It’s Friday and time for another set of foreign-policy-themed movies worth watching. Last week we looked at the experiences of prisoners of war. This week we wanted to lighten the mood a bit with some foreign-policy comedies.
We won’t restate the rules we’re following in making our selections. Just know that we are picking films only once. So comedy classics like The Great Dictator and Dr. Strangelove, which appeared on our list of foreign-policy satires to watch, aren’t listed below. Likewise, we decided that movies on this week’s list had to be about a real country or countries. By that criterion, the Marx Brothers’ classic comedy, Duck Soup, which highlights the rivalry between Freedonia and Sylvania, doesn’t make the cut.
With those disclaimers out of the way, here are our five recommendations, as well as a bonus pick from one of our colleagues.
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Robin Williams flexes his comedic and improvisational skills as a wise-cracking radio disc jockey sent to Vietnam in 1965 to boost the morale of U.S. soldiers. His irreverent show is a big hit with the GIs, less so with his superiors. His comedic outlook on life is soon challenged by seeing the horrors of the war first-hand. Director Barry Levinson based the film loosely on the real-life experiences of disc jockey Adrian Cronauer. Cronauer first developed his enthusiastic “Gooood morning” wake-up call in a posting in Crete before being sent to Vietnam. Williams won a Golden Globe and received his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor for the role. The American Film Institute ranked Good Morning, Vietnam as the one hundredth funniest movie of the twentieth century. You can find it on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
Ninotchka (1939). With the tag line, “Garbo laughs,” Ninotchka features the famously somber Greta Garbo in her first comedic role. She plays Russian envoy Ninotchka, sent to Paris to sell jewels confiscated during the Russian Revolution. The rigid Russian reluctantly falls for a debonair Parisian count, who represents all the frivolousness of the capitalism she is supposed to oppose. The romantic air is punctuated by barbed comments about Siberian prisons and Soviet executions. (“There are going to be fewer but better Russians,” Ninotchka says early in the film.) Director Ernst Lubitsch’s satirical jabs led the Soviets to ban the film. Ninotchka received four Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture. The American Film Institute ranked it fifty-second on its list of the funniest American films of the twentieth century. You can watch Ninotchka on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
Stripes (1981). A lackadaisical thirty-year-old down on his luck (Bill Murray) and his eccentric best friend (Harold Ramis) impulsively join the U.S. Army. They fall in with a group of misfits and ignore most of the rules of basic training while pursuing a pair of military policewomen. When an unauthorized vacation goes awry and the platoon stumbles across the Iron Curtain, they put their unorthodox training to the test. The film was directed by Ivan Reitman, who coproduced National Lampoon’s Animal House. Stripes was Reitman’s second collaboration with Murray and Ramis, coming after 1979’s Meatballs and preceding their 1984 megahit, Ghostbusters. The Department of Defense liked the script for Stripes enough to permit Reitman to film the movie at Fort Knox with real soldiers serving as extras. You can watch Stripes on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
Three Kings (1999). After the Gulf War ends, four American grunts looking to leave the desert a bit richer set off to find stolen Kuwaiti gold. Their caper gets sidetracked when a group of anti-Saddam Hussein refugees asks for their help. Director David O. Russell was intrigued by what happened “the moment everybody stopped paying attention” to the war and spent eighteen months researching the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm to develop the screenplay. A stellar cast of George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Ice Cube, and Spike Jonze keeps the comedy high and the drama poignant. President Bill Clinton invited Russell to screen the film at the White House. Russell said Clinton liked it so much he launched into a two-hour lecture on the history of Iraq for the audience. You can find Three Kings on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
To Be or Not to Be (1942). During Germany’s occupation of Poland in World War II, a troupe of egotistic actors becomes embroiled in a plot to save the Polish resistance. Using the Nazis’ penchant for theatricality and a bit of Shakespeare, they navigate through danger after danger. To Be or Not to Be was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who directed Ninotchka three years earlier, and walks a fine line between the grim setting and the actors’ screwball schemes. Helping maintain that balance are lead performances by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard in her final role. To Be or Not to Be was released just months after the United States entered World War II. Some contemporary critics were not amused by the film’s black humor given the circumstances. With the benefit of time, however, the American Film Institute ranked it the forty-ninth funniest film of the twentieth century. You can watch To Be or Not to Be on the Criterion Channel, HBO Max, or YouTube.
The Death of Stalin (2017). The sudden death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin in March 1953 leaves his inner circle panicking and scrambling for control despite their appropriately melancholic facades. Director Armando Iannucci—who appeared in our first summer list for his satire In the Loop—brings dark comedy to Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), and other senior members of the Council of Ministers as they profess unity and comradeship while ruthlessly maneuvering against each other. The script, based on graphic novels by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin, takes liberty with the historical record. But it accurately features the tension of the era. Bob says: "This is manic, hilarious, deeply unsettling and as good a reflection as any on the twisted way a single, powerful man can hold a nation's leadership in thrall." You can stream The Death of Stalin on Amazon Prime, Netflix, or YouTube.
Next week we will recommend movies about revolts, rebellions, and revolutions.
Check out our other foreign-policy movie recommendations: