Spring 2009

POLS 414: Law, Politics & Film


This course explores whether there is a tension between actual legal practices in the “real world” and their portrayal in popular culture—specifically motion pictures. We will ask whether cinematic practices and imperatives give rise to a “reel-world” view of the law. We will focus on a number of related themes which may include: the concept of justice, the relationship between economic status and the law, official v. unofficial law enforcement including the quasi-law enforcement of private detectives, legal education, the practice of law, legal ethics, women in law and politics, discrimination and the law, the role of both civil and criminal courts in a political system, the role of the mass media in relation to law and politics, and law and social change. Students should expect to develop a more in-depth understanding of the issues covered as well as a better appreciation of the cultural and political significance of the way that law and legal actors are depicted in the movies. Students are required to view full-length, feature-films ranging from classics such as The Big Sleep (1946) and Adam’s Rib (1949) to more recent pictures like Thelma & Louise (1991) and Intolerable Cruelty (2003).

Tuesday 6:30pm-9:10pm  DU 459

Instructor: Artemus Ward
Office: 410 Zulauf Hall Office Phone: 815-753-7041

E-mail: aeward@niu.edu  Website: http://polisci.niu.edu/polisci/faculty/ward/
Office Hours:
T 2:00pm-3:30pm; 5pm-6:30pm & by appointment

Required Texts:


Available at the NIU bookstore and on-line via amazon.com and similar sites:

·         Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, Reel Justice (Kansas City, MO:  Andrews and McMeel, 2006).

·         Denvir, John, ed., Legal Reelism: Movies as Legal Texts (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1996).


Suggested Texts:


·         Black, David A., Law in Film: Resonance and Representation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999).

·         Bonsignore, John J., et.al., Before the Law: An Introduction to the Legal Process, 8th edition (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2005).

·         Burnett, D. Graham, A Trial by Jury (New York, NY: Knopf, 2001).

·         Case, Anthony, Movies on Trial (New York, NY: The New Press, 2002).

·         Ehrlich, Matthew C., Journalism in the Movies (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004).

·         Lucia, Cynthia, Framing Female Lawyers: Women on Trial in Film (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2005).

·         Palmer, R. Barton, Joel and Ethan Coen (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2004).


Film Sites:

·        hulu.com – streaming television and film clips as well as full-length movies.

·        watch-movies.net – links to streaming on-line films.

·        joox.net - streaming on-line films.

·        openflv.com - streaming on-line films.

·        btjunkie.org – bittorrent search engine for downloadable files.

·        netflix.com - watch streaming movies instantly or have them delivered to your mailbox.

·        blockbuster.com – rent movies and have them delivered to your mailbox.


Web Resources:


·         Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law and Popular Culture. University of San Francisco School of Law.

·         Law in Popular Culture Collection. Jamail Center for Legal Research, Tarlton Law Library, University of Texas School of Law.

·         The Best Films of All Time – A Primer of Cinematic History. filmiste.org

·         The Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

Film List Chronology:

·         Rebecca (1940). Take the room facing the sea. It’s always good to have options. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock (Academy Award Nomination—Best Director; Academy Award Winner—Best Picture). Starring Laurence Olivier (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actor), Joan Fontaine (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actress), Judith Anderson (Academy Award Nomination—Best Supporting Actress), Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, and George Sanders. 130 minutes.

·         The Big Sleep (1946). What is the difference between a detective and a private detective? Maybe it’s that private detectives get all the girls. Directed by Howard Hawks. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and Martha Vickers. 116 minutes.

·         Adam’s Rib (1949). When is a courtroom not a courtroom? When it’s really foreplay. Directed by George Cukor. Starring Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn. 101 minutes.

·         A Place in the Sun (1951). George Eastman has a future in the family business—unless of course he can’t keep his hands off the hired help! Directed by George Stevens (Academy Award Winner—Best Director). Starring Montgomery Clift (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actor), Shelley Winters (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actress), Elizabeth Taylor, and Raymond Burr. 122 minutes.

·         Vertigo (1958). You should never keep mementos of a killing. You should never be that sentimental. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring James Stewart, Kim Novak, and Barbara Bel Geddes. 129 minutes.

·         Chinatown (1974). Isn’t that sweet? The kindly old grandfather just wants to see his granddaughter. Awwww. Directed by Roman Polanski (Academy Award Nomination—Best Director; Academy Award Nomination—Best Picture). Starring Jack Nicholson (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actor), Faye Dunaway (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actress), John Huston, and Burt Young. 131 minutes.

