So there is a nice little academic dust-up going on over IR film: Walt, then Drezner, then Kaplan, then Drezner again. All mention good movies you should see, but none mention any dumb or silly movies you should see that still tell us a lot about IR. Rambo 2, e.g., can tell you as much about American attitudes toward Vietnam, the Soviets, and the Cold War as the vastly superior Hearts and Minds.
Given the sheer volume of idiot films with a pretense to IR insight, I classify mine by types of paranoia and hysteria bred:
1. World Politics is a Global Conspiracy!
IMF: Battle of Seattle
UN: Left Behind series
Jewish: Valley of the Wolves Iraq
American: The Host
Catholic: The DaVinci Code, Angels & Demons
Japan: Rising Sun
Bankers, Jews, albino priests (wth?), Lyndon Johnson, the US Forces in Korea – everyone gets a shot at global tyranny. How come there are no movies about cliques of sinister college professors plotting global domination?
2. Nurturing your Inner Fascist Superman
Starship Troopers, 300, Triumph of the Will
In case you thought war wasn’t fun, along came ST and 300 to tell you why you’re a liberal wimp. 300 actually has a scene where the soldiers laugh as arrows rain down on them. Good lord.
ST also contains the greatest Hollywood lines ever about the profession: “This year you learned how the social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. How the veterans took control and imposed the stability that has lasted for generations.” Those limp-wristed egg-heads! Hang ‘em from the lampposts!
3. Kill those Commies!
Red Dawn, Rocky IV, Rambo 3
Back in the 80s, you knew those commies deserved to die. You knew they were plotting to spread the evil empire into America. So forget the Day After, you wanted to kick some russki a—! And Patrick Swayze told you why. They were going to take away your Second Amendment rights!
So laughably ridiculous today, you can’t help but love the Reagan-era action film. I watched Red Dawn with a Russian friend. She exploded into laughter almost immediately and continued for the entire film. Rocky trained to the worst 80s montage ever, while D Lundgren took steroids; but Rocky’s victorious American spirit still came through in the end! Yeah! And don’t miss Stallone taking down a Soviet helicopter with an arrow in Rambo 3.
4. You don’t know much about Africa and you don’t really care
Black Hawk Down, Blood Diamond
bonus Japanese edition: The Last Samurai
If you ever needed an excuse to explain your ignorance of Africa – they’re all just killing each other over there, right? – these films will help you out. God forbid you read a book about the place, just enjoy the on-screen slaughter. At least Blood Diamond will help you sound a little intelligent at the next grad student meeting.
But you say, you don’t really want to read about Asia either. I know, I know. It’s pretty far away, and the Seven Samurai is 3.5 hours long and in black and white for god’s sake. (And you’ve never heard of Ozu.) Well, Tom Cruise is here to help! Didn’t you know that the Japanese needed a white guy to realize they should hold onto their culture? Good thing Americans are around to help balloon-headed foreigners find the important things in life.
5. The GWoT is really just a Misunderstanding
Kingdom of Heaven, The Siege
Is there any movie in the GWoT era more misguided than KoH? You’d never know that deep theological differences divide Islam and the West, that deep-rooted frictions (Bosnia, Spain) have made reconciliation difficult, mutual histories of imperialism created rivers of blood, that language and cultural differences block shared norms, etc.
None of the deep-seated religious frenzy of the Middle Ages is presented in its own terms. Wholly missing is that Christians and Muslims thought it was right to kill each other, as well as internal dissenters, for religious truth. Instead, the presentation is through an anachronistic, can’t-we-all-just-get-along liberal GwoT lens – complete with O Bloom saying at the end that Christians, Jews and Muslims all have claim to Jerusalem. Oh please. Religious pluralism in the 13th century? Are you serious? Despite a 3.5 hour run-time, this obvious medieval characteristic is missing, and KoH degenerates into multicultural pap
The clerics are bloodthirsty or insipid. The Christian princes are mostly brigands, and in a shameless act of currying favor in the modern Middle East, the Muslim princes are a model of tolerance. All-in-all, its political correctness all over the place; it’s possibly the most anachronistic serious film about the Middle Ages ever. If you want to see what people really thought about religion in the Middle Ages, complete with all the superstition, absolutism, and butchery, try The Name of the Rose or Queen Margot.
6. The Cold War was just a Misunderstanding
Star Trek 6, Cold War-era James Bond movies
If there is any lesson to be drawn from Hollywood’s standard treatment of tough topics, it’s that it wants to offend or challenge no one, so as to insure that everyone will buy movie tickets. Hence the multicultural pluralist fluff of KoH or the gentle portrayal of the Japanese military junta in Pearl Harbor.
