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.