“A leopard don’t change its stripes… You mean spots… I means Snaps!”

If you are looking for a good political science movie to show an undergraduate class, I highly recommend the movie Oscar (1991). I really like this movie because it can be used to teach a variety of concepts, such as path dependency, institutional change, beliefs and how they affect behavior, and bargaining. It is also incredibly well done and extremely funny; from my experience undergraduates really enjoy it.

Following the jump, I give a brief synopsis of the movie and explain how certain parts of the movie can be used to demonstrate certain concepts in political science. So if you have not seen the movie, there will be spoilers if you follow the jump! (If you would like to see it first, it can be rented through Netflix. There are also clips of it online, although they are of low quality).

More after the jump…

The movie Oscar (1991) revolves around one central story line: Angelo “Snaps” Provolone, a mob boss who made his fortune during prohibition, promises his dad on his deathbed that he will go straight and become an honest man. In order to go straight, Snaps decides to buy into a bank and become a member of the Board of Directors. Despite his sincere intentions to actually go straight, no one in the movie believes him. And because of this, everyone’s choices in the movie are based on the belief that Snaps is still a gangster and not an honest man.


Snaps’ hired men think something is up; they do not believe Angelo is actually buying into a bank. One man says something to the effect of: Snaps Provolone buying into a bank? That does not sound like Snaps. It’s got to be a dodge.

Snaps’ men also continue to carrying weapons even though he tells them not to. Even after repeated commands for them to stop carrying weapons, they continue to take them out to scare people who were annoying Snaps.

Snaps’ rival, Vendetti, also does not believe Snaps is going straight. On the day Snaps is supposed to buy into the bank, Vendetti has very little information about his schedule. All Vendetti knows is that  group of men are visiting Snaps at noon to discuss a business deal. Vendetti assumes the men are another rival mob gang joining forces with Snaps. Vendetti gets scared and he decides to stage a drive by shooting of Snaps’ house during the meeting (which, luckily for Snaps, fails).

The police also do not believe Snaps is going straight. Just like Vendetti, they believe Snaps is meeting with a rival mob to discuss a merger. Due to this misinformation, the cops raid Snaps’ house during the meeting just to find out that he truly was meeting with bankers and buying into a bank. This certainly makes the cops look foolish in front of the press!

Path Dependency and Institutional Change

At the end of the movie, Snaps decides not to not go straight and decides against buying into the bank. He changed his mind because it was too costly to change and because he realized that he would have been less powerful if he did change. Hence, his criminal organization continued to exist and he remained a gangster.

Throughout the movie it was obvious that changing was too much of a hassle for Snaps. His men could not change their own behavior. They continued to call him boss and to carry weapons. And even Snaps, despite his best efforts, decides that it just too hard to change his behavior. After an entire day of being “honest”, he realizes that he would rather behave as he used as it was just easier to get things done the way he used to act.

Snaps also became less powerful by going straight. For example, Anthony could not have stolen 100k from Snaps if Snaps was still a gangster. Furthermore, Snaps would have gotten a better deal investing his money with criminals rather than bankers (as Snaps says, “I’m used to dealing with mobsters and bootleggers and gunsles… but you bankers are scary.”).


The interactions between Snaps and Anthony are really good demonstrations of the bargaining process  as well as commitment problems. With respect to bargaining, Anthony convinces Snaps to give him a raise because a rival mob boss may steal Anthony away from Snaps.  With respect to credible commitments, when Snaps and Angelo write down statements agreeing to certain terms regarding Snaps’ daughter, they both have to write the statements at the same time, sign them at the same time, and exchange them at the same time. Otherwise neither would agree to the terms since neither one trusted each other.

There are definitely several other examples and subplots in the movie that are good demonstrations of the concepts I discussed. There are just too many to share. If I have missed any of note, feel free to comment!

About Julie VanDusky-Allen

Julie VanDusky-Allen is at Boise State University and received her PhD in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2011. Her research focuses on institutional choice and development, political parties, the legislative process, and Latin American politics.

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