This spring I have taught a course called "American Grand
Strategy Through Film." I have promised
myself -- and threatened my students -- that I would teach this course for
years. This year I finally fulfilled
that promise/threat, and I have enjoyed it enormously.
The origin of the course was the growing embarrassment I felt when my clever
cultural references in lectures fell increasingly flat over the years. Jokes and cool references that resonated with
students two-plus decades ago when I got started in this business just met with
blank stares in recent years.
"What? You haven't
seen Red Dawn? You don't remember Rocky IV? Really, you don't
get the quip about a 'mine-shaft gap'?"
So I agreed to teach the course for a select group of
advanced Dukies -- ones strong enough to respond wisely to their parents' queries of, "What? We are paying Duke tuition for you to watch movies?"
As any professor will tell you, constructing a syllabus is a
lot harder than it seems. Well,
constructing a film course syllabus is even harder than that.
I made some simplifying moves. I would focus only on American foreign policy
and only on American films about American foreign policy. I would prefer popular film to documentaries
because popular films are more likely to capture the public imagination and
thereby reflect and possibly influence public opinion and policymakers. Popular films depict a certain understanding
of America's global role, usually in a time-bound way -- so a movie from early
in the Vietnam war would be quite different from a movie about Vietnam made
Even so, it was difficult to compile a list of films that
would withstand critical scrutiny. I
consulted experts and many just highly opinionated sorts, but in the end I went
with my gut.
Some choices were easy: Dr.
Strangelove, Apocalypse Now, Red Dawn. I concede that one of those is not like the
other, but Red Dawn captured well the
mood when I started graduate school and was, after all, the motivating
case. Others got added when students
weighed in with their favorites, like Top
Gun and Rocky IV.
Some got included not because they were high art but because
they captured well one important moment -- for instance, Stripes is not a film to wow the film critics but it does deliver
well on the post-Vietnam/Carter malaise and the notion of the military as a
home for losers who might make good, maybe (and, alas, is a lot more bawdy than
I had remembered it being). It turns
out, you can have a very interesting class discussion comparing Stripes and Being There, and contrasting the same with Apocalypse Now. And, you can
get a great discussion about Vietnam comparing Apocalypse Now to Green
Somewhat to my surprise, the hardest period to match with a film
was détente. Why are there no great
films about America's detente foreign policy?
I ended up using one film that was delightful and that worked well -- the
1960's farce, The Russians Are Coming,
The Russians Are Coming -- and pairing it with another that did not work so
well -- the Bond film from 1977, The
Spy Who Loved Me. I wanted to use a
Bond film because you can teach an entire course just tracking the arc of the
Cold War through Bond films, and since I could not find a good détente film I
decided to slot one in here.
But it is striking there is no great foreign policy film
about détente. My friends who have
thought more about this than I have speculate that that might be because
détente reflected in part a turn inward -- a turn away from foreign troubles --
and so the focus of great films turned inward too. I think that is part of it, but there must be
more to the story, I just can't figure out what it might be.
I was also struck by how there is no great film about the
Iraq surge. We watched Charlie Wilson's War, which is a
wonderfully engaging interpretation of one aspect of the end of the Cold War
(and makes for chilling viewing in 2014). I could well imagine something of the sort being done to capture the
Iraq surge (even if it would, as Charlie
Wilson's War did, inevitably distort the history). There are compelling movies from the surge
time period, and we watched many of them: Syriana,
The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty. Many of
the devices used to make those films interesting could be applied to the
surge. Why hasn't it been done?
Perhaps next time I teach it, there will be a good surge
movie to use. What else should I do
differently? Check out the film list
below and give me your constructive feedback.
Guess which movie the students liked least, and voted most to drop for
next time? And permit me to tease the
students' own effort -- their contribution to American grand strategy through
film, which will be ready very soon.
My course list:
War on Terror
Triumphalism vs. Skepticism
Act of Valor
The Good War
Why We Fight, Episode 1: Prelude to War
Why We Fight, Episode 7: War Comes to America
Military-Industrial Complex and Nuclear Madness
Seven Days in May
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
vs. Vietnam Skepticism
Spy Who Loved Me
Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming
Cold War Victory
Post Cold War
Wag the Dog
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