UMass Amherst Department of Political Science

POLISCI 201: American Politics Through Film


Melinda R. Tarsi

Melinda entered the Ph.D. program in the Department of Political Science in 2007, after earning her B.A. in political science from Western Connecticut State University. Her dissertation research focuses on the politics of veterans’ benefits and American social policy, and she has other interests in public opinion and issues of race and gender in American politics. She is a recipient of a 2012 Student Choice Award for teaching, and has taught courses on American politics, war and American political development, and public policy.

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Spire Description

Movies are used to explore the development of American politics. The forces that shaped our politics early in the century (immigration, reform, religion), the rise of "big" government in the depression and World War II years (the new roles of the federal government, the enhanced presidency, internationalism, and anti-communism), and selected issues (race, gender, modern campaigns) prominent since the 1960s. The meaning of political democracy in America and how our understanding of it has adapted to changing times and conditions.

Gen Eds

HS (Historical Studies – Social World requirement)

What can I expect to learn?

We frequently hear about “political films” or movies with “political agendas,” but we don’t often pause to consider how these movies are reflections of the American political system. What makes a movie “political,” and what do films about American politics teach us about our own political system?

This course will provide a survey of American politics through film, highlighting both politics in movies as well as the politics of movies. We will examine how the representations of government have changed over time, as new political realities have shaped our ideas about politics. At the same time, we will investigate the political aspect of cinema, thinking about the kinds of movies that are made the results of decisions influenced by politics and current political climates. We will analyze four relevant themes in films about American politics: (1) the democratic ideal and the institutions of government, (2) scandal and distrust, (3) foreign policy and national security, and (4) the documentary as witness. At the end of the course, students will have an appreciation for film as a method for understanding American political culture, as well as the ability to critically analyze movies’ political themes and messages.

Course Format

In this course, we will watch and discuss several movies (from various time periods) that fall into particular themes in American politics, and read short selected pieces meant to help us consider the films in a broader social and political contexts. At the end of each week, students will write short response papers tying themes from that week’s movies into broader discussions of American politics. We will also have engaging class discussions throughout the semester, in which students can share their opinions on the films we’re watching with their classmates and instructor.

Additional materials

View a copy of the syllabus here! (Accurate as of April 2013. Subject to change)

Textbook requirements are listed in Spire. Other materials will be provided online through the course website.

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