Five Foreign-Policy Movies with Women in the Lead
It’s Friday, so it’s time again for recommendations of foreign-policy-themed movies worth watching. We began our summer series last week with classic satires. This week’s theme is movies that feature women in leading roles.
As a refresher, a few rules guide our selections. First, we are limiting our choices to English-language films. Others are better positioned to recommend films in French, Hindu, and Mandarin. Second, we pick a film only once, even if it can fit in multiple categories. So please don’t view our weekly suggestions as “Best” or “Top Five” lists. And third, we only pick movies that are available to rent or stream online. It’s not much help to recommend a movie people can’t easily see.
We chose this week’s theme because men have long dominated foreign policy even though women have often borne the brunt of their decisions. Our colleagues in CFR’s Women and Foreign Policy Program note that empowering women and including them in foreign policymaking can increase economic growth and create more sustainable peace.
Here are our five joint recommendations, along with Margaret’s bonus suggestion.
Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). Violette Szabo was a real-life hero. The daughter of a British father and French mother, she married at nineteen and was a war widow at twenty-one. Determined to avenge her husband’s death at the hands of the Nazis, she joined the British/French Special Operations Executive. Fluent in French, she returned safely from her first mission into German-occupied France. She didn’t from her second mission. The British government posthumously awarded her the George Cross, its highest award for acts of heroism by civilians. Carve Her Name with Pride tells Szabo’s story and depicts her bravery when she was captured by the Germans, tortured by the Gestapo, and sent to her death at Ravensbrück concentration camp. You can watch the film on YouTube.
Eye in the Sky (2015). British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) faces an ethical dilemma: Should she go ahead with a planned drone strike in Kenya against terrorists about to launch a suicide attack after a young girl walks into the strike’s “kill zone”? The steely Powell has to make her decision while being buffeted by the competing political priorities of Britain and the United States, which is operating the drone. The wonderful Alan Rickman, in his final live-action role, plays a British general pushing to go ahead with the strike. Most of the drone technology featured in Eye in the Sky is already in use or in development. Director Gavin Hood said he hoped to spark a “rigorous conversation” around the complex moral issues of modern warfare. You can find Eye in the Sky on Amazon Prime, Hulu, or YouTube.
Paradise Road (1997). Most prisoner-of-war movies—think The Bridge Over the River Kwai—focus on the trials of male prisoners. Paradise Road flips the script and tells the story of a group of women taken captive by the Japanese in Sumatra during World War II. Inspired by the diary that Australian Lieutenant Agnes Betty Jeffrey kept while a Japanese POW, and which was published in 1954 under the title White Coolies, the film boasts an impressive ensemble cast that includes Cate Blanchett, Glenn Close, and Frances McDormand. Director Bruce Beresford weaves together the stories of American, Australian, British, and Dutch women of all backgrounds into a tale of resilience and solidarity. You can stream Paradise Road on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
A Private War (2018). Most people would change their careers after losing an eye to grenade shrapnel. Not Marie Colvin, hailed by many as one of the best war correspondents of her generation. She finished filing her story on the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers from her hospital bed. Rosamund Pike plays Colvin, who for decades lived in the world’s most dangerous war zones to tell the stories of ordinary people and “speak the truth to power.” A Private War is documentarian Matthew Heineman’s first narrative film. He balances telling Colvin’s public story of bringing the horrors of war to the attention of the world with the private consequences that took on her physical and mental well-being. You can watch A Private War on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
Zero Dark Thirty (2012). Early on May 2, 2011, local time, U.S. Navy Seals raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and killed Osama bin Laden. “Zero Dark Thirty”—military slang for the hours before dawn—tells the story of a tenacious CIA agent whose work made the raid possible. Director Kathryn Bigelow, the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director (The Hurt Locker), keeps the tension high for more than two-and-a-half hours even though everyone watching knows what happens in the end. The film stirred controversy when it debuted. Critics variously condemned initial plans to release it just before the presidential election, the fact that Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boel cooperated with the CIA as they planned the movie, and the film’s depiction of “effective” torture. (Senator Diane Feinstein walked out of a screening to protest a waterboarding scene.) The controversy didn’t keep Zero Dark Thirty from being nominated for Best Picture, or Jessica Chastain for receiving a Best Actress nod for playing Maya. Did Maya exist in real life? No, she’s a composite character based on several CIA officers who worked to track down Bin Laden. You can watch Zero Dark Thirty on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
Here’s Margaret’s bonus recommendation:
Atomic Blonde (2017). If you are in the mood for a combination spy thriller/action film, Oscar-winner Charlize Theron delivers in Atomic Blonde. Theron plays Lorraine Broughton, an elite MI6 spy. Shortly before the fall of the Berlin Wall, she is sent to retrieve a top-secret dossier containing the names of all known spies operating in divided Germany. She uses her wiles to make her way through the clutches of American, British, French, and Soviet agents hoping to use the turmoil of 1989 to their advantage. And yes, there is a plot twist. In following all the rules of the spy thriller/action genre, Atomic Blonde shows that it’s not just James Bond who can combine style with unmatched lethal skills. You can rent it on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.
Next week we will be recommending movies about people who left a mark on foreign policy. And yes, a couple of movies you thought should be on today’s list will be on next week’s.
Check out our other foreign-policy-themed movie recommendations:
- Ten More Foreign-Policy Movies Worth Watching
- Five Anti-War Movies Worth Watching
- Five Movies About Foreign Intrigue Worth Watching
- Five Movies About World War II Worth Watching
- Five Movies Worth Watching About the Threat of Nuclear War
- Five Foreign-Policy Movies Worth Watching About Journalists
- Five Movies About Revolts, Rebellions, and Revolutions Worth Watching
- Five Foreign-Policy Comedies Worth Watching
- Five POW Movies Worth Watching
- Five Movie Biographies Worth Watching
- Five Foreign-Policy Satires Worth Watching