The Essential Films on American Grand Strategy (and yes, Red Dawn is on the list). Discuss.

The Essential Films on American Grand Strategy (and yes, Red Dawn is on the list). Discuss.

This spring I have taught a course called "American Grand Strategy Through Film." I have promised myself — and threatened my students — that I would teach this course for years. This year I finally fulfilled that promise/threat, and I have enjoyed it enormously.

The origin of the course was the growing embarrassment I felt when my clever cultural references in lectures fell increasingly flat over the years. Jokes and cool references that resonated with students two-plus decades ago when I got started in this business just met with blank stares in recent years.

"What?  You haven’t seen Red Dawn? You don’t remember Rocky IV? Really, you don’t get the quip about a ‘mine-shaft gap’?"

So I agreed to teach the course for a select group of advanced Dukies — ones strong enough to respond wisely to their parents’ queries of, "What? We are paying Duke tuition for you to watch movies?"

As any professor will tell you, constructing a syllabus is a lot harder than it seems. Well, constructing a film course syllabus is even harder than that. 

I made some simplifying moves. I would focus only on American foreign policy and only on American films about American foreign policy. I would prefer popular film to documentaries because popular films are more likely to capture the public imagination and thereby reflect and possibly influence public opinion and policymakers. Popular films depict a certain understanding of America’s global role, usually in a time-bound way — so a movie from early in the Vietnam war would be quite different from a movie about Vietnam made much later.

Even so, it was difficult to compile a list of films that would withstand critical scrutiny. I consulted experts and many just highly opinionated sorts, but in the end I went with my gut. 

Some choices were easy: Dr. Strangelove, Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn. I concede that one of those is not like the other, but Red Dawn captured well the mood when I started graduate school and was, after all, the motivating case. Others got added when students weighed in with their favorites, like Top Gun and Rocky IV.

Some got included not because they were high art but because they captured well one important moment — for instance, Stripes is not a film to wow the film critics but it does deliver well on the post-Vietnam/Carter malaise and the notion of the military as a home for losers who might make good, maybe (and, alas, is a lot more bawdy than I had remembered it being). It turns out, you can have a very interesting class discussion comparing Stripes and Being There, and contrasting the same with Apocalypse Now. And, you can get a great discussion about Vietnam comparing Apocalypse Now to Green Berets.

Somewhat to my surprise, the hardest period to match with a film was détente. Why are there no great films about America’s detente foreign policy? I ended up using one film that was delightful and that worked well — the 1960’s farce, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming –– and pairing it with another that did not work so well — the Bond film from 1977, The Spy Who Loved Me. I wanted to use a Bond film because you can teach an entire course just tracking the arc of the Cold War through Bond films, and since I could not find a good détente film I decided to slot one in here.  

But it is striking there is no great foreign policy film about détente. My friends who have thought more about this than I have speculate that that might be because détente reflected in part a turn inward — a turn away from foreign troubles — and so the focus of great films turned inward too. I think that is part of it, but there must be more to the story, I just can’t figure out what it might be.

I was also struck by how there is no great film about the Iraq surge. We watched Charlie Wilson’s War, which is a wonderfully engaging interpretation of one aspect of the end of the Cold War (and makes for chilling viewing in 2014). I could well imagine something of the sort being done to capture the Iraq surge (even if it would, as Charlie Wilson’s War did, inevitably distort the history). There are compelling movies from the surge time period, and we watched many of them: Syriana, The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty. Many of the devices used to make those films interesting could be applied to the surge. Why hasn’t it been done?

Perhaps next time I teach it, there will be a good surge movie to use. What else should I do differently? Check out the film list below and give me your constructive feedback. Guess which movie the students liked least, and voted most to drop for next time? And permit me to tease the students’ own effort — their contribution to American grand strategy through film, which will be ready very soon.

My course list:

War on Terror Triumphalism vs. Skepticism

 Act of Valor

Zero Dark Thirty

The Good War

Why We Fight, Episode 1: Prelude to War

Why We Fight, Episode 7: War Comes to America 

The Military-Industrial Complex and Nuclear Madness

Seven Days in May

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Vietnam Triumphalism vs. Vietnam Skepticism

The Green Berets

Apocalypse Now


The Spy Who Loved Me

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming


Being There


Window of Vulnerability

Red Dawn


America Resurgent

Rambo III

Rocky IV

Top Gun

Cold War Victory Ambivalence

Charlie Wilson’s War

Rising Sun

Post Cold War Skepticism

Black Hawk Down

Wag the Dog



The Hurt Locker