Helen Mirren, Jonathan Pryce (as Chief Justice William Rehnquist), and Ryan Reynolds.