Diplomacy and all the annexed practices are often represented in international affairs movies. Therefore, the list below aims to group in only ten entries the most interesting, inspiring, but also condemning movies about diplomats, diplomatic activities, official and unofficial negotiations. This selection wanted to suggest movies with a wide range of situations representing different historical periods, geographical zones, and diplomatic missions. Almost all of them respect the historical truth of the events, except one. The list does not reflect any political position. On the contrary, it intends to entertain, inspire, explain the good and bad sides of diplomacy, and introduce the ways of negotiating.
1. Thirteen Days (2000)
Thirteen Days is an American historical political film, directed by Roger Donaldson, staging the Cuban Missile Crises of 1962 from the perspective of the U.S. political leadership. The movie, starred by Kevin Costner, Bruce Greenwood, and Steven Culp, is highly captivating and intriguing and comprises the reality of the escalation of events in those “thirteen days”, which involved the most important public figures of that time. The director tells this event from the perspectives of the three most crucial central characters in the White House – the President, J.F. Kennedy, his brother, and Attorney General, Bob, and Kenneth O’Donnell, the President’s Private Secretary.
Diplomacy, in its true meaning, is the key that links each aspect of this film. This movie shows the interlinking between official bilateral diplomacy, U.N. negotiation and diplomacy, unofficial diplomacy, and internal negotiation among U.S. political actors. Indeed, it is highly recommended for international relations students. Moreover, even though the American rhetoric certainly does not lack in this movie, the story is still compelling, engaging, and mostly accurate, and the plot is full of suspense and power struggles.
2. Missing (1982)
Missing is a 1982 biographical drama film directed by Costa-Gavras. It is based on the events that happened during the United States-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that deposed socialist President Salvador Allende, democratically elected. The movie tells the story of an American journalist, Charles Horman, which disappeared. Indeed, his wife and father consult the United States Embassy and Consulate to help them find Charles Horman.
The movie, which in 1998 was taken into consideration to enter the list of the 100 best American films of all times without succeeding, is the first one that mentions the role of the CIA in the coup d’etat in Chile. The movie has been chosen because it shows another aspect of diplomacy: the work and activities of Embassies. However, in this particular situation, Horman’s father and wife have to deal with the lies of the American ambassadors. The American embassy is not as helpful as he thought they would be, and he suspects them of hiding information about Charlie. One U.S. diplomat is polite and friendly but constantly lying to them.
The facts are narrated with a rhythm that captures the spectator’s attention and makes him participate in the anguish of the protagonists. The journalistic realism of the film is only ripped apart for a brief moment by the sudden nocturnal appearance of a fleeing white horse, a dreamlike transposition of the country’s desperation.
3. Nixon (1995)
This historical drama tells the story of the life of U.S. President Richard Nixon, played by Anthony Hopkins, nominated Best Actor at the Oscar for this role. The director, Oliver Stone, is particularly keen on the American presidency. Indeed, Nixon (1995) is one of three movies on U.S. presidents. However, this is probably the most captivating one because of the cast and the critical point of view on Nixon’s personality and foreign policy.
Even though the movie describes Nixon’s personal life in detail and the U.S. domestic policy – the Watergate scandal –, it focuses on the U.S. foreign policy of the 70s with particular attention to the Vietnam War and the U.S. diplomatic meetings with China and the Soviet Union. In this regard, Nixon’s visit to the People’s Republic of China was an important strategic and diplomatic overture that marked a great step in the normalization of the relations between these two countries. It must be recalled that Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State, had an extremely critical role in the preparations of this diplomatic meeting. Even though Kissinger’s role is not stressed enough, it plays a major role in the movie. On several occasions, the director shed light on the relationship between Nixon and Kissinger, highlighting the complementarity between Nixon’s political and pragmatic vision and Kissinger’s worldview and diplomatic thought.
4. Diplomacy (2014)
Diplomacy is a 2014 Franco-German historical drama film directed by Volker Schlöndorff and adapted from the play “Diplomatie” by Cyril Gely. The film portrays the events in Paris in the night between 24 and 25 August when the German General Dietrich von Choltitz was planning to bomb and destroy the city under Hitler’s direct command. A Swedish diplomat named Raoul Nordling sneaks into the General’s office at the Hotel Meurice. In the beginning, the General refuses to negotiate, but when Nordling offers a safe evacuation of Choltitz’s family, he cancels the demolition. From that night, the General has been known as the “Saviour of Berlin”.
