Total Recall

Total Recall: RT Celebrates the Bill of Rights

This Independence Day, we count down your 10 favorite amendments -- with a cinematic twist.

by and | July 2, 2008 | Comments

We the people of Rotten Tomatoes, in order to make this Independence Day more perfect, do ordain and establish this Total Recall as a cinematic tribute to the Bill of Rights.

Independence Day is a time to reflect on the history of our country, and what makes our nation unique. A good place to start is the Bill of Rights, the original 10 amendments to the Constitution, which provide Americans such essential freedoms as self-expression, the right to a fair trial, and the limits of governmental powers against U.S. citizens. However, since we don’t want to dish out a bone-dry history lesson in this festive season, we’ve compiled a list that puts each amendment in a cinematic context, with plenty of car chases, titillation, and shootouts. In other words, just what you expect on the Fourth of July: fireworks.

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The First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The People Vs. Larry Flynt (1996, 87 percent)
One of the most profoundly important aspects of the First Amendment is that it protects unpopular — and offensive — speech. Fans of good taste found much to dislike in the oeuvre of Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. However, when Evangelist Jerry Falwell saw a fake liquor ad in Flynt’s skin mag that claimed the reverend had had a romantic entanglement with his mother in an outhouse, he sued for emotional distress. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that, being a public figure, Falwell could not claim to be distressed by what was an obvious parody. As Flynt (played by Woody Harrelson) succinctly puts it, “If the First Amendment will protect a scumbag like me, it will protect all of you.”


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The Second Amendment: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Death Wish (1974, 74 percent)
Second Amendment proponents feel that guns in the hands of private citizens can prevent crime. Perhaps if Paul Kersey’s (Charles Bronson) wife and daughter had a sidearm in the house when it was invaded by three street punks, they’d be alive and/or well. The ruthless attack takes its toll on Kersey, who becomes a well-regulated militia of one — perhaps not what the framers had in mind, but an effective crime-fighting force nonetheless. However, legal scholars could successfully argue that one-man vigilante campaigns at very least violate the Sixth and Ninth Amendments.



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The Third Amendment: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.Cops and Robbersons (1994, 17 percent)
Smarting from the failure of his quickly-canceled Fox talk show, Chevy Chase reunited with his Fletch director, Michael Ritchie, for Cops and Robbersons, a comedy about a tough-as-nails cop (Jack Palance, natch) who moves in with a suburban family in order to nab the crook living next door (Robert Davi). That the movie’s premise could be accused of playing fast and loose with our friendly Third Amendment was of little importance to critics — they had their hands full pointing out flaws in the direction, screenplay, and performances from the cast. Cops and Robbersons made more than one viewer wish we had an amendment forcing Chevy Chase to choose better scripts.

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The Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Training Day (2001, 71 percent)

Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) is certainly no card-carrying member of the ACLU. If he was, he wouldn’t be acting in such blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment, which prevents illegal search and seizure without a warrant. During the course of a particularly wild 24 hours on the beat, Harris steals money from not one, but two drug dealers. Washington picked up a Best Actor Oscar for his terrific performance, but if this was the real world, he’d be heaped with scorn from civil libertarians.

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The Fifth Amendment: No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

The Godfather, Part 2 (1974, 98 percent)

In The Godfather Part 2, a senate subcommittee conducts an open hearing into the alleged illegal activities of the Corleone family. It would seem like the perfect time for Michael (Al Pacino) to invoke the Fifth Amendment and preserve his right to not incriminate himself. However, Michael didn’t get to the top of the criminal world by being a dummy, and his knowledge of the Constitution is particularly astute. “I have not taken refuge behind the Fifth Amendment although it is my right to do so,” he tells the Senate, before evoking the Sixth Amendment. “I challenge this committee to produce any witness or evidence against me.” The government’s case falls apart, and Michael eventually violates his brother Fredo’s Sixth Amendment rights by exercising his Second Amendment rights.

