In FP's sister publication Slate, Fred Kaplan critiques Steve Walt's list of top ten international relations films, as well as my own ("neither of them gives our own film critic, Dana Stevens—or, for that matter, Gene Shalit—the slightest cause for worry.") In an act of sheer bravado, Kaplan then goes on to list 25 other films that he thinks are better than any of either Walt's film or mine.
To which I say -- oh, it is so on now, Kaplan!! You want to throw down on films? Let's throw down!!
[Wouldn't this have been a more succinct reply?--ed. Yeah, I was going for more Jack Nicholson-crazy voice, but that works, sure.]
First of all, what act of hubris could make Kaplan claim that any film on his top-25 list is better than Dr. Strangelove? It's like making a top ten best film list and consciously omitting Citizen Kane. There's no point to it except sheer bloody-mindedness. Dr. Strangelove captures all of the absurdities of the Cold War in one neat package ("Gentlemen, you can't fight in here, this is the war room!"). I didn't elaborate on that point in my original post for the same reason the world doesn't need another essay extolling Orson Welles' masterpiece -- it's an exercise in redundance.
Second, Kaplan reacts to my fave flick, The Lion in Winter, as follows: "Um, OK: a strange choice, especially for the top of the list, but there's a daring quality about it." This leads me to wonder if Kaplan has actually seen the film (and, full disclosure, I haven't seen some of the films on Kaplan's list, such as The Lives of Others. From what I've heard, many of these films would likely have been on my list had I seen them. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, however, you make top ten lists with the films you've seen, not the films you wish you've seen). This is a movie about a powerful but aging leader desperate to ensure that the gains his country has achieved under his rule persist after he is gone. To do this, he has to outwit a foreign leader and plenty of domestic (in both senses of the word) adversaries. This movie is filled with strategizing, backroom dealing, bluffing, backstabbing, balacing, bandwagoning, and an waful lot of shouting. In other words, a typical day in world politics.
Third, and more interesting, is defining what makes a movie a movie about international relations. Kaplan nitpicks at Wag the Dog because "it's more about domestic politics than international affairs." He similarly picks on Seven Days in May because it "isn't really about international politics." Part of studying global affairs, however, is investigating the interplay between domestic politics and and international relations. Wag the Dog is about how domestic difficulties can translate into foreign policy escapades (or staged foreign policy escapades). Seven Days in May is clearly about civil-military relations, but on an abstract level it's about the difficulties of implementing international agreements over the resistance of powerful domestic interests.
Now, all this said, I can't deny the quality of some of Kaplan's selections. The moment I posted my list, I started kicking myself because I forgot about The Godfather. It really is the perfect metaphor about international relations -- alternating levels of tension and calm punctuated by occasional bouts of violence.
As for Kaplan's other films, Goodbye, Lenin! is also an inspired choice. Thirteen Days is less inspired -- I could never get past Kevin Costner's atrocious accent. On the other hand, I do have a soft spot for 1974's The Missiles of October.
Finally, a few other films that got omitted from all of our lists but merit further conversation:
1. A Fish Called Wanda (1988): One could argue that the Anglo-American alliance was the most significant relationship for much of the twentieth century. This film, on the cultural differences that exist within the special relationship, is worth multiple viewings. In a perfect world, watch this with a mix of Americans and Brits -- they laugh at different parts.
2. Traffic (2000): The debilitating effects of drugs -- and the drug war -- on both sides of the Rio Grande makes for interesting viewing. Plus, there's a terrific Salma Hayek cameo.
3. Henry V (1944) and Henry V (1989): Alex Massie makes a good point here: "the Olivier and Branagh versions remind one that an individual text may be subject to more than one interpretation. Plus, of course, there's an awful lot of Just War theorising to be done on the back of Henry V."
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.