When The Movies Get It Right: A Courtroom Scene With True Grit

If you're writing a screenplay that features a pivotal courtroom scene and you want to figure out how to write it, you could buy "Basic Trial Advocacy," a trial practice manual by Peter Murray.  I used this book during my second year of law school and it's really fantastic.  Well explained and easy to understand.  Or you can just watch True Grit (The Coen Brothers 2010 remake).  It has one of the most accurate portrayals of a legal proceeding I have ever seen in a Hollywood production.

About 15 minutes into the film, we meet protagonist, Marshal Reuben J. "Rooster" Cogburn (played by Jeff Bridges as a violent, cocksure, slurring drunkard) giving testimony at the trial of Odus Wharton.  The scene is played for humor and as an introduction to Cogburn's predilection for killing his suspects.  The dialogue is classic Coen Brothers: pithy, wry, and rhythmic.  It's also delivered by magnificent actors like Bridges who have the ear to turn that dialogue from a garbled mess into something almost musical.

But beyond the masterful writing and acting, the scene plays because the Coens clearly did research on what a trial actually feels like.  I don't know whether they picked up a trial advocacy book like the one I mentioned above, whether they sat in on real trials, or hired a lawyer to write that scene, but whatever they did worked.  So often I get the impression that Hollywood writers don't do the research, or would rather indulge their dramatic proclivities instead of going for something accurate.  If you've been reading this blog, then you know I am a firm believer that drama and realism need not be mutually exclusive.  

Let's look at what makes this scene authentic.  [This is going to be a bit long-winded, so bear with me.  Take a look at my Dark Knight Rises post if you're looking for something short.  I praised that film as well for its legal veracity.]  As the prosecutor, Mr. Barlow, conducts his direct-examination on Cogburn, the defense attorney Mr. Goudy, played with a great deal of huff by actor Joe Stevens, objects to the questions (I've highlighted the objections in red).

Mr. Barlow

What did you do then?

Cogburn

Me and Marshal Potter went out to the smokehouse and that rock had been moved and that jar was gone.

Mr. Goudy

Objection. Speculative.

Judge

Sustained.

Mr. Barlow

You found a flat gray rock at the corner of the smokehouse with a hollowed-out space under it?

Mr. Goudy

If the prosecutor is going to give evidence I suggest that he be sworn.

Mr. Barlow

Marshal Cogburn, what did you find, if anything, at the corner of the smokehouse?

Then later on:

Mr. Barlow

Did you find the jar with the hundred and twenty dollars in it?

Mr. Goudy

Leading.

Judge

Sustained.

Mr. Barlow

What happened then?

Cogburn

I found the jar with a hundred and twenty dollars in it.

Mr. Barlow

And what happened to Marshal Potter?

Cogburn

Died. Leaves a wife and six babies.

Mr. Goudy

Objection.

Judge

Strike the comment.

It's difficult to tell just from reading the passage, but the interactions between Mr. Goudy and Mr. Barlow weren't underscored by tension, animosity, or high drama.  There  was no attempt to cast Mr. Barlow as the good guy and Mr. Goudy as the villain.  The two men continued their questioning as if these things just happen.  And you know what?  They do.  All the time.  I've seen my fair share of trials; good lawyers often ask speculative or leading questions, sometimes by accident and sometimes on purpose.  The other side objects because they're supposed to.  In real life, there's no seething anger or hatred between them.  Yes, both sides fight hard (sometimes viciously) for their clients, but there's generally a sense of deference between attorneys.  That deference played out in this scene.  What no one tells you is that real trials are very structured.  Both sides generally know what the other side is going to ask, so they plan accordingly, which is why those dramatic "gotcha" moments happen so rarely.  The Coens understood that in a way that few people who haven't sat through a real trial would.

Here's another reason why this scene works: the Coens got the language and legal theory right.  Look at this interaction once Mr. Goudy began to cross-examine Cogburn.

Mr. Goudy

In your four years as U.S. marshal, Mr. Cogburn, how many men have you shot?