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The Sixth Amendment: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

12 Angry Men (1957, 100 percent)

Sidney Lumet‘s terrific debut is more than a compelling drama — it’s also a terrific civics lesson. Featuring an all-star cast, this Oscar-nominated classic follows the deliberations of a jury in a capital murder trial; one of the jurors (Henry Fonda) tries to convince the rest to overcome their prejudices against the defendant — a teenage boy from the wrong side of the tracks — and deliver a fair verdict. As 12 Angry Men proves, a trial by jury can be pretty messy — but it sure beats the Star Chamber.

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The Seventh Amendment: In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.The Verdict (1982, 96 percent)

Kind of a mouthful, isn’t it? Don’t worry — all that founding fathers-speak in the Seventh Amendment just boils down to one simple thing: The right to a civil trial by jury. The Verdict provides what is widely regarded as cinema’s most elegant defense of this right, and for good reason — it was scripted by David Mamet, directed by Sidney Lumet, and starred Paul Newman in one of his most finely nuanced (and most riveting) performances as a washed-up, alcoholic lawyer who finds redemption through his pursuit of a medical malpractice lawsuit that bore a strong similarity to the Karen Ann Quinlan case. Law scholars have been quick to point out that The Verdict hinges on developments that strain credulity, but the critics didn’t care — it’s one of Newman’s best-reviewed films.

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The Eighth Amendment: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted. The Shawshank Redemption (1994, 88 percent)
It routinely pops up on “Best Movies” lists and is widely regarded as a classic – in fact, Frank Darabont‘s career-launching adaptation of Stephen King‘s The Shawshank Redemption is so beloved, it’s easy to forget that during its theatrical release, the film barely earned enough to cover its $25 million budget. No one could argue that Andy Dufresne, the unjustly imprisoned banker played by Tim Robbins, isn’t subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” — but that’s a big part of what makes him a hero we can’t help but root for. Of course, not every member of the prison population is as pure of heart as Andy or his friends — and yes, this is only fiction — but The Shawshank Redemption still provides a glimpse of life without the Bill of Rights that’s as sobering as it is entertaining.

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The Ninth Amendment: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.Enemy of the State (1998, 71 percent)

The framers of the Constitution weren’t dummies — they knew that by spelling out the citizens’ rights upheld in these amendments, they might be encouraging the idea that any rights not specifically mentioned didn’t exist, so they gave themselves the Ninth Amendment as a loophole — basically saying that just because you don’t read something here, it doesn’t mean the government has carte blanche to do whatever it wants. This amendment comes in handy for Chris Gardner, the labor lawyer played by Will Smith in Enemy of the State, when he discovers he’s being framed by government agents for a crime he didn’t commit. To accomplish their nefarious goals, these agents resort to all sorts of dirty tricks — planting bugs, having Gardner’s credit cards canceled, even tricking his wife into thinking he’s been having an affair. A beautifully shot ode to the paranoid, Enemy made oodles of cash at the box office.

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The Tenth Amendment: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
Smokey and the Bandit (1977, 76 percent)

Yes, it’s the ever-popular “states’ rights” amendment — and in this case, those rights meant that, in the late 1970s, transporting liquor past the east Texas border was considered bootlegging, which is why the wealthy Big Enos Burdette (played by Pat McCormick) had to offer an $80,000 reward to infamous trucker Bo “Bandit” Darville (Burt Reynolds) in order to get him to bring 400 cases of Coors to Georgia. Considering that Smokey and the Bandit went on to become the second highest-grossing film of 1977 (outdone only by Star Wars) and spawn a pair of sequels, not to mention inspiring The Dukes of Hazzard, it’s interesting to note that director Hal Needham had to fight tooth and nail to get Bandit made — it wasn’t until his pal Reynolds stepped in that the studios came knocking. The results were unquestionably lowbrow, but the critics didn’t mind.


And finally, for those of you who need a primer on the Bill of Rights, we present you with this:

Check out past editions of Total Recall in our column archives.