In honor of Independence Day, I put together a list of movies aligned with each of the first ten amendments to the Constitution. Call it a Cinematic Bill of Rights. I promise that Will Smith does not appear on this list.
First Amendment (freedom of press, speech, religion, assembly)
All the President’s Men (1976)
This is the big one–an amendment that covers so much area that it had to be first. There are plenty of films that deal with the first amendment directly and some that have even clashed with the law itself, but All the President’s Men may be my favorite. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein have chemistry to burn. Were it not for two tireless reporters chasing a story, the entire course of our modern political trajectory might have been quite different. Just as Indiana Jones made archeology seem like the best profession ever, All the President’s Men must have similarly inspired thousands to think about a career in journalism. You could really plan a whole film festival just around First Amendment films.
Second Amendment (right to bear arms):
Red Dawn (1984)
Let’s leave aside the current heated debate over gun ownership and focus on a movie where the Second Amendment came in handy. Red Dawn’s Wolverines weren’t a pre-established militia or folks following a cult leader–they were just hard working kids in an outdoorsy community with access to hunting supplies. As unlikely as the Communist invasion in Red Dawn is today, it still seems like a good idea to give people the right to defend themselves should something like that happen. Red Dawn is surprisingly balanced in its portrayal of violence. The film doesn’t let all of the kids pick up guns and go crazy, but it does an effective job of demonstrating how some people use guns and violence to gain power while others use them simply to protect their own liberty.
Third Amendment (protection against forced quartering)
Gone with the Wind (1939)
After Atlanta has been ravaged by those pesky Yankees, Scarlett returns to her family home only to find it ransacked and overrun by soldiers. I guess when states left the union, they gave up some of these protections. The third amendment doesn’t seem like one of the most relevant pieces of the bill of rights in the modern world, but it’s still comforting to know that soldiers can’t just show up at your door and take over because they are on an exercise or they need place to camp. It may also comfort some folks to know that when combined with the second amendment, you are allowed to keep a gun in the house in case you need to go all O’Hara on someone’s ass.
Fourth Amendment (protection against search and seizure)
Every Cop Movie Ever Made in the 80s and 90s
You know the scene: the rogue detective has a hunch and he just needs to slip into the perp’s apartment to find a clue, but he doesn’t have a warrant and he doesn’t have time to get one. This lazy trope gives screenwriters a way to move the story along when they can’t visualize the actual investigative steps that real cops use. Sometimes its also a way to endear the rogue detective to the audience as a man who just wants to get things done without waiting for the red tape. It’s right up there with the tough as nails captain who will inevitably have our hero’s badge for crossing the line. But, the red tape is there for a reason, and this amendment is it. Strange that our collective movie cops seem to have so little regard for it.
Fifth Amendment (due process, self encrimination)
25th Hour (2002)
Spike Lee took a great story and made what might have been our first post-September 11th film. Sure, the movie isn’t about terror attacks but it’s set in a decidedly different New York City than any film before it. 25th Hour was the was the first thing that I saw in the theaters that wasn’t acting like the event never happened. Monty Broogan is about to go to prison for getting mixed up with the wrong guys, but he’s not about to give them up. He’s motivated by a strange sense of loyalty, but moreso by the real threat that his drug cartel friends will do unpleasant things to his family if he gets up on the witness stand. 25th Hour is one of Spike Lee’s best. It’s funny in places, tense and heartbreaking in others, and it’s packed with an outstanding cast.
Sixth Amendment (trial by jury)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Sidney Lumet made the ultimate legal drama by staying completely out of the courtroom. Everyone probably sees this film for the first time through a high school civics or American History class, and that’s unfortunate. 12 Angry Men is a riveting character piece about race and class and group dynamics and it brings all of that into sharp focus by containing the action in a jury chamber. No doubt very few jury deliberations are as interesting and full of drama as the one depicted here, but there’s not a better look at how our system works.
Seventh Amendment (civil tial by jury)
Erin Brockovich (2000)
When Steven Soderbergh isn’t in his art-house mode, he still turns out incredibly watchable and well-made movies like this one. Though it feels like the volume of civil suits in our country is driven by lawyers who need cases to turn over a paycheck, the true story of Erin Brockovich reminds us that we need a mechanism for advocates to fight back. This isn’t one of the sexier amendments.
Eigth Amendment (protection against excessive bail, cruel & unusual punishment)
Sometimes our government doesn’t play by its own rules. In Rendition, a man suspected of having ties with a terrorist organization lands in the USA and before he can make it through customs, he is whisked away to a foreign land where the laws about how to treat and interrogate prisoners aren’t quite as rigid. The film gets at the heart of just how important it is for us to be vigilant about our rights, as it spins a disturbingly believable tale to demonstrate the slippery slope upon which we find ourselves when we start ignoring these rules for the sake of security. It’s not an easy film to watch, but probably a necessary one.
Ninth Amendment (protection of rights not enumerated)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Frank Capra’s classic tale of a simple scout leader who is duped into being a senator is more probing than I remembered. Robert Osborne introduced a screening of the film at the Plaza Theater and mentioned that when it was originally screened in Washington D.C., people were outraged at the portrayal of corruption in Washington. The Ninth Amendment is kind of vague–it’s just about not abridging the other rights that we have that aren’t specifically listed, so why not accompany that with a film that’s not exactly about rights but has everything to do with how our government works (or doesn’t work.) After 70 years, it’s a little sad to see how relevant this film is, still.
Tenth Amendment (powers of states & people)
The Alamo (1960)
When I think about federalism and the rights of states, I immediately jump to Texas. If you’ve ever spent much time there, you will know that locals often think of themselves as Texans first, Americans second. Texas still feels like a mini-nation tucked inside a bigger one, and I guess that’s the whole point of having a state identity. As a Texan by birth (though I’ve hardly lived there,) it was my duty to grow up watching John Wayne as Davy Crockett in The Alamo. This may be a horrendously inaccurate version of historical events but it’s a rousing piece of drama with an against-all-odds battle worth savoring. We need folk heroes and The Alamo is full of them. Sometimes I think that maybe Texas is just going to create a border and turn in its US State card to go back to being an independent nation. With all of the oil, guns, and Bar-B-Q, they might just have the upper hand.