If the last seven-plus years of life in America have been, ahem, something of an ongoing challenge to the ideals of the U.S. Constitution, well, tomorrow, when we vote on Election Day, we get a say in how the next four-to-eight years will go. But in case you need a reminder of some of the things the Constitution promises citizens, here are a few flicks to bring you up to speed.
The 1st Amendment to the Constitution, of course, includes a guarantee of the freedom of the press, which gets a healthy workout in the 1976 thriller All the President’s Men [Region 1] [Region 2], which is made all the more thrilling because it’s based on the real story of how two newspaper reporters brought down a corrupt president merely by revealing the naughtiness he’d gotten up to. The darker side of the freedom of the press is explored in the 1996 film The People vs. Larry Flynt [Region 1] [Region 2], which asks us to consider the value of protecting even unpopular or unlikeable expression.
The right to keep and bear arms is assured by the 2nd Amendment, but the boundaries of that right continue to be debated more than two centuries later. The 2002 documentary Bowling for Columbine [Region 1] [Region 2] explores the American love affair with the gun and wonders whether it’s doing us more harm than good; for a fictional narrative that looks at the impact of readily available firepower, see 2005’s American Gun [Region 1].
What happens when a gun is used in an illegal way? The 6th Amendment comes into force, ensuring the rights of an accused at trial, including the right to be judged by a jury of one’s peers and the right to counsel. A still-riveting depiction of a vulnerable defendent aided by a diligent lawyer is 1987’s Suspect [Region 1] [Region 2], in which public defender Cher goes above and beyond the call of duty for her client, deaf-mute and homeless Liam Neeson. The supremely goofy Runaway Jury [Region 1] [Region 2], from 2003, is an entertaining look at what might happen were members of the public jury pool tempted to try to right inequities in the judicial system.
If a defendent becomes the convicted, he might be glad of the 8th Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. The death penalty has been challenged numerous times with reference to this prohibition. The 1995 film Dead Man Walking [Region 1] [Region 2] tells a fictionalized story of one real-life opponent of the death penalty. For the flip side, see the 1999 documentary Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. [Region 1], about the engineer who created a “more humane” electric chair.
The 16th Amendment touches almost all Americans: it established the federal income tax. For tax issues at their most insidious, see the 1993 thriller The Firm [Region 1] [Region 2], in which Tom Cruise goes to work at a tax law firm and gets embroiled in tax fraud. Much nicer is Stranger Than Fiction [Region 1] [Region 2], from 2006, in which Will Ferrell stars as the sweetest IRS agent ever.
Most Americans would probably be even unhappier with the 18th Amendment if it hadn’t been repealed by the 21st: it prohibited the sale of alcohol. Of course, 1987’s The Untouchables [Region 1] [Region 2] — about the war between lawman Eliot Ness and gangster Al Capone during Prohibition — is probably the most famous movie about the era, but don’t overlook Johnny Dangerously [Region 1] [Region 2], which predates The Untouchables by three years; this 1984 spoof sends up exactly the kind of intense cops-and-robbers melodrama the later movie would embrace wholeheartedly.
A majority of the citizenship of the United States wouldn’t be allowed to vote at all without the 15th Amemdment — which extended the vote to African-Americans — and the 19th, which gave women the right to vote. Iron Jawed Angels [Region 1] [Region 2], from 2004, is an intense look at the brutal war early American feminists fought to win their suffrage; 1998’s Bulworth [Region 1] [Region 2] is a rather more comedic look at what happens when one white establishment politician suddenly starts paying attention to what black voters want.
Enjoy your cinematic education in the U.S. Constitution. Just don’t get so caught up in the movies that you forget to vote.