Hillary Clinton, Watch These Movies!
High Noon, Godfather II, Grand Illusion, and 22 other indispensable movies for understanding war and diplomacy.
Last week, in the online edition of Slate's sister publication Foreign Policy, two of its regular bloggers, Stephen M. Walt and Daniel W. Drezner, drew up lists of what they regard as the best movies ever made about international relations.
Both are eminent international-relations professors, Walt at Harvard, Drezner at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. It's no surprise that neither of them gives our own film critic, Dana Stevens—or, for that matter, Gene Shalit—the slightest cause for worry. It is a shock, though, how lightly they've dipped into their own profession's vast cultural pool.
Walt was inspired to compile the list after a friend told him about a film festival featuring more than 30 movies about wine. "That got me thinking," he writes. "If Foreign Policy had a film festival, what movies should we show?"
A couple of his selections are no-brainers: Dr. Strangelove, the ultimate satire of the nuclear arms race and the Cold War mentality; and Casablanca, the ultimate romance (though far from the best movie) about occupation and resistance. The rest, however, range from lame to puzzling.
His No. 3 pick is The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's 1940 lampooning of Hitler, which, Walt writes, "reminds us that making fun of despots is often an effective weapon." Maybe Walt doesn't know that Chaplin regretted making this movie after learning of the Holocaust and the true extent of Hitler's monstrousness. The little tramp's pacifist speech at the end of the movie is also a disgrace given the timing of Chamberlain's appeasement. Even so, stipulating Walt's point about fun-poking, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be is the far defter film.
Walt lists Gandhiand A Passage to India for showing "everything you ever wanted to know about colonialism and the unavoidable clash of cultures that it produces." Really? They're not bad, if somewhat overblown and airbrushed. But when it comes to lifting the veil off colonialism, they're trifles compared with Battle of Algiers and Lawrence of Arabia. Battle is the most realistic film ever about colonialism, insurgencies, and urban-guerrilla conflict. Lawrenceis the quintessential epic about the "dreamers of day" who thought they could reshape the map of the Middle East. Yet both films go unmentioned by Walt and Drezner—reason enough to ignore their suggestions.
Next on Walt's list is Fail Safe, Sidney Lumet's 1964 melodrama about a nuclear showdown between the superpowers. The ending is infuriatingly banal, and the whole film is outshone in every respect, not least its realism (in substance if not tone) by Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, which came out the same year.
Then comes Wag the Dog. OK, the mendacity of the Bush years has made this film a retrospective classic, though it's more about domestic politics than international affairs.
Judgment at Nuremberg, about the post-WWII Nazi war-crimes trials, Walt sees as a nail-biter and the birth of the human rights movement. But it's moralizing pap—like most of Stanley Kramer's movies—especially compared with The Wannsee Conference, a truly gripping German film, also based on documentary transcripts, about the secret meeting where the Nazi high command approved the Final Solution for Europe's Jews.
Appearing toward the end of Walt's list are two head-thumpers. The first is Syriana, which he calls "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," adding, "Not to be taken too seriously, but not without insights either"—all of which prompts two questions: What exactly are those "insights," and why is this movie on the list? (And, again, where is Lawrence of Arabia? Where's Three Kings?)
The most jaw-dropping pick of all, though, is Independence Day, which "makes my list," Walt writes, "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." Here's the thing. Walt is a classic International Realist, the author of such gravitas-beaming books as The Origins of Alliances, Taming American Power, and Revolution and War. Yet this is his view of "balance-of-power theory in action"—the one-worlder's wet-dream cliché about how all the nations join forces to beat back monsters from outer space? A much more cogent portrait of balance-of-power theory is the scene in The Godfather where the five families agree to get into the heroin business and divvy up the territory. (That's nearly a metaphor for the Congress of Vienna.) Better still is the scene in The Godfather Part II in which Hyman Roth, Michael Corleone, and the chiefs of various U.S. corporations, standing on a hotel balcony in Havana, slice up a birthday cake that's decorated with the map of Cuba.
Walt's list spurred Dan Drezner to devise his own, and Drezner's is even stranger. He agrees with Walt on Dr. Strangelove and Casablanca, but his No. 1 pick is The Lion in Winter, which he says is "about the strengths and limits of rational choice in international politics." Um, OK: a strange choice, especially for the top of the list, but there's a daring quality about it.
Then comes Children of Men, a terrific, truly frightening dystopian film. But Drezner sees it as a depiction of a global response to pandemic, when it's really about the breakdown of all order. (The premise of a suddenly infertile world is strictly metaphorical and the film's weakest element.)
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Still from The Godfather: Part II by Paramount Pictures 1974. Stills on Slate's home page from: The Godfather: Part II © Paramount Pictures 1974; High Noon © Stanley Kramer Productions 1952; The Grand Illusion © Réalisation d'art cinématographique 1937; Lawrence of Arabia © Horizon Pictures (II) 1962; Three Kings © Warner Brothers Picture 1999. All rights reserved.