Stephen M. Walt

Foreign policy film festival

Last week a friend of mine sent me a link to a website for a film festival featuring over thirty movies about wine. That got me thinking: if Foreign Policy had a film festival, what movies should we show? There are some obvious candidates (see below), but rather fewer than you might think. After all, ...


Last week a friend of mine sent me a link to a website for a film festival featuring over thirty movies about wine. That got me thinking: if Foreign Policy had a film festival, what movies should we show? There are some obvious candidates (see below), but rather fewer than you might think. After all, many aspects of foreign policy don’t lend themselves to cinematic treatment, which is why I don’t expect to see a gripping drama about the Doha Round or a lighthearted farce about the Six Party Talks on North Korea (though Kim Jong Il clearly has untapped comic potential).

There are lots of terrific war movies, of course, but most of them tell you relatively little about why the war happened or what the conflict was actually about. And spy movies have long been a popular genre, ranging from Hitchcock’s Thirty-Nine Steps to the gadgetry and glitz of most Bond flicks to the film noir seediness of The Third Man to the paranoid high-tech travelogue that is the Jason Bourne franchise.

But let’s raise the bar high, and exclude pure war movies, spy capers, documentaries, and overt propaganda films like Triumph of the Will or Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, and focus on movies that tells us something about international relations more broadly. Here’s my personal top ten list, with apologies for my ethnocentrism (I don’t see enough foreign-language films).

10. Meeting Venus

Ostensibly a film about opera and an unlikely romance between a diva and an obscure conductor — set in a fictitious “all-European” orchestra — this droll sleeper actually tells you a lot about environmentalism, European labor unions, the historical legacy of the Trotsky-Stalin split, and the tangled politics of the European Union. Plus it’s got Glenn Close.

9. Independence Day

Basically a sci-fi flick the depends on you suspending disbelief throughout (e.g., how did Bill Pullman stay cockpit ready for an F-15 while serving as President, and where did Wlll Smith learn to fly a flying saucer?) It’s Hollywood, so of course the United States gets to save the world. But it makes my list because it is balance-of-power theory in action: an external threat (giant alien spaceships), gets the world to join forces against the common foe.

8. Syriana

Yes, there are a lot of spies roaming around this movie, but its much broader than that; an exciting if somewhat incoherent portrait of the interplay of oil companies, great power politics, local militias, and the tension between modernity and tradition in the Middle East.  Not to be taken too seriously, but not without insights either.

7. Judgment at Nuremberg

Not just a gripping movie, but also a film about a watershed historical event. One could argue that this is where the modern human rights movement begins.

6. Wag the Dog

Instead of invading Grenada or firing cruise missiles at Sudan, here the White House hires a Hollywood producer to invent a wholly fictitious war. Sounds absurd, but those WMD in Iraq turned out to be fictitious too. There’s a whole IR literature on “scapegoat wars” (i.e., wars fought to distract the public from other issues), and this film just takes that impulse a step further. It’s a cautionary tale in this era of digital special effects, a compliant news media, and the citizens who are all too inclined to believe whatever they are told. Could this be Roger Ailes’s favorite movie?

5. Fail Safe

Almost-but-not-quite a war movie, and one of the best Cold War-era “will we blow up the world or not?” thrillers, with a surprising, sobering ending.

4. Gandhi,
and A Passage to India (tie)

Everything you ever wanted to know about colonialism and the unavoidable clash of cultures that it produces.

3. The Great Dictator

Chaplin’s lethal lampooning of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, released in 1940 and addressing anti-Semitism at a moment when plenty of other institutions were still ignoring it. Reminds us that making fun of despots is often an effective weapon.
2. Dr. Strangelove

Granted, it is a war movie (though the war depicted here won’t last long), but so much more. Kubrick punctured the absurdity of the conventional military thinking in a nuclear age as well as any scholar could, and managed to satirize the whole Cold War mentality to hilarious effect.  

1. Casablanca

No, it’s not really a war movie (there are no battle scenes, and the emphasis is on politics, resistance, and of course romance). But it’s on my list, because, well, it’s Casablanca. And where would modern discourse be without phrases like “Round up the usual suspects,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” “I was misinformed,” “I’m shocked, shocked!…” and “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”?

: The Interpreter (not that good a movie, but how many films take place at the UN?); Rollover (an old B movie about a global financial meltdown triggered by crooked corporations, venal foreign investors, and corrupt financiers. Right, as if something like that could ever happen); Local Hero (hot shot rep from a multinational oil corporation is no match for the charms of a quirky Scottish fishing village); Duck Soup (the Marx Brothers show you what could happen if Glenn Beck ran foreign policy); Missing (about the CIA’s involvement in Chile); Grand Illusion (a classic antiwar movie, but didn’t make my list because it is set in the middle of World War I); Hotel Rwanda (humanity in midst of the world’s most recent genocide); Charlie Wilson’s War (partly about the Afghan War, but mostly about how things get done — or not — in Washington. My CIA friends tell me a lot of it is a crock, but Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant and Tom Hanks ain’t bad); and last but not least, Reds (the Bolshevik Revolution was a major world event, and it’s an excellent movie, too).  

And YOUR nominees are?

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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