·         Kramer v. Kramer (1979). When a confused wife and mother walks out on her self-centered, career-focused husband, little Billy is caught in between. Who will grow up first? 3-1 odds on Billy. Directed by Robert Benton (Academy Award Winner—Best Director; Academy Award Winner—Best Picture). Starring Dustin Hoffman (Academy Award Winner—Best Actor), Meryl Streep (Academy Award Winner—Best Supporting Actress), and Jane Alexander (Academy Award Nomination—Best Supporting Actress). 105 minutes.

·         Manhattan (1979). Life imitates art. Directed by Woody Allen. Starring Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemmingway (Academy Award Nomination—Best Supporting Actress), and Meryl Streep. 96 minutes.

·         Blade Runner (1982). Sometimes the best detectives are cops… or former cops… or something else. Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Edward James Olmos, and Daryl Hannah. 117 minutes.

·         Thelma & Louise (1991). Die rebel die! Directed by Ridley Scott (Academy Award Nomination—Best Director). Starring Geena Davis (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actress), Susan Sarandon (Academy Award Nomination—Best Actress), Harvey Keitel, and Brad Pitt. 129 minutes.

·         Class Action (1991). Remember when your daughter was 12? Maybe “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” was a bad idea. Directed by Michael Apted. Starring Gene Hackman and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio. 110 minutes.

·         Primal Fear (1996). Sure, being a defense attorney can lead to fame and fortune, but it can also lead to failed relationships and a nagging conscience. Caveat Emptor. Directed by Gregory Hoblit. Starring Richard Gere, Edward Norton (Academy Award Nomination—Best Supporting Actor), Laura Linney, and Frances McDormand. 129 minutes.

·         The Big Lebowski (1998). The rug really tied the room together. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Tara Reid, Flea, and Aimee Man. 117 minutes.

·         Intolerable Cruelty (2003). When the Massey is signed, only love is in mind. Or is it? Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. Starring George Clooney, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Billy Bob Thornton. 100 minutes.


Course Requirements:



You are required to write a 5-6 page term paper which is due at the end of the course on the date specified on the course calendar. In this paper I expect you to go beyond the course material. You can either examine themes in required films and then add to that by screening similar films on your own, or you can choose a theme that we do not cover in the course but that relates to the course topic: law, politics, and film. The paper must include an appropriate discussion of:


1.      At least four films that are relevant to your topic,

2.      At least four different sources such as books or articles that relate to the films you are discussing.


Some possible topics: How Official Public Authorities v. Private Resourceful Heroes Resolve Legal Problems, How Film Depicts the Effects of Divorce on Adults and Children; Male and Female Lawyers in the Movies, How Women are Depicted and Treated in the Legal World, Gender (or Race) Relations in Courtroom Films, Hollywood Depictions of the Death Penalty, Juries in Films, When Little Guys Sue Big Companies in the Movies, Police and Prosecutors in Recent Films, Law as Power v. Law and Justice, When Bad Cops Are Treated as Good Cops, Depictions of Sexual Harassment (or Rape) in the Movies, Military Justice in Hollywood Movies, Organized Crime v. the Law, “States of Emergency” in Film, Vigilantism in Film, Judges in Film, Hollywood and the First Amendment, Hollywood Spoofs the Criminal Trial, Law and Lawyers in Grisham Movies...or you could do in-depth comparisons of particular movies. For other ideas explore the course textbooks and on-line resources.


As with all papers, the paper for this class must be type-written or word-processed, double-spaced, with normal fonts (usually 12 pt.) and margins (at least an inch all around, although the left margin is usually 1.25 inches) and no fancy folders (a solid staple in the corner will do just fine). Make sure that you properly attribute and cite whenever you use information from a source such as a book, article, or film. You may use any accepted citation format such a within-text-cites, footnotes, or endnotes and any accepted bibliographic style. Consult a resource such as the Chicago Style manual or similar work if you are unsure of proper citation/bibliographic formats. This is particularly crucial for internet sources. Also, films should be cited in the bibliography by title and year.


Before you start writing this or any essay, ask yourself: What is my overall argument/thesis? Am I supporting my posi­tion with reasons and/or evidence? Am I structuring my discussion so that it is as clear and comprehensive as it can be? Have I provided examples and explanations for each argument that I advance? What are the possible counter-arguments that my critics might bring up and how would I respond to those criticisms?

In grading your essays I will consider whether you have (a) developed a clear and thought­ful thesis, (b) sup­ported your the­sis with a well-reasoned and well-organ­­ized discussion, (c) taken into account opposing points of view, (d) demon­strated your familiarity with course materials, and (e) followed the paper requirements including length, sources, and the rules of pro­per grammar, spelling, and citation/bibliographic format.