So god forbid Bond actually battle the KGB. Instead he usually hooks up (literally of course) with some hot Russian agent to battle a rouge financier, industrialist, general, whatever. Even in the Bond film about North Korea – the worst country on earth – the filmmaker didn’t have the guts to make the villain a part of the regime. Yawn. C’mon already. Even the DPRK gets a pass? We think the Bond movies are about the Cold War, but they really aren’t. Usually, the KGB is working with MI6 or the CIA. The real Bond meme is straight from the antiglobalization movement – megalomaniac corporate leaders who want to take over the planet. Bill Gates as a psychopath, not Brezhnev, is the real enemy. Bleh.
Star Trek 6 follows the same silly pattern. The Cold War was really cooked up by military leaders on both sides who wanted to rise to power! And the Soviet-Klingons were really peace-lovers, defending their culture and loving their children too, just like Sting told us. Whatever…
7. Intelligence Work is Really Cool – Babes, Gadgets, Jumping out of Airplanes
Bond, Jack Ryan, Bourne
My students come to class with some of the most hair-brained ideas about world politics, because spy movies are so ubiquitous and so stupid. Blame Bond of course, but Jack Ryan – with a PhD no less! – has gotten more and more ridiculous too. I stopped reading Clancy novels after Ryan became POTUS. PhDs carrying guns and becoming prez? Gimme a break.
I have a few friends who work at the CIA, and they do a lot of what professors do – reading open source material, trying to draw conclusions, writing product. Certainly the literature on intelligence suggests this too. The most convincing film I saw on the CIA was The Good Shepherd, and the best film ever on intelligence work in the field is The Lives of Others. No one named Agent XXX or Holly Goodhead shows up.
Bonus all-time Bond idiocy: Denise Richardson with a PhD
8. We lost Vietnam because of the Politicians
We Were Soldiers, Rambo 2
So you can’t stand the fact that the US lost in Vietnam. It must be someone else’s fault – Democrats, hippies, freemasons… So why not dredge up the ‘stabbed-in-the-back’ theory of the Weimer German right? Jews sold Germany up the river in WWI. So did the protestors, bureaucrats, and politicians in the 60s and 70s over Vietnam. If the Democrats hadn’t voted against war funding, we might have won! Call it the R Reagan-O North-T Clancy theory of the war’s failure.
I find this so toxic, its frightening. The war was ‘lost,’ because by the early 70s it was clear that South Vietnam would never stand on its own; the cost to the US was threatening other international commitments, as well as the domestic economy and social order; and the South’s collapse, we finally learned, would not result in a massive domino effect in East Asia. In other words, losing had become cheaper than continuing to fight by the early 70s. We decided to give up after a major effort when we realized that the costs now outweighed the benefits. This is why the Republican Nixon administration accepted the Paris peace deal that did not force the North to remove its forces from the South. We just didn’t care that much by 1973.
Yes, we could have slugged it out, perhaps into the 80s, or, risking a wider war, used nuclear weapons, bombed the Red River dykes, or openly invaded the North. But it just wasn’t worth it anymore. As Cronkite said, we did the best we could as an honorable people, and that was pretty good.
If you believe that that is liberal professorial clap-trap, that Americans win, they don’t explain defeat, then Stallone will give you the Reagan era revisionism you crave. The film includes such iconic right-wing delusions as: Rambo’s question, ‘do we get to win this time?,’ his retrieval by force of POWs, his defeat of both Vietnamese and Soviet forces, and his assault on the feckless, lying homefront bureaucrat who wants his mission to fail. So in 90 minutes, the shirtless supersoldier re-fights and wins the Vietnam War, wins the Cold War to boot, and vindicates one of the great right-wing myths – so effective against the left in the years after Vietnam – that the US left soldiers behind and that the North secretly held POWs (for what possible reason?). The movie’s so close to propaganda, it could have been funded by the Army or the Reagan White House.
Gibson gives you Vietnam as World War 2. Strong men with good families doing what is right. Gone are the concerns about imperialism, US behavior in the field, the confusion over ends and means, the blurred lines between the VC and civilians, or the sheer bloody mess of the war in vastly better films like Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, or Apocalypse Now. We Were Soldiers is the celebratory Saving Private Ryan of Vietnam war movies, complete with subtle digs about politicians not committing enough to do the job.
9. America kicks A—!
Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Stealth, Lord of the Rings 3, Pear Harbor, Armageddon, Behind Enemy Lines, and just about every US war movie ever made
bonus lampoon: Team America: World Police
Americans love to tell their history to themselves in such a way as to lionize the individual US solider, thank the US for saving the world from fanaticisms, and generally vindicate American exceptionalism. The regular diet comes from the History Channel with its ceaseless treatment of US involvement in WWII, the ‘good war.’ Spielberg lays it on awfully thick in Band and Ryan.
