Vol. 15 No.5 (May 2005), pp.399-402

LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE: A COURSE BOOK, by Michael Asimow and Shannon Mader.  New York: Peter Lang, 2004.  273pp. Paper.  €25.00/ £17.50/ $29.95.   ISBN: 0-8204-5815-5.

Reviewed by William Haltom, Department of Politics and Government, University of Puget Sound.  Email: haltom@ups.edu .

Michael Asimow and Shannon Mader have assembled a “course book,” a classroom resource that prescribes films from which instructors might begin and that provides materials bearing on and spinning off from those films.  Materials range from historical or comparative perspectives on the making of law to discussions of lighting, color, and editing in the making of films.  Undergraduates and graduate students will profit from this book, which makes it a suitable supplement for a course on law and society or a sensible center from which papers on cinematic constructions of courtroom processes might radiate.  The forte of LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE lies in the concision and variety of its components.  Its foible lies in the limits of its conceptions of “law,” too often reduced to adjudication, and of “popular culture,” too often reduced to movies.

This eighth volume in the Politics, Media & Popular Culture series from Peter Lang begins with “Law, Lawyers and the Legal System.”  This part of the book identifies cinematic rudiments of lawyering in designated films in the following order:  the advocates’ craft via “Anatomy of a Murder;” the advocate-hero via “To Kill a Mockingbird;” the attorney-scoundrel via “The Verdict;” legal practice via “Counsellor at Law;” legal education via “The Paper Chase;” and life in law firms via the television series “L A Law.”  Insights from film theory are introduced efficiently and applied effectively to films (and the one television series) to elucidate foci of each chapter.  For example, editing choices and the camera’s distance from the actors enrich interpretation of adversarial tactics and strategies in “Anatomy of a Murder” (Chapter 2).  In addition, prosaic equivalents of hyperlinks pop up to guide instructors and students generally regarding directors, actors, and alternative choices for common viewing and more specifically regarding the Production Code, Joseph McCarthy, and ethical dilemmas in the Preminger film.  In subsequent chapters of Part I, readers learn respectively about Harper Lee, Scottsboro, and melodrama (Chapter 3);  about interiors, colors, and visual design in “The Verdict” and Paul Newman’s performances as a lawyer (Chapter 4);  about William Wyler and lawyer movies in the Great Depression (Chapter 5);  about the uses of sound and Socratic Method (Chapter 6); and in Chapter 7 about lawyers’ workplaces in TV series about which the average student knows next to nothing (e.g., “The Defenders”).  Coverage of ethical dilemmas and of older films and series expands readers’ appreciation of longer term trends in popular-cultural treatments of courtrooms and legal practice. [*400]

Part II provides four chapters regarding criminal justice.  Only one classic film regarding a criminal trial (“12 Angry Men”) is assigned to follow up on those in Part I.  Discussion of how filmmakers fabricate realism in Chapter 8 (“Indictment - The McMartin Trial,” an HBO film) is succinct but revealing both for other films assigned in this course book and for dramatic productions unrelated to law (for example, “Saving Private Ryan”).  The approach to “12 Angry Men” seems ordinary – How might the screenplay strain if Henry Fonda or Jack Lemmon were not the solitary holdout?  If Juror Number Eight were one of us, how would matters likely have proceeded? – but information about jurors’ and juries’ behaviors seems ample.  “The Star Chamber” (Chapter 10) may be a daft film, but it’s a deft choice for raising procedural issues.  “Dead Man Walking” (Chapter 11) is doubtless a common selection for the capital punishment, but the authors’ discussion of montages and of vagaries of punishments is uncommonly useful.

Part III presents resources by which to learn about products liability through “A Class Action,” discrimination through “Philadelphia,” and divorce and custody through “Kramer vs. Kramer.”  Although other films about civil justice might be attractive to this instructor or that student, these three choices foment thought about female, African-American, and gay lawyers, civil procedures, employment law, and fault versus no-fault regimes in divorce law.  In contrast to “Kramer vs. Kramer,” the custody dispute in “Liar Liar” would better inform viewers about legal skullduggery and “Divorce American Style” would better convey insights about no-fault divorce.  On the other hand, the Oscar-winner for Best Picture of 1979 sustains discussion of film technique much better than the other two would.  Still, vignettes from farces and parodies (for example, “The Fortune Cookie”) might have been recommended in notes or in the list of movies and television shows at the course book’s end.