Midterm Exam

The midterm exam will be an objective test consisting of multiple choice and true/false questions about the required lectures, films, and readings that you are responsible for up to that point in the course. There will be 25 questions and you will have 30 minutes maximum to complete the exam once you start. It will be available through Blackboard for a 24-hour period on the day listed on the course calendar (below). Make sure you use a reliable computer to take the test. The exam cannot be made up under any circumstances.

Final Exam

The final exam will be the same format as the midterm: an objective test consisting of multiple choice and true/false questions about the lectures, films, and readings. However, the final will only cover course material assigned AFTER the midterm exam. There will be 25 questions and you will have 30 minutes maximum to complete the exam once you start. It will be available through Blackboard for a 24-hour period on the day listed on the course calendar (below). Make sure you use a reliable computer to take the test. The final cannot be made up under any circumstances.

Graduate Students

The only course requirements for graduate students are participation, which will count for 30% of your grade, and one final 15-20pp. paper, which will count for the remaining 70%. Graduate students may wish to follow the guidelines of the undergraduate paper and expand by using additional readings and films. There are other possibilities for graduate students such as annotated bibliographies, research proposals, and other research papers. Graduate students should discuss their papers with me as soon as you have an idea of what you want to do.


Grading System:

Final grades will be determined by the following scale:

90-100 = A

80-89 = B

70-79 = C

60-69 = D

0-59 = F


% of Total Grade

Mid-Term Exam


Term Paper


Final Exam




Course Policies:

1. Extracurricular Activities - It is your responsibility to notify me in advance of any activities that will disrupt your participation in the class. If your activities make it impossible for you to keep up with the course material you should consider withdrawing from the course.

2. Late Work - Anything turned in late will be marked down one-third grade for every day it is overdue. Exceptions are made only in the most extraordinary circumstances and I will require some sort of documentation to make any accommodation.

3. Cheating and Plagiarism - Students cheating and plagiarizing will fail the assignment on which they have committed the infraction and will be referred to the appropriate judicial board for disciplinary action. The submission of any work by a student is taken as guarantee that the thoughts and expressions in it are the student's own except when properly credited to another. Violations of this principle include giving or receiving aid in an exam or where otherwise prohibited, fraud, plagiarism, or any other deceptive act in connection with academic work. Plagiarism is the representation of another's words, ideas, opinions, or other products of work as one's own, either overtly or by failing to attribute them to their true source.

4. Undergraduate Writing Awards - The Department of Political Science will recognize, on an annual basis, outstanding undergraduate papers written in conjunction with 300-400 level political science courses or directed studies. Authors do not have to be political science majors or have a particular class standing. Winners are expected to attend the Department's spring graduation ceremony where they will receive a certificate and $50.00. Papers, which can be submitted by students or faculty, must be supplied in triplicate to a department secretary by the end of February. All copies should have two cover pages - one with the student's name and one without the student's name. Only papers written in the previous calendar can be considered for the award. However, papers completed in the current spring semester are eligible for the following year's competition even if the student has graduated.

5. Statement Concerning Students with Disabilities - Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, NIU is committed to making reasonable accommodations for persons with documented disabilities. Those students with disabilities that may have some impact on their coursework and for which they may require accommodations should notify the Center for Access-Ability Resources (CAAR) on the fourth floor of the Health Services Building. CAAR will assist students in making appropriate accommodations with course instructors. It is important that CAAR and instructors be informed of any disability-related needs during the first two weeks of the semester.

6. Department of Political Science Web Site - Undergraduates are strongly encouraged to consult the Department of Political Science web site on a regular basis. This up-to-date, central source of information will assist students in contacting faculty and staff, reviewing course requirements and syllabi, exploring graduate study, researching career options, tracking department events, and accessing important details related to undergraduate programs and activities. To reach the site, go to http://polisci.niu.edu.

Course Calendar:


I suggest that you watch the film in class before accessing course materials on it. You should also take notes while viewing. Many of these films are highly complex and, as you will be discussing some of them in your final paper, you will want to refer to specific characters, scenes, and even dialogue. If you are like me and prefer to watch films without knowing anything about what you are about to see, then I recommend doing the assigned readings and accessing lecture material AFTER you watch each film. You may find that after viewing the film once and then accessing the course materials, you may want to watch the picture again and again… I have seen most of these pictures dozens of times and have memorized much of the dialogue. If you are not careful, you may end up in the same, sad shape… films are addicting! Caveat emptor!