Ask a Russian what they think of this treatment of WWII, and you will get either a laugh with a shake of the head, or anger over American ignorance of the real cost of the European war. 20 million Russians died fighting the Nazis. 200k Americans did. We stepped in late (6/’44), after the USSR had essentially stopped and reversed the Nazi tide. We played the offshore balancer – which was good strategy but not especially heroic. We were entirely comfortable allowing red and brown totalitarianisms to destroy each other, before we stepped in to prevent Stalin from marching to Paris. When Patton famously said, ‘we could still lose this war,’ he was lying to himself to exaggerate the importance of the western effort. Ryan wildly overrates the US contribution to the European war. Unfortunately no good movie about the Eastern front exists. Try Enemy at the Gates, Stalingrad, or Cross of Iron, but they aren’t that good.
Every Russian knows this history. Its etched into the very landscape of European Russia, and its deeply humbling when they ask you why the US didn’t intervene earlier as they were being slaughtered. The answer is realpolitik, but that hardly feels sufficient when you are talking about the Nazis. Ryan and many US WWII movies are downright embarrassing when you are confronted by the enormity of Russian suffering and Russian moral anger for our late entry.
As for M Bay, he might as well collect a paycheck from the USAF. Pearl Harbor is so bad, it’s hard to know where to begin. The worst line is probably when A Baldwin points to a group of US pilots and says that is why we are going to win, complete with melodramatic music in the background. As if courage, fortitude, willingness to sacrifice, etc. were some US monopoly. Japanese pilots flew planes into US ships for god’s sake. This is the kind of remark that sends foreigners up the wall. Once you live overseas long enough, you see how much non-Americans resent that sort of over-the-top US self-praise. The reason the US won is a lot more bureaucratic and less romantic – good leadership, a huge industrial advantage, larger population, etc. Using America’s material superiority to achieve decisive military advantage is the “American way of war” (or more recently, the “Powell Doctrine”) and flows right from Sun Tzu’s argument that you should only fight when you have the upper hand (“every battle is won before its fought”). But this does not fit with the John Wayne image Americans cultivate of the US solider or his actions.
Armageddon is the similar. Thank God America is here to save the world, because nobody else could do it. Good heavens. How arrogant are we ?! How many slow-mo shots of US flags and pilots will sate American exceptionalism?
More revisionism is the Balkan pseudo-history Behind Enemy Lines and the USAF commercial that is Stealth. Behind appeals once again to the rugged, macho US solider myth we love, but it wildly misrepresents America’s commitment in the Balkans. The US scarcely did a thing to stop the war until 1996. And we certainly weren’t trying to stop the slaughters, as the movie suggests. If you know the history of the Balkan wars, it’s fairly embarrassing to watch.
Finally, nothing channels the ‘America-will-save-world’ motif of the Bush years like the last LOTR film. A few heroes stand against the armies of darkness to usher in a new world of light in the West. Come on already. They might have just put Hitler, Stalin, or OBL’s head where Sauron’s eye was on top of that tower. Only children and fundamentalists believe that ‘evil’ is some external entity that can be ‘defeated’ by force of arms. If you ever wanted to know what ‘moral clarity’ looks like, this is your movie. In this story, like W’s fantasy of the GWoT, the bad guys are irredeemable, so you can say stuff like ‘no prisoners!’ and butcher them all with no qualms (see point 2 above). But don’t try this in the real world; that’s what leads to Abu Ghraib.
Team America does a great job lampooning all this. The song ‘America, F— Yeah!’ could be the theme song of the W years and should tell you why overseas Americans had to say there were from Canada.
10. Fox News told me the Third World is a Pretty Creepy Place
Gunga Din, Indiana Jones 2, Commando, Turistas, Hostel
Does your inner racist miss Western imperialism? Wasn’t Casablanca a nice place when the French ran it and the Arabs served you drinks at Rick’s? Has Glenn Beck convinced you to fear your organs will be harvested by dark skinned people whose language you can’t understand? Then allow Indy and Arnie to show you how right you really are!
Were Lucas and Spielberg on drugs when they made Indy 2? Human sacrifice and child slavery with white people to stop it all? Or try Gunga Din, where the hero is an Indian solider who loyally dies for his British masters fighting other Indians. It’s basically the movie version of the ‘White Man’s Burden.’ Yikes!
And just in case you were curious how many shady Hispanic paramilitaries Schwarzenegger can machinegun in 85 minutes, now you can find out. Commando, like the Rambo films, is a ‘great’ 80s revenge fantasy – this time about disciplining sleazy drug-dealing Latin dictators like Noriega or those bad guys in Miami Vice episodes.
Like Black Hawk Down or the Last Samurai, these sorts of films use a white character to ‘anchor’ western viewers in the story, but they frequently slip into postcolonial tropes that are downright embarrassing or exploitative.
So enjoy a filmfest of the silly, reactionary, hyperpatriotic, conspiratorial, whatever meets your paranoid fancy!
Finally, let me conclude with the side, but telling, observation that all 4 of us are movie buffs – an eminently academic pasttime. Gee, I wonder why academics’ hobbies never include mountain climbing or marathon running? Like Mozart’s music, we are an indoor art🙂