The Swedish diplomat played a critical role that night, using negotiation and diplomacy to stop what would have been bloodshed. This film has been chosen to remind one of the greatest, even if little known, diplomats during the Second World War and to teach what role can play diplomats: negotiate, discuss, bargain, dissuade and compromise to peacefully solve a controversy without using force. The director and the writer of this insightful movie wanted to stress the differences between a diplomat and military General and underline that with diplomacy and negotiation, conflicts might be stopped. In conclusion, this is a great tense film with note-worthy actors that put into a dramatic comedy what happened, in reality, that night.
5. Backstabbing for Beginners (2018)
This powerful political thriller directed by Per Fly is based on the memoirs of Michael Soussan, the main character of the movie, played by Theo James. This movie tells the real story of the corruption scandal in the U.N. Oil-for-Food Program (OFFP), established in 1995, was created to allow Iraq to sell oil on the world market in exchange for food, medicine, and humanitarian aids in general without allowing the oil sales to boost Saddam Hussain and his regime. However, the program quickly failed.
The decision of this U.N. diplomat, Michael Soussan, to leak the proof about the corruption behind the Oil-for-Food program led to one of the most significant changes in the United Nations history. This movie has been added to this short list, not because of the actors’ performance nor just the story but because it critically addresses the compromises and corruptions of diplomacy and in the international aid world as much as the compromised and corrupt people who run it. Eradicating corruption in this environment is not an easy task, and even if we do not see it or it seems to have disappeared (certainly it has diminished after 2003 and the introduction of several measures by the U.N.), it is still there, and we must acknowledge it. In conclusion, even though the reception of this movie has not been entirely positive because of the romantic subplot, it has been defined as a reliable fact-base representation of the scandal.
6. Nuremberg (2000)
Nuremberg is a docudrama released in 2000 that explains the real story of the Nuremberg trials. In brief, this two-part series directed by Yves Simoneau, aims to tell the historical war crimes trial following the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, seen through the eyes of Chief Prosecutor Robert Jackson (Alec Baldwin) and the main defendant, the Vice-Chancellor of the Reich, the Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring (Brian Cox).
Undoubtedly, this movie wants to recount the Nazis’ “crimes against humanity,” but in its complexity, the first part also portraits the discussions and negotiation behind the organization of the trial among the four great powers – the United States, the Soviet Union, France, and England. The Anglo-American system of law differed considerably from the continental system that the French and the Russians used. Indeed, there were several points of contention. However, on August 8, 1945, the participating nations gathered to sign the Agreement of London. The process of creating this charter had taken two months of negotiation but succeeded in establishing a system that all four nations would accept as the dispensing justice. Even though the movie only partially focuses on the strategies and mechanisms behind the creation of this trial, it is not so hidden how the United States, through dialogue and negotiation with the other countries, became able to install this trial based on law and rights and truth. Moreover, in some parts of the films, diplomacy emerges even more substantial, especially underlining the already existing turmoil with the Soviets.
7. Shake hands with the devil (2007)
Shake hands with the devil is a Canadian war drama film directed by Roger Spottiswoode. This is probably the most touching but also cruel among the films chosen for this list. The film is based on Canadian Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire’s book about the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda in 1994. Dallaire was the man chosen by the United Nations to oversee Rwanda’s transition to peace. The film investigates the responsibilities behind the failure of Dallaire’s “easy peacekeeping mission”, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). The UNAMIR has received much attention for its role in failing to establish peace due to the limitations of its rules of engagement, to prevent the Rwandan genocide and outbreak of fighting. The mission is thus regarded as a major failure for the U.N., and the reputation of U.N. Peacekeeping suffered. Indeed, the setbacks of the early and mid-1990s led the Security Council to limit the number of new peacekeeping missions and begin a process of self-reflection to prevent such failures from happening again.
The role of the U.N. soldiers, the “Blue Helmets” or “soldiers of diplomacy”, was simple: to act as a buffer force to keep the peace between two consenting warring parties and promote a peaceful settlement of the conflict. However, in Rwanda, the parties did not agree to engage in the peace-making process. Moreover, the bureaucratic nature of the United Nations and the international system and the inaction and lack of commitment from key nations worsened the situation. General Dallaire attempted to publicize his lack of agency by utilizing western media to alert people of the severity of the horror occurring in Rwanda, hoping to find some sort of assistance from the international community.
8. Arrival (2016)
Arrival is an American science fiction drama film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer. This is the only film that is not based on history or real facts because it focuses on communication with extraterrestrial entities. You might wonder why a movie about aliens has been added to this list, so here are the reasons. Firstly, Arrival is considered one of the best films of 2016 and received eight nominations at the 89th Academy Awards. Secondly, the plot is something innovative and captivating. Thirdly, and most importantly, it focuses on the role of language as cultural diplomacy and stresses international cooperation. “Language” and translation are necessary to conduct fruitful negotiations and engage in diplomatic activities with their counterparts. Indeed, one of the most insightful quotations assesses: “We’re a world with no single leader. But it’s impossible to deal with just one of us.”