Mr. Barlow

Objection.

Mr. Goudy

There is more to this shooting than meets the eye, Judge Parker. I will establish the bias of this witness.

Judge

Objection is overruled.

Mr. Goudy

How many, Mr. Cogburn?

Cogburn

I never shot nobody I didn't have to.

Mr. Goudy

That was not the question. How many?

Cogburn

. . . Shot or killed?

Mr. Goudy

Let us restrict it to "killed" so that we may have a manageable figure.

Cogburn

Around twelve or fifteen. Stopping men in flight, defending myself, et cetera.

Mr. Goudy

Around twelve or fifteen. So many that you cannot keep a precise count. Remember, you are under oath. I have examined the records and can supply the accurate figure.

Cogburn

I believe them two Whartons make twenty-three.

Mr. Goudy

Twenty-three dead men in four years.

Cogburn

It is a dangerous business.

Mr. Goudy

How many members of this one family, the Wharton family, have you killed?

Cogburn

Immediate, or--

Mr. Barlow

Your honor, perhaps counsel should be advised that the marshal is not the defendant in this action.

Mr. Goudy

The history is relevant your honor. Goes to Cogburn's methods and animosities.

Notice the different way each attorney questioned Cogburn.  In the first excerpts, Mr. Barlow questioned Cogburn, his own witness.  Since Cogburn was the prosecutor's witness, Mr. Barlow was limited to asking "then what happened" style open-ended questions.  This gives the witness control over the story and prevents the lawyer from feeding answers to a favorable witness.  That's why every time Mr. Barlow tried to focus Cogburn's testimony by asking closed questions, he got smacked by Mr. Goudy and the judge.  So far so good.

Then a shift occurred.  When Mr. Barlow finished his line of questioning, the defense attorney, Mr. Goudy, asked Cogburn a series of leading, sometimes attacking questions on cross-examination (a leading question is one that has the answer already in it). This is because Cogburn was an adverse witness to Mr. Goudy's client and Mr. Goudy was trying to discredit Cogburn by poking holes in his story.  Attorney's are allowed to "lead" adverse witnesses and even make them look like liars.  During his questioning, Mr. Goudy got quite aggressive with Cogburn, but it wasn't played for high drama.  Rather it was treated as an attorney trying to get answers out of an uncooperative witness.  The Coens also got this dynamic right.

Let's talk about the legal theory. Mr. Goudy pushed Cogburn to admit how many men he's killed.  His line of questioning alerted Mr. Barlow who stood up to ask the judge to stop it. Why?  Because Mr. Goudy was about to do a big no-no in trial practice: he was about to attack Cogburn's character.  Under Rule of Evidence 404 in most states, you cannot admit evidence of a person's character for the sole purpose of showing that he is the kind of person who normally does this kind of thing.  From the passage, you can see that Mr. Goudy's questions were designed to show that Cogburn is a man of poor character because he shoots first - therefore he is an unreliable witness.  But the judge allowed it because under Rule 404, you CAN admit evidence of a person's character to show motive, intent, bias, animosity, modus operandi, etc.  Here, Mr. Goudy wished to show that Cogburn had a bias against the Wharton family as is evidenced by his history of gunning down the Whartons. And as Mr. Goudy continued his questioning, we discovered that Cogburn had indeed shot two members of the Wharton before the current altercation, bringing the total to four dead Whartons killed by one man.  The script followed the rules of evidence to a T.

The scene lasted a total of about 7-8 minutes, but in it, we got a sense of the deference between competing sides, the reality of the atmosphere in a real courtroom (and the lack of heightened drama), the correct use of evidentiary rules, and proper trial practice technique. I have to admit bias here.  I am an unabashed admirer of the Coen Brothers and especially their 2010 remake of the John Wayne classic.  I even love the Coen films that I hate.  No one makes movies like these guys.  But bias notwithstanding, I think that you can learn nearly everything you'd need to know about proper trial advocacy from this scene.

Also, yes, I watched the Blu-ray three times so I could transcribe this scene for you.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA