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Law on Film

Author: Jonathan Hafetz

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Law on Film explores the rich connections between law and film. Law is critical to many films, even to those that are not obviously about the legal world.  Film, meanwhile, tells us a lot about the law, especially how it is perceived and portrayed. The podcast is created and hosted by Jonathan Hafetz, a lawyer, legal scholar, and  film buff.  Each episode, Jonathan and a guest expert will examine a film that is noteworthy from a legal perspective. What does the film get right about the law and what does it get wrong? Why is law important to understanding the film? And what does the film teach about law's relationship to the larger society and culture that surrounds it.  Whether you're interested in law, film, or an entertaining discussion, there will be something here for you.

31 Episodes
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Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007) centers on the plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I of England, the arrest and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (Elizabeth’s cousin), and King Phillip II of Spain’s attempt to topple Elizabeth and install a Catholic monarch on the English throne, which culminates in England’s defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The film also portrays the complex emotional triangle involving Elizabeth, the English statemen, soldier, and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, and Eliz...
This episode explores Atom Egoyan's 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter, which describes the impact of a tragic school bus accident that caused the death of 14 children on a small Canadian town. The film is based on Russell Banks’ 1991 novel of the same name (which in turn was based on a real-life bus crash in Texas). The film centers on personal injury lawyer Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), who travels to the town after the accident in an attempt to persuade the parents of the children to bring a n...
This episode examines Absence of Malice, a 1981 drama directed by Sidney Pollack. After Miami-based newspaper reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) is tipped off by Justice Department organized crime strike force chief Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) about a criminal investigation into the disappearance and likely murder of a local union official, her paper runs a sensational front-page story. But the supposed target of the investigation, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), the son of an infamous bootl...
Inherit the Wind (1960) is a fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial," where a local teacher is prosecuted for teaching about human evolution in public school in violation of state law. The film was directed by Stanley Kramer and is based on a play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee. It stars Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond (patterned after celebrated defense attorney Clarence Darrow), Frederic March as the prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (patterned after famous three-ti...
The Caine Mutiny (1954) is based on Herman Wouk’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name. The film, directed by Edward Dmytryk and produced by Stanley Kramer, portrays the fictitious events on board the U.S.S. Caine, a Navy destroyer-minesweeper in the Pacific during World War II. Lt. Stephen Maryk (Van Johnson) relieves the seemingly unstable Lt. Commander Philip Francis Queeg, Captain of the USS Caine, of his command after Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) endangers the ship and its crew...
This episode looks at “Law Films You Won't Want to Miss,” a recent list of "the most captivating legal themed movies," published in U.S. News and World Report. Which movies are on the list? Which didn't make the cut? And what does the list tell us about “law movies”—and of great law movies? One film on the list may be something of a surprise: Miracle on 34th Street (1947) written and directed by George Seaton, from a story by Valentine Davies. In this Christmas holiday classic, the...
Eight Men Out (1988) is a dramatization of professional baseball’s infamous Black Sox scandal, in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to intentionally lose the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. The film, which was directed by John Sayles, is based on Eliot Asinof’s 1963 book, Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series. It recounts how a group of White Sox players conspired with an array of gamblers, including notorious underworld financier ...
Anatomy of a Fall (2023) is an acclaimed French drama directed by Justine Triet, from a screenplay she co-wrote with her real-life partner, Arthur Harari. The movie centers on the criminal trial of a writer (Sandra Hüeller) who is accused of killing her husband (Samuel Maleski) in a small town in the French Alps. The film operates on multiple levels. On one level, it dissects the circumstances surrounding Samuel’s death. What caused him to fall from the window of their chalet? Was he pushed? ...
Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) describes the series of murders of members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Because tribal members retained mineral rights on their reservation, they became extraordinarily wealthy after oil was discovered on tribal land. This leads a corrupt local boss, William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), to conspire with others in the community to deprive the Osage of their wealth by murdering them. Directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the 2017 book by ...
Oppenheimer (2023) stars Cillian Murphy as J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American theoretical physicist known as the “father of the atomic bomb” for his role as director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II . The film was written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on the book, American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. The film traces Oppenheimer’s early life, his rise to world prominence through the Manhattan Project, and his subsequent downfall after being stripped o...
Eye in the Sky (2015), directed by Gavin Hood from a script by Guy Hibbert, depicts the operation of a multinational team aimed at high-level operatives from the Al-Shabaab terrorist group in Nairobi, Kenya. When the British army learns of the location of the suspects, it plans to capture them. But surveillance reveals the suspects are preparing two new recruits to carry out a suicide bombing. British military officials, with their U.S. partner, seek to shift the operation from capture ...
Norma Rae (1979) describes the struggle of Norma Rae Webster (Sally Field), a factory worker with limited education, to unionize a textile mill in North Carolina. The film was directed by Martin Ritt from a screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., and is based on the true story of Crystal Lee Sutton (as told in the 1975 book Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann). Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), a union organizer from New York City, per...
A Civil Action (1998) is based on Jonathan Harr’s critically acclaimed book of the same name. Written and directed by Steve Zaillian, the film starts John Travolta, and features supporting performances by Robert Duvall (who was nominated for an Oscar), William H. Macy, James Gandolfini, John Lithgow, Kathleen Quinlan, and Tony Shalhoub. The film tells the true the story of the court battle over environmental pollution in Woburn, MA, in the 1970s and 1980s, where trichloroethylene (TCE),...
Law on Film is created and produced by Jonathan Hafetz. Jonathan is a professor at Seton Hall Law School. He has written many books and articles about the law. He has litigated important cases to protect civil liberties and human rights while working at the ACLU and other organizations. Jonathan is a huge film buff and has been watching, studying, and talking about movies for as long as he can remember. For more information about Jonathan, here's a link to his bio: https://law.shu.edu/faculty...
This episode explores the iconic Indiana Jones trilogy, some of the most popular and well-known movies of all time. The trilogy consists of the first three movies in the series: Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984); and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). The films are based on a story by George Lucas and directed by Steven Spielberg. They feature archaeologist (and adventurer) Dr. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) as he travels across the world in th...
Courted (French: L'Hermine), a 2015 French drama directed by Christian Vincent, is centered around a criminal trial in France. The accused, Martial Beclin (Victor Pontecorvo), is charged with manslaughter, which carries a possible twenty-year prison sentence, for allegedly kicking his seven-month-old daughter to death. The trial is conducted in France’s cour d’assises, which hears more serious crimes. The president and senior judge, Michel Racine (Fabrice Luchini), runs a tight ship. Courted ...
Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020) centers on the struggles faced by 17-year-old Autumn Callahan (Sidney Flanigan) to obtain an abortion after learning that she’s pregnant. Autumn travels from her small town in central Pennsylvania to New York City, where she seeks to obtain the abortion, accompanied by her cousin Skylar (Talia Ryder). Autumn and Skylar must overcome a series of obstacles and persevere in what is ultimately a traumatizing experience. Written and directed by Eliza Hittman, t...
The Rack (1956), directed by Arnold Laven and written by Rod Serling (originally for television) tells the story of a decorated war hero Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr. (played by Paul Newman), who returns home after being captured and held prisoner in the Korean War. While a POW, Hall was subjected to mental torture and collaborated with his captors. Hall is court-martialed; his attorney (Lt Col. Frank Wasnick, played by Edmond O’Brien) tries to justify his conduct by showing the pressure he was...
The title character in Michael Clayton is a “fixer” for a prominent New York City law firm. Michael Clayton (George Clooney) helps the firm’s managing partner Marty Bach (Sidney Pollack) and his colleagues navigate tricky situations for the firm’s wealthy clients, while seeking to manage challenges in his own personal and family life. The firm’s top litigator, Arthur Edens (Tom Wilkinson) discovers that one of the firm’s major clients, U-North, knew that its weed killer was carcinogenic and c...
The Mauritanian (2021) recounts Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s nightmare journey of secret rendition, torture, and detention at Guantanamo Bay—an odyssey that lasted 15 years, until Mr. Slahi was finally released in 2016, never having been charged with a crime. The film is based on the book, Guantanamo Diary, which Mr. Slahi wrote and had published while still a prisoner at Guantanamo. The book became a critically acclaimed international bestseller. The film was directed by Kevin Macdonald and featur...
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