U.N. hobnobs with Hollywood

In the annals of missed opportunities, the U.N.’s decision to deny Alfred Hitchock‘s request to film his 1959 masterpiece North by Northwest on the grounds of its headquarters building surely must rank high. Certainly, Cary Grant‘s appearance at the U.N. delegate’s lounge could have imbued the fledgling organization with some Hollywood glamour. The U.N. has ...

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561893_101117_Kidman2.jpg
561893_101117_Kidman2.jpg

In the annals of missed opportunities, the U.N.'s decision to deny Alfred Hitchock's request to film his 1959 masterpiece North by Northwest on the grounds of its headquarters building surely must rank high. Certainly, Cary Grant's appearance at the U.N. delegate's lounge could have imbued the fledgling organization with some Hollywood glamour.

The U.N. has recently tried to make up for it, but it has yet to find a project that lives up to the critically-acclaimed Hitchcock classic. In the past two years, the U.N. has made its premises available for weekend shoots to a season opener of Ugly Betty that dealt with malaria, an episode of Law and Order that portrayed Central African child soldiers, and an Israel cooking program called The Flying Chef. Over the weekend, the world organization turned over its General Assembly Hall to the makers of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the latest in a series of apocalyptic robot actions flicks.

In the annals of missed opportunities, the U.N.’s decision to deny Alfred Hitchock‘s request to film his 1959 masterpiece North by Northwest on the grounds of its headquarters building surely must rank high. Certainly, Cary Grant‘s appearance at the U.N. delegate’s lounge could have imbued the fledgling organization with some Hollywood glamour.

The U.N. has recently tried to make up for it, but it has yet to find a project that lives up to the critically-acclaimed Hitchcock classic. In the past two years, the U.N. has made its premises available for weekend shoots to a season opener of Ugly Betty that dealt with malaria, an episode of Law and Order that portrayed Central African child soldiers, and an Israel cooking program called The Flying Chef. Over the weekend, the world organization turned over its General Assembly Hall to the makers of Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the latest in a series of apocalyptic robot actions flicks.

“I don’t think I would have approved of a cooking show,” said Shashi Tharoor, an Indian novelist, politician and former head of U.N. public information, who first brought Hollywood to U.N. headquarters, and who courted A-list directors like Sydney Pollack and Steven Soderberg. But he said he had no objection to bringing low-brow projects like Transformers to the U.N. as long as they promoted a positive image to its viewers and introduced the organization to a mass audience, particularly children. “After all, Hitchcock’s thriller would have been considered low-brow by the standards of the 1950s.”

Juan Carlos Brandt, the U.N. official who is responsible for cultivating the organization’s relationship with Hollywood, points out that the filming of Transformers is part of a broader outreach to the Hollywood film industry. In March, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon appealed to a gathering of Hollywood producers and directors to use their cinematic powers to dramatize the U.N.’s struggles to preserve peace, fight trafficking of women, and curb global warming.

“I’m here to talk to the creative community — Hollywood — about how they could help the United Nations’ work,” Ban said. ” I really want to have the U.N. message coursing continually, and spreading out continuously to the whole world. The creative community, through [television] and movies, can reach millions and millions of people at once, repeatedly, and then 10 and 20 years after a film’s been made.”

Furthermore, the U.N.’s new Creative Community Outreach Initiative  was designed to help people from the movie industry interact with U.N. officials. The initiative is currently working on a project called “Stories Waiting to be Told” that will invite U.N. staffers to write brief story proposals. “Just start writing,” instructs an internal U.N. notice sent to staff. “It could be a line or two or a bit more elaborate.  If you have (or know about) photos or videos, let us know.”

Brandt said the U.N. only requires film companies to pay for the costs of filming at its premises, though it sometimes encourages them to make a donation to a U.N. humanitarian agency or to address a U.N.-related topic in their stories. “We want to be friendlier to these people than we have in the past,” he said, noting that U.N. officials advised the makers of the television series 24, which featured the United Nations, but was not filmed there. The exposure to a U.N. cause “is better than a check for fifty thousand in rent. It can put an issue on the map.” The makers of Transformers did, in fact, make a donation to a U.N. agency.

For decades, the U.N. was reluctant to let films crews onto its grounds, fearing it would cheapen the institution’s reputation as the world premier diplomatic center. In 1997, the U.N. declined a request to film The Perfect Murder, a remake of another Hitchcock classic, Dial M. For Murder, starring Michael Douglas as a jealous husband who plots the murder of his cheating wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow.

The U.N. first ended a film production boycott in 2004, when Sydney Pollack, the Academy Award winning director of Out of Africa, convinced U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan to allow him to shoot his new film The Interpreter on location at the U.N. That film was as much a love song to the U.N. as an international thriller. It depicts the story of an interpreter, Nicole Kidman, who secures a job at the international organization in order to try to assassinate an African despot. “I lied to everyone else because if I didn’t they wouldn’t let me anywhere near the U.N., and that’s the only place that I believe has a chance to change any of this,” Kidman’s character confides to Secret Service agent Sean Penn, who is responsible for protecting the African leader, and ultimately persuades Kidman to abandon her plot.

“It was not the biggest hit of the year, but it was still seen by millions of people,” recalled Tharoor, who negotiated rights of script approval. “We had a film that made people conscious of what the U.N. did.” Tharoor — who noted that the film initiative was roundly opposed by Annan’s other advisors — said he also invited an Israeli film company that shot a reality program that featured contestants living out the fantasy of serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. 

The U.N. would subsequently allow Steven Soderberg to direct Che, a sprawling documentary style film that favorably portrayed the Argentine Revolutionary Che Guevara’s life as a guerrilla fighter and intellectual guide to a generation of Latin American’s militant leftists.  The movies splices in numerous black and white scenes of Che, played by Benicio Del Toro, addressing the General Assembly and debating other Latin American ambassadors, including some stand-ins from the diplomatic community. “Cuba,” Che said in the film , “can stand tall in this assembly and demonstrate the correctness of the cry with which it was baptized: Free territory of America.”

“The film was sort of a flop; it went on for so long they had to split into two films, and it was in Spanish,” said Steven Schlesinger, a writer who introduced Soderberg to U.N. officials, and who appears in the scene as an aide to Adlai Stevenson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Schlesinger, who wrote a book about the U.N.’s founding,  Act of Creation, said he was surprised that neither the U.N. nor the United States expressed concern about its association with a film that lionized a Communist revolutionary that devoted his life to struggle against America’s political dominance in the Western Hemisphere. The Bush administration, he said, “never raised any objection to it.”

No one, apparently has raised any objections to the latest film venture. U.N. officials said they are barred from describing the story of Transformers, citing a non-disclosure agreement. In the run up to shooting, the film’s casting company put out a request for “Arabic/Middle Eastern, South Asian/East Indian, and African men and women with traditional ethnic wardrobe for work on Nov. 12 or Nov. 13.”

But an early draft of the script, circulating on the Internet, says the U.N. is the setting for a meeting of world leaders trying to confront an alien invasion by the Decepticons, the villainous alien robots that are seeking to overthrow the world. The franchise’s hero, Optimus Prime, joins forces with humans to save the earth. This time around, nobody gets murdered at the United Nations.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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