Whether on film, on stage, on television, or in literature, courtroom dramas have often functioned as narratives where justice is not just adjudicated but defined, where the wider society decides what it will and will not stand for.
So it’s not just politically and legally but culturally apt that Donald J. Trump will undergo an impeachment trial in the US Senate. You could see his trial for inciting the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol as the ultimate torn-from-the-headlines TV episode. Call it “Law & Order: Presidential Intent.”
There is much about the legislative process that is opaque and hard for average citizens to decipher. But courtroom drama? That’s a genre we understand in our bones. As the Senate’s legal proceedings unfold, we’ll be drawn in not just as viewers but as jurors of a sort — and in this case, we saw the crime being committed.
Seldom do our reflexes and habits of mind as citizens and as connoisseurs of popular entertainment merge quite as directly as they are likely to during Trump’s trial. Thanks to everything from “Perry Mason” to “The Good Wife” to “How to Get Away With Murder,” we’re no strangers to the notion of trial-as-moral-reckoning, and we consider ourselves savvy in the ways of legal back-and-forth. Courtroom dramas are where the arcane body of laws relating to criminal conduct is distilled to heroes-vs.-villains dramatic confrontations.
From stagecraft to story lines to colorful dramatis personae, there’s an inherent theatricality to judicial proceedings that accounts for the enduring popularity of courtroom dramas. At their most ambitious, they don’t just invite us to vicariously participate in the guessing game over the guilt or innocence of the accused. They also thrash out larger questions of right and wrong, abuse of power, corruption, racism, science, personal ethics, freedom of speech, human rights, identity, and social injustice.
Consider, just to name a few, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Crucible,” Netflix’s recent “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “Philadelphia,” “Judgment at Nuremberg,” “The Caine Mutiny,” “The Verdict,” “12 Angry Men,” “Inherit the Wind,” “The Accused,” “Presumed Innocent,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “A Few Good Men” — and “The Impeachment Trial of Donald Trump,” coming soon to a screen near you.
“The witness box is a built-in mini-stage for great performances: for tears, for being caught in a lie, for losing your temper, for exploding, for revelations,’' said actor Denis O’Hare, who has played Judge Charles Abernathy on both CBS’s “The Good Wife’' and its spinoff, “The Good Fight,” during a telephone interview this week from his home in Paris. “The badgering that goes on in a cross-examination is where something can happen, something can crack, and that’s what you really want.”
With courtroom dramas, O’Hare said, “There is the idea that you’re going to get an answer. The mystery will be solved. It’s a mystery as to who is going to win. You have two sides fighting it out, with, you hope, equally compelling arguments. Each side can turn you. If you’re the jury, you can be swayed one minute, and swayed back the next. In a way, it’s an exploration of the multifaceted and diaphanous thing that is the truth. There’s a great human thirst for clarity and resolution, but, oddly enough, the courtroom drama never gives it to you.”
Perhaps, but the genre does often satisfy our emotional need for retroactive justice, a chance to see malefactors finally receive their long-overdue just deserts. Draw your Trump parallels as you wish.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” we in the audience feel gratified when upright attorney Atticus Finch outwits and humiliates evil Bob Ewell, as he defends a Black man, Tom Robinson, who has been unjustly accused of raping Ewell’s daughter, Mayella. In “12 Angry Men,” we savor the underdog tenacity of Henry Fonda’s Juror 8, standing his ground against all the other jurors who believe that a young defendant is guilty of killing his father — and eventually changing their minds. Who can forget the scene in “The Caine Mutiny” where Humphrey Bogart’s Captain Queeg reveals the depths of his paranoid lunacy, babbling on the witness stand about the men aboard his Navy ship (”They were all disloyal … Ah, but the strawberries, that’s, that’s where I had them!”) as he compulsively rolls metal ball bearings between his fingers?
The popularity of courtroom dramas is such that one iteration is often not enough. “The Caine Mutiny” was originally a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1951 novel by Herman Wouk, then adapted by Wouk into a play that opened on Broadway in 1954, the same year the film version was released. “Mockingbird” has gone through even more incarnations: first a Pulitzer-winning novel by Harper Lee, in 1960; then a film in 1962, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch; then a stage adaptation by Christopher Sergel, in 1970; and then another, more ambitious stage adaptation by wordsmith par excellence Aaron Sorkin, which became a hit on Broadway when it opened two years ago, first starring Jeff Daniels as Atticus, succeeded by Ed Harris.
Because we’ve watched countless fictional defense attorneys try to outmaneuver fictional prosecutors in order to sway fictional judges and juries, the influence of courtroom dramas runs deep. So deep, in fact, that we tend to see even real-life cases such as the murder trials of O.J. Simpson, Scott Peterson, the Menendez brothers, and Jeffrey Dahmer at least partly through the prism of the assumptions and expectations instilled by those fictional dramas. (Completing the art/life cycle, Simpson’s trial became the subject of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” a 2016 miniseries on the FX network.)
That prism can extend to events that are not technically trials at all. For instance, North Carolina Senator Sam Ervin became a breakout TV star in 1973 because of his folksy but tough-minded demeanor while questioning witnesses during the televised hearings of the Senate Watergate Committee.
If the courtroom is a kind of stage that rewards charismatic performers, so too is elective office. As they carry out their duties, elected officials are always operating within a judgmental framework, implicit in the term “court of public opinion.” Under the democratic system the Jan. 6 insurrectionists found so irksome and inconvenient, our votes, too, amount to a verdict of a sort, especially when an incumbent is running for another term.
More than 81 million Americans arrived at the judgment that Trump should not get that second term. No one watching at home can fail to understand the very specific stakes involved when the ex-president‘s trial for inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol rampage gets underway. That attack was preceded, don’t forget, by a bellicose call from one-time US Attorney Rudy Giuliani for Trump supporters to wage “trial by combat” in their efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election.
No good courtroom drama is complete without a dramatic plot twist that occurs outside the courtroom, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell certainly delivered that on Tuesday. Trump’s chief enabler for the past four years, McConnell took at least a step in the direction of voting to convict him at the upcoming trial when the Kentucky senator publicly declared that the mob that took part in the insurrection “was fed lies” and “provoked by the president and other powerful people.”
McConnell was a pivotal figure in winning Trump an acquittal in his first impeachment trial in the Senate, which revolved around Trump’s attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine to launch investigations of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. But the triggering event this time is far more clear-cut and visceral — an attack on the nation’s seat of government — and, crucially, there is TV footage. Evidence of the crime has been presented to us viewers/jurors not one discrete exhibit after another, as in a typical courtroom, but via constant TV replays of video, including inside-the-Capitol footage shot on a cellphone camera by New Yorker writer Luke Mogelson.
So those riot scenes are etched in the public memory, where also resides, deeper in the recesses, our memories of all those fictional courtroom dramas, that resonant web of cultural associations that have primed us for Trump’s impeachment trial. Take the climactic courtroom showdown in “A Few Good Men,” when Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Nathan Jessup erupts at Tom Cruise’s Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee that ”You can’t handle the truth!,” and then, when pressed on whether he ordered the Code Red, roars: “You’re goddamn right I did!” After which that chronic abuser-of-power is taken into custody and presumably marched off to the pokey.
Trump apparently won’t be present during his impeachment trial for inciting the attempted coup, and in any case it’s unlikely that he would ever utter the kind of self-convicting words that poured out of Colonel Jessup. But after the national trauma of the past four years, can any of us be blamed for fantasizing about a courtroom drama that ends with a mea culpa, at long last?