In short, the plot is about twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft that landed around Earth. In Montana, a linguist, Louise Banks, and a physician, Ian Donnelly, recruited by the U.S. Army, achieve to get in contact with two aliens – called “hectapods”. They discover that their language consists of circular symbols. They share the results with the rest of the international community, among which there is China. China’s General Shang issues an ultimatum to his local alien craft, demanding that it leave China within 24 hours. Russia, Pakistan, and Sudan follow suit. Communications between the international research teams terminate as worldwide panic sets in. Later on, they will discover that the aliens are there two donate humans a “weapon”, which is their “universal language” that can change humans’ linear perception of time. In conclusion, this movie is in this shortlist because it has combined some relevant aspects of diplomacy and negotiation (for the talks with aliens) and international cooperation for negotiating without using force against the aliens.
9. Bridge of spies (2015)
This is a historical drama film directed and co-produced by Steven Spielberg and starred by Tom Hanks. Set during the Cold War, the film tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan, who is entrusted with the negotiation for the release of Francis Gary Powers – a U.S. Air Force pilot – in exchange for Rudolf Abel, a convicted Soviet KGB spy held by the United States, whom Donovan represented at its trial. Bridge of Spies is based on actual events, but the film partially departs from the historical record.
Even if the plot’s core topic is espionage and exfiltration, diplomacy and cultural confrontation is the subplot of this movie. Donovan, a great negotiator, is chosen to defend Soviet spy Abel because of the importance “to show the Soviet Union that the U.S. gives him a good attorney” since “it is America that will be judged”.
The mainspring of Cold War diplomacy was the conflict between the Americans and the Soviets, but many kinds of diplomatic endeavors, especially undercover and unofficial activities, continued to take place. For example, in the movie, the U.S. government sent Donovan, a civilian without experience in this field, to negotiate for exchanging the prisoners. This is because high-level negotiation between the USSR and the U.S. would have complicated the Cold War relations between the two countries. Moreover, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were the geographical transposition of the U.S. and Soviet Union conflictual tendencies.
10. Argo (2012)
Argo is a movie directed and starred by Ben Affleck. The film deals with the “Canadian Caper”, in which Mendez led the rescue of six U.S. diplomats from Tehran, Iran, under the guise of filming a science fiction film during the 1979–1981 Iran hostage crisis. Due to established diplomatic customs, an embassy – although hosted on foreign soil – is forbidden from being entered by the host state unless permission is given. Henceforth, when the Iranian protesters invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, they violated a key feature of diplomacy developed over centuries to allow diplomats the freedom to do their work. The hostage crisis in Iran affected and changed the political and diplomatic landscape between the United States and Iran for decades to come.
After several consultations, Tony Mendez, a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency exfiltration specialist, plans to save six hostages, helped by the Canadian ambassador, creating a cover story: they pretend to be Canadian filmmakers who are in Iran scouting exotic locations for a science-fiction film. Even though the exfiltration, in reality, did go smoothly, inevitably, this Hollywood film staged problems and inconveniences to create suspense. Moreover, in the movie, as it was in reality, to protect the hostages remaining in Tehran from retaliation, all U.S. involvement in the rescue is suppressed, and full credit is given to the Canadian government and its ambassador. The mission remained classified until 1997.
Finally, yet importantly, there is Sergio. Sergio is a 2020 American biographical drama film about the United Nations diplomat Sérgio Vieira de Mello. Greg Barker, the same director of the homonym documentary “Sergio” (2009), directed the movie. Although the movie is pretty accurate, the production, the actors, and the romantic subplot, which is almost in the foreground, make the film lacking intensity and excessively simplifies the main character, the U.N. diplomats. Sergio is one of the most inspiring and complicated U.N. diplomats of all time. Its integrity and work ethic are inspirational and instructive.
In 2003, United Nations’ Special Representative in Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello, is a victim of a bombing and becomes trapped in the basement of the hotel where he was working in Baghdad. Sergio decided to go to Baghdad after the 2003 invasion of Iraq in order to help Iraqis achieve independence and negotiate the withdrawal of American troops. He came to a disagreement with American diplomat Paul Bremer who opposed his methods despite the pressure from the United States and fights against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Sergio, as a U.N. diplomat, wanted to be impartial and avoid political dynamics. Indeed, he even insisted on not having U.S. guards at the U.N.’s base camp in order to separate themselves from the U.S. occupiers.
Even though the vision of the 2009 documentary is strongly suggested, the movie offers a more simple and enjoyable movie that can bring people closer to the interesting and complex world of U.N. diplomacy and diplomacy in general. This is the reason why it is the last in this list but it felt right to include it.