Law and Order
Directed byFrederick Wiseman
Written byFrederick Wiseman
Produced byFrederick Wiseman
CinematographyWilliam Brayne
Edited byFrederick Wiseman
Distributed byNational Educational Television
Release date
  • March 2, 1969 (1969-03-02) (NET)
Running time
81 minutes
CountryUnited States

Law and Order is a 1969 documentary film directed, written, shot, produced and edited by Frederick Wiseman. It was Wiseman's third film after Titicut Follies (1967) and High School (1968).[1] The films were among the earliest examples of direct cinema by an american filmmaker.

It follows the daily routine of officers of the Kansas City Police Department, and was initially shown on National Educational Television (NET) (predecessor to the PBS in the United States).[2] In 1969, Wiseman was awarded with the Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in News Documentary Programming.[3]


The film follows the members of the Kansas City Police Department, who are largely white, as they engage in daily patrol activities, interacting with members of the public. The scope of their activities is broad, ranging from bringing a lost child to the police station to making arrests. In one scene, a white plainclothes officer puts a black prostitute in a chokehold, doing so with such force that her tongue juts out of her mouth.[4]


To create the film, which was shot in 1968,[1] the filmmakers accompanied police officers in patrol cars as they responded to a variety of calls, ranging from domestic incidents to an armed robbery and a lost child. The film documents racial tensions between the police and local residents, and also records the officers complaining to each other as well as engaging in brutality.[2] Wiseman spent over 400 hours accompanying officers in the patrol cars in making the film. The New York Times said that "his 'method,' as he might very well describe it, is simply to 'hang around.'"[5]

Wiseman began work on the film a few weeks after the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, in which there were violent clashes between Chicago police and demonstrators. He originally intended it "as a chance to do in the pigs." But in a 1970 interview he said that "after about two days of riding around in police cars, I realized my little stereotype was far from the truth, at least in Kansas City. The cops did some horrible things but they also did some nice things." Wiseman said that "we liberals frequently forget that people do terrible violence to each other, against which the police form a minimal and not very successful barrier. I understand now the fear that cops live with. When we got back to the car after the last scene, where one cop disarms three holdup men, his hand was shaking as he lit a cigarette."[3]

Wiseman did not believe that being filmed had an impact on the behavior of the people being filmed, saying that "If it did, the camera would become the great behavior‐change instrument of our time."[3]

The film was broadcast on March 2, 1969, by NET's Public Broadcast Laboratory (PBL). Prior to the telecast, NET president John F. White, overruling PBL executive's decision, ordered that obscenities be cut from the audio track. The order resulted in a split between PBL and NET. Wiseman protested the decision.[6]

Critical reaction

At the time of a 2017 re-rerelease, the New York Times described the film as "harrowing" and as being among the films that show "brutal and blunt" power. In such early Wiseman films, the newspaper said, "the black-and-white images are sometimes matched by a startling Manicheanism." It described the chokehold scene as a "dreadful, terrifying moment and, for this filmmaker, unusual in its viciousness. Generally, violence in Mr. Wiseman's work remains implied and attenuated, and more a matter of ordinary domination."[4]

In a review of Law and Order, Pauline Kael wrote: "Many of us grow to hate documentaries in school, because the use of movies to teach us something seems a cheat – a pill disguised as candy – and documentaries always seem to be about something we're not interested in. But Wiseman's documentaries show what is left out of both fictional movies and standard documentaries that simplify for a purpose, and his films deal with the primary institutions of our lives."[5]

Awards and honors

Law and Order received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in News Documentary Programming.[3]


  1. ^ a b Stempel, Tom (May 1996). Storytellers to the Nation: A History of American Television Writing. Syracuse University Press. p. 76. ISBN 9780815603689.
  2. ^ a b Aitken, Ian (18 October 2013). Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film 3-Volume Set. Routledge. pp. 775–777. ISBN 9781135206208.
  3. ^ a b c d Berg, Beatrice (1970-02-01). "'I Was Fed Up With Hollywood Fantasies'". The New York Times. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  4. ^ a b Scott, A.; Dargis, Manohla (2017-04-06). "Frederick Wiseman: The Filmmaker Who Shows Us Ourselves". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 2017-04-17. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  5. ^ a b Eames, David (1977-10-02). "WATCHING WISEMAN WATCH". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2017-04-21.
  6. ^ Gent, George (1969-02-27). "MOVIE ON POLICE CENSORED BY N.E.T.; 'Law and Order' Program Cut to Remove Obscenities". The New York Times. p. 83. Retrieved 2017-04-19.