By Joe Young
I recently reviewed a paper that explained how to structure an International Relations course through watching important films. It was a cool paper, and prompted me to consider the best films that teach us something about political violence. Below, I offer a short (incomplete) list of some films that I enjoy and teach us something about political violence. I also suggest a couple non-obvious (the whole Die Hard series and anything with the Rock are no brainers) films to avoid.
Battle of Algiers is the gold standard for a dramatic portrayal of insurgency, terrorism, torture, and colonialism. Most of the actors were actually involved in the Algerian conflict and some of the footage is spliced from real events. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it right now. Stop by, and I’ll lend you my copy.
2. The Siege
So, this one is in the bin at Wal-Mart for like $4.96. It also stars Bruce Willis. I’m probably not helping my cause with any of this information. Given that the movie was made in 1998, it was remarkably prophetic. The movie dramatizes a horrific string of terrorist attacks in New York City (again in 1998) by radical Islamic militants and the subsequent overreaction by the US government (ok, Bruce Willis, but he is a microcosm of the CT community). The CIA tortures, spies domestically, gets into turf wars with the FBI, and there are people who know things and other people aren’t listening to them. Not Oscar-worthy, but worth watching as a canary in the coal mine.
3. District 9
This 2009 science fiction thriller is built on actual events from Apartheid-era South Africa. While the movie is one large allegory about apartheid, segregation, xenophobia, and race, it is also has plenty of action. For students of ethnic conflict, it brings up some really fascinating questions. For example, how much of a particular ethnicity does one have to have in their blood to count as a member of that group? How might this influence being accepted or rejected by one’s group or the alternative ethnic group?
As a disclaimer, I enjoy any film about a dystopian pre or post-apocalyptic future. In Children of Men society is on the verge of collapse as women across the globe have been infertile for nearly two decades. The world is roughly broken into countries that have completely collapsed and those that haven’t, with refugees are pouring into the few functioning societies left. The movie spurs discussion about state collapse, refugees, and resource depletion. It also has several long, continuous shots that feel like authentic depictions of war.
Movies to Avoid (or at least don’t take them as a useful guide for understanding political violence)
Why do people perpetrate violence according to Christopher Nolan? Revenge? Check. Insanity? Check. Naked ambition? Maybe. The final installment of this trio is a muddled mess if we attempt to understand the motivations of the main specialists in violence (Batman and Bane). It tries to turn the simple Manichean battle of light and dark from movies, such as the Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc. on its head, but it drops and disfigures the baby into something that just doesn’t make sense. Leaving aside the horrible crime connected to the film, it feels like violence for violence’s sake and I felt a tad dirty watching. (For an alternative take on the The Dark Knight Rises, see Christian Davenport’s piece on the film’s view of political violence.)
Is torture moral? Does it work? These are the critical competing questions most think we should ponder when considering policies of so-called enhanced interrogations. Can we get any inspiration from Jake Gyllenhaal to answer these questions? Unsurprisingly, the answer is no. Torture is used, it is unclear whether the information is useful, it is unclear whether the recipient was guilty or innocent, and Jake Gyllenhaal waffles over his role in all of it. I hear Zero Dark Thirty also flubs torture, but to be fair, I haven’t seen it (by design).
What am I missing? What other good films should be added to the list? Which should be avoided?