Worst Constitutional Law Movie Ever

When we think about the best legal movies ever, some candidates leap to mind immediately (“Twelve Angry Men,” “A Civil Action,” “Anatomy of a Murder,”  “Body Heat,” (well, sort of)). What about the best movies about constitutional law?  That’s a tougher one.  You could say “Amistad” or “1776” (sort of).  Perhaps you have other nominees.

There is no doubt in my mind, though, that the worst constitutional law movie is “Tennessee Johnson,” a 1942 biography of Andrew Johnson starring Van Heflin as the President and a sneering Lionel Barrymore as Thaddeus Stevens.  This film comes straight out of the Dunning School interpretation of Reconstruction, by which I mean that Johnson is depicted as the hero and the Radical Republicans as the bad guys.  Moreover, the scenes involving Johnson’s impeachment trial are pretty ludicrous, especially when Johnson defends himself in the well of the Senate (which never happened) and a dying Senator casts the decisive vote for acquittal (that didn’t happen either).

Johnson is one of those rare historical figures who started out as a man of honor (for being the only Southern Senator to reject secession), then became a creep (for blocking the Fourteenth Amendment), went back to being praised (during the Jim Crow era), and then back to being considered terrible.

UPDATE:  Over on Volokh, a commenter points out that Gabriel Over the White House was worse.  I think that’s probably right, though I must admit that I’ve only read about that movie — never seen it.

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3 Responses

  1. Rational says:

    mmm, i would personally nominate double jeapordy for telling a whole generation that murder is legal under the right circumstances… at least that deserves an honorable mention.

    i wonder if these movies can be streamed on netflix. i mean i hate to waste a spot in my DVD queue for it, but for morbid curiousity.

    Btw, by the same argument that 1776 sort of counts, wouldn’t birth of a nation also qualify, in its ugly way? certainly in an Ackermanian sense, it captures a very negative “constitutional moment.”

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    Agree about Double Jeopardy. I would add “The Star Chamber” (judges, angry about having to release bad guys because of the Fourth Amendment, form a board that puts out contract hits on them).

  3. David Lyons says:

    I have not seen Tennessee Johnson, but it sounds as though the complaint here might be more about historical interpretation and inaccuracy than poor representation of constitutional law. On the latter, I have to agree with the two previous comments: Double Jeopardy was a movie made by and for the hard of thinking.