Week 1: Jan 13 -- Reel Justice


Course Introduction.

Film excerpts: North by Northwest (1959); Scarface (1983); Rope (1948); The Godfather (1972); Blade Runner (1982).


·         Papke, David Ray, “Myth and Meaning: Francis Ford Coppola and the Popular Response to the Godfather Trilogy,” Legal Reelism, Ch. 1.


Class Justice and Morality


Week 2: Jan 20 -- Class, Justice and Morality I


Film: Rebecca (1940).


·         Dirks, Tim, “Rebecca (1940),” filmsite.org, undated.

·         Wood, Robin, “The Two Mrs. de Winters,” The Criterion Collection, undated.

·         Mad about the Girl,” The Guardian, June 28, 2006.

·         Devil in a Black Dress,” The Guardian, June 28, 2006.



Week 3: Jan 27 -- Class, Justice and Morality II.


Film: A Place in the Sun (1951).


·         Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, “A Place in the Sun,” in Reel Justice, pp. 151, 159, 217.

·         Dirks, Tim, “A Place in the Sun (1951),” filmsite.org, undated.

·         White, Clayton L., “Classic: A Place in the Sun,” filmschoolrejects.com, March 6, 2007.



Week 4: Feb 3 -- Class, Justice and Morality III.


Film: Vertigo (1958).


·         Dirks, Tim, “Vertigo,” filmsite.org, undated.

·         Locke, John, “Last Laugh: Was Hitchcock’s Masterpiece a Private Joke?Bright Lights Film Journal, 1997.


·         Recommended Films: The Ox-Bow Incident (1943); Roshomon (1950); Judgment at Nuremburg (1961); A Man for All Seasons (1966); Breaker Morant (1980); Gandhi (1982); Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989); Goodfellas (1990); Gangs of New York (2003).

·         Recommended Reading: Grant, Judith, “Morality and Liberal Legal Culture,” in Legal Reelism, Ch.8; Grant, Judith, “Gangs of New York,” Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law & Popular Culture, March 4, 2003; DiSalvo, Charles R., Gandhi: The Spirituality and Politics of Suffering, 22 Oklahoma City University Law Review 51 (1997); Ghosh, Shubha, Gandhi and the Life of the Law, 53 Syracuse Law Review 1273 (2003); Felix, Robert Louis, The Ox-Bow Incident, 24 Legal Studies Forum 645 (2000).



Law Enforcement—Crime and Detection in the City of the Angels


“The best crime movies…are not about who did it, or why. They are about how the characters feel about what happened.”

– Roger Ebert, 1996.

Week 5: Feb 10 – Law Noir


Film: The Big Sleep (1946)


·         Rosenberg, Norman, “Law Noir,” in Legal Reelism, Ch. 14.

·         Blaser, John, No Place for a Woman: The Family in Film Noir and Other Essays. April 1999. “Film Noir’s Progressive Portrayal of Women” and “Film Noir and the Hard-Boiled Detective Hero.”



Week 6: Feb 17 – Postmodern Law Noir


Film: The Big Lebowski (1998).


·         Martin, Philip, “The Big Lebowski: Ethos and the Brothers Coen,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, March 19, 1998.

·         An Interview with the Coen Brothers about “The Big Lebowski.”



Week 7: Feb 24 -- Retro Law Noir


Film: Chinatown (1974).


·         Denvir, John, “Chinatown,” Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law & Popular Culture, March, 1998.

·         Dirk, Tim, “Chinatown (1974),” filmsite.org, undated.



Week 8: Mar 3 -- Future (Cyber) Law Noir


Film: Blade Runner (1982).


·         Dirks, Tim, “Blade Runner (1982).” filmsite.org, undated.

·         Warner, William, “Cybernoir: A Cultural Studies Reading of Blade Runner.”


Recommended: M (1931); Fury (1936); Marked Woman (1937); Stranger on the Third Floor (1940); The Maltese Falcon (1941); Double Indemnity (1944); Call Northside 777 (1948); Force of Evil (1948); Knock on Any Door (1948); DOA (1950); Psycho (1960); The Long Goodbye (1973); Foul Play (1978); Blade Runner (1982); Beverly Hills Cop (1984); Fletch (1985); The Silence of the Lambs (1991); Pulp Fiction (1994); L.A. Confidential (1997); Get Shorty (1995); Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1998); I, Robot (2004).


The mid-term exam will be available on Blackboard from 9:00pm Tue Mar 3rd through 11:59pm Wed Mar 4th.



