The Duck of Minerva

Neorealists as Critical Theorists: Film Edition

29 April 2009

On Monday, neorealist IR scholar and Foreign Policy blogger Stephen M. Walt posted his top ten list of “movies that tells (sic) us something about international relations.” He was looking for broad insights, beyond what might be offered in genre war films or spy flicks. He also excluded documentaries and overt propaganda exercises.

Long-time Duck readers may recall that I previously wrote a series of blog posts about an IR film class I taught in fall 2006. Since that semester, I’ve taught the course another time (and changed a few film selections). I’m also scheduled to teach it during fall 2009. While other Duck bloggers have occasionally posted about film, I have a ready list to assess Walt’s choices. For now, I’ll ignore Dan Drezner’s list. Drezner agreed with only 2 of Walt’s suggestions — and mine — in his own post on this topic.

In my class, I select a few films that reflect relatively standard IR theory. However, most of the films viewed in the class are fairly critical of these theories and some films offer alternative critical perspectives on IR that are arguably missing from mainstream scholarly debates. After all, I am a critical theorist working on a project entitled “The Comedy of Global Politics.”

What else would you expect from me, right?

Here’s an interesting tidbit, however: Walt’s ranked top 10 list includes 5 films from my class and nearly all offer critical (comedic) readings of IR: #6 “Wag the Dog,” #4 “Gandhi” (yes, a comedy by ordinary standards), #3 “The Great Dictator,” #2 “Dr. Strangelove,” and #1 “Casablanca.” Drezner included “Dr. Strangelove” and “Casablanca.”

Allow me to reiterate this point for emphasis. When selecting films that say something important about IR, the neorealist Walt picks a number of critical and comedic movies. Perhaps the overlap between Walt’s list and my class is not surprising — I suppose it depends upon whether you buy my argument about “neorealists as critical theorists.”

Walt includes some other fine films, but my top 10 list would probably include some different choices: “Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Quiet American,” “Breaker Morant,” “The Whale Rider,” and “V for Vendetta.” Additionally, I’d have to think long and hard about omitting “Missing” and “Lord of War” from a top 10 list.

Neither Walt nor I have included films with many characters who do not speak English, which is obviously a major shortcoming. However, these choices reflect the discipline’s biases as well and thus serve as a critique (or as a jumping off point for a critique). My students are required to watch additional films outside class for a review assignment and their list of choices includes a number of non-English language films.