The authors are careful to mention films and television shows available on DVD or VHS, so teachers and students likely will be able to review productions, to select scenes for illustration and emphasis, and to verify analyses and critiques.  The assigned films are as accessible as the text is, so students may be expected to follow narratives and to identify issues on their own as well as to apply the tools that the authors provide.  The analytic techniques and approaches that the authors introduce are quite adaptable across films and genres, which means that instructors may want to assign students to read the book as a whole before applying techniques from one chapter to other chapters’ films.  The text is extraordinarily open, flexible, and suggestive for research projects.  The authors strike a Legal Realist pose on page 7, but their critical and analytic perspectives quickly transcend the postulated Realism.  As a result, this course book teems with affirmations of ethical behavior and idealized justice.

The book also features ancillaries.  The documentation in endnotes is suggestive but not exhausting.  The aforementioned list of television series and movies to which the authors refer in their chapters is large.  The bibliography is rich with possibilities.  The index is well crafted. [*401]

Nonetheless, instructors will find room for their own contributions.  The lion’s share of allusions to and examples of popular culture come from the cinema, so reading lists or classroom presentations might complement this book with excerpts from novels, dramas, music, and culture highbrow, lowbrow, and intermediate.  Comparisons between Grisham novels and films or between nonfiction works and films (for example, “A Civil Action”) would enable students to apply lessons across media.  The course book will also accommodate more bite-sized culture from, say, Kipling’s “Danny Deever” or Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” (IX, regarding Shrewsbury jail and private hanging in 1896 as opposed to public spectacles a century before) as well as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” in the words of Ambrose Bierce or the images of Robert Enrico (“La Rivière du hibou,” a French short that was broadcast on “The Twilight Zone” in 1964) and a chapter or two from “Albion’s Fatal Tree” to augment investigation of hangings.

If this book goes to a second edition (and I hope that it does!), the authors might consider comedies, courts-martial, and non-American films for inclusion.  Granted, many comedies about law or lawyers abound in slapstick and stereotype.  Stereotypes about lawyers and suits, however, form much of the common sense that readers and students bring to their introductions to legal studies.  Special “dampers” on adversarial techniques in courts-martial reveal how and why behaviors that might be allowed or celebrated in civilian courts are suspect in settings that demand more courtesy and respect for values other than winning.  In the original “The Caine Mutiny” and in “A Few Good Men” respectively, Jose Ferrer and Tom Cruise confront ethical quandaries to decide just how zealously they can afford to represent their respective clients.  Ethical quandaries in the shadow of a brig or a dishonorable discharge increase the stakes both for the drama and for those watching and discussing the drama.  Comparative legal institutions and settings, in U. S. or foreign films, would provide expanded contexts for critical readings of cinema as well.  A future chapter could compare, for example, “The Return of Martin Guerre” not only to “Sommersby” but also to the Natalie Davis book (1984).

As indicated above, many instructors will want to expand students’ appreciation of law beyond courts and of popular culture beyond movies and a smattering of series, which will necessitate roaming outside this volume.  As to the first, social control in everyday life can result in a festival of Johns Ford and Wayne: “The Quiet Man,” “The Searchers,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”  Anarchy might justify attention to the Home Box Office series “Deadwood” or, may God prevent it, one or another of the four “Billy Jack” films.  “Silkwood” or “The China Syndrome” may improve on “Erin Brockovich” or “A Civil Action” to remind students that non-decisions and “resolutions” outside of and far short of courts are often preferred by those with the will and the means to keep matters out of courtrooms.  John Grisham himself writes in a very popular medium that, at least for a few months for each novel, is not in a theater or on video.  Popular music is a very attractive option in that all but the most hip teacher likely becomes the student and the students [*402] teachers.  The considerations above suggest that LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE, fine blueprint that it is, is far from a completed structure.

Nevertheless, this course book is a terrific read and will be for readers a terrific resource.  Even instructors who do not require it of their students should require it of themselves.


Davis, Natalie.  1984.  THE RETURN OF MARTIN GUERRE.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


© Copyright 2005 by the author, William Haltom.