Week 9: Spring Break



Week 10: Mar 17 – No Class


Week 11: Mar 24 -- Divorce 70s-Style I


Film: Kramer v. Kramer (1979)


·         Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, “Kramer v. Kramer,” in Reel Justice, pp. 305, 306, 310, 315.

·         Asimow, Michael, “Divorce in the Movies: From the Hays Code to Kramer vs. Kramer,” Legal Studies Forum 24 (2, 2000): 221-67.



Week 12: Mar 31 -- Divorce 70s-Style II


Film: Manhattan (1979)


·         Lurvey, Ira and Selise E. Eiseman, “Divorce Goes to the Movies,” University of San Francisco Law Review 30 (4, 1996): 1209-19.

·         Crary, David, “U.S. Divorce Rate at Lowest Level since ’70,” Associated Press, Chicago Tribune, May 11, 2007. [Available in the Course Documents section of Blackboard].


Week 13: Apr 7 -- Postmodern Divorce


Film: Intolerable Cruelty (2003)


·         Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, “Intolerable Cruelty,” in Reel Justice, p. 323.

·         Asimow, Michael, “Intolerable Inaccuracy in Intolerable Cruelty,” Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law & Popular Culture, October 17, 2003.

·         Berardinelli, James, “Intolerable Cruelty,” reelreviews.net, 2003.


Recommended: The Divorcee (1930); Platinum Blonde (1931); Born to Love (1931); The Gay Divorcee (1934); One More River (1934); The Awful Truth (1937; It Happened One Night (1934); The Women (1939); The Letter (1940); My Favorite Wife (1940); Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941); The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); The Paradine Case (1947); Payment on Demand (1951); Man on Fire (1957); The Parent Trap (1961); Divorce Italian Style (1962); Divorce American Style (1967); Play It Again, Sam (1972); Blume in Love (1973); Paper Moon (1973); Scenes from a Marriage (1973); Network (1976); An Unmarried Woman (1978); E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982); Irreconcilable Differences (1984); Pretty in Pink (1986); War of the Roses (1989); Boyz n the Hood (1991); My Girl (1991); Husbands and Wives (1992); Mrs. Doubtfire (1993); Sleepless in Seattle (1993); My Girl II (1994); Bye Bye Love (1995); Losing Isaiah (1995); Waiting to Exhale (1995); The First Wives Club (1996); One Fine Day (1996); As Good As It Gets (1997); Stepmom (1998); Big Daddy (1999); Music of the Heart (1999).



Week 14: Apr 14 -- Women in the Courtroom I


Film: Adam’s Rib (1949)


·         Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, “Adam’s Rib,” in Reel Justice, pp. 92, 202, 217.

Suggs, Jon-Christian, “Adams Ribs: Get ‘em While They’re Hot,” Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law & Popular Culture.



Week 15: Apr 21 -- Women in the Courtroom II

Film: Primal Fear (1996)


·         Bergman, Paul and Michael Asimow, “Primal Fear,” in Reel Justice, pp. 63, 85.

·         Turan, Kenneth, “‘Fear’ Presents Its Case Winningly,” Los Angeles Times, April 2, 1996.

·         Ebert, Roger, “Primal Fear,” rogerebert.com, April 5, 1996.


Recommended Films: And Justice for All (1979); Seems Like Old Times (1980); First Monday in October (1981); Legal Eagles (1986); Suspect (1987); Jagged Edge (1988); The Accused (1988); Music Box (1989); Presumed Innocent (1990); Curly Sue (1991); Defenseless (1991); A Few Good Men (1992); The Firm (1993); The Client (1994); Disclosure (1994); Liar, Liar (1997); Erin Brockovich (2000); I Am Sam (2001); Legally Blonde (2001).

Recommended Reading: Asimow, Michael, “And Now for the Heroic Paralegal,” Picturing Justice: The On-Line Journal of Law & Popular Culture.



Week 16: Apr 28 -- Women as Legal Outlaws


Film: Thelma and Louise (1991)


·         Spelman, Elizabeth V. and Martha Minow, “Outlaw Women,” in Legal Reelism, Ch. 13.


Recommended Films: The Letter (1940); Psycho (1960); Norma Rae (1979); A Cry in the Dark (1988); The Silence of the Lambs (1991); Point of No Return (1993); Set It Off (1996); Wild Things (1998); Monster (2003); Kill Bill: Vol.1 (2003); Kill Bill: Vol.2 (2004); Domino (2005).


Final term papers are due today. Hand in at the start of class.


The final exam will be available on Blackboard for a 24-hour period on Tuesday May 5th.