from The Water's Edge

Five Movie Biographies Worth Watching

Images clockwise from the top left: Darkest Hour/Amazon; The Iron Lady/Amazon; Gandhi/Amazon; Patton/20th Century Studios; Elizabeth/Universal Pictures; The Last Emperor/Variety.
Images clockwise from the top left: Darkest Hour/Amazon; The Iron Lady/Amazon; Gandhi/Amazon; Patton/20th Century Studios; Elizabeth/Universal Pictures; The Last Emperor/Variety.

Each Friday this summer, we suggest foreign-policy-themed movies worth watching. This week: films about people who changed the course of world history.

July 3, 2020

Images clockwise from the top left: Darkest Hour/Amazon; The Iron Lady/Amazon; Gandhi/Amazon; Patton/20th Century Studios; Elizabeth/Universal Pictures; The Last Emperor/Variety.
Images clockwise from the top left: Darkest Hour/Amazon; The Iron Lady/Amazon; Gandhi/Amazon; Patton/20th Century Studios; Elizabeth/Universal Pictures; The Last Emperor/Variety.
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

It’s Friday, so it’s time again for recommendations of foreign-policy-themed movies worth watching. This week’s theme is biographies—or if you prefer Hollywood speak, “biopics.” Our recommendations come with a warning: Don’t watch any of these movies expecting fidelity to the historical record. Hollywood invariably takes liberties with real-life events, creating composite characters, simplifying complex situations, and even rearranging events to make the story flow. But when done well, biopics are a fun way to learn something of the triumphs, failures, and private sides of people who changed the course of world history—or were its victims. And who knows, watching one of these films may prompt you to pick up a great biography and discover what Hollywood got wrong or left out.

(Yes, this would have been the week to release a list of Fourth of July movies. But besides Born on the Fourth of July and 1776, there aren’t many to recommend that deal specifically with foreign policy, and we’re not prepared to argue that Independence Day is really a metaphor about America’s role in the world. We also could have gone with a list of movies about revolutions. It doesn’t seem quite appropriate, however, to mark America’s 244th birthday by recommending, say, Reds or Dr. Zhivago, as good as those movies are. They’ll likely make a list later in the summer. But if you want a movie linked to the Fourth, try the film-version of the musical Hamilton. It debuted today on Disney+.) 

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We won’t bother repeating the rules we follow in making our suggestions. Just remember that we aren’t claiming that what follows is a “best ever” list. These are simply five movies we think are worth a watch:

Elizabeth (1998). Queen Elizabeth I emerged from the turmoil of royal politics in 1558 and transformed England into a major European power during her forty-four-year reign. And she did it without a king at her side—or as she is said to have phrased it: “I will have one mistress here, and no master! No man shall rule over me.” Cate Blanchett portrays the Virgin Queen as she grows into her crown while facing down threats from France, Scotland, Spain, and her own court. Directed by Shekhar Kapur, Elizabeth was nominated for Best Picture, while Blanchett received a Best Actress nod. If you want more of the first Queen Elizabeth, check out Kapur’s 2007 Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Blanchett reprised her role and leads England in defeating the Spanish Armada. You can watch Elizabeth on Amazon Prime, Netflix, or YouTube.

Gandhi (1982). It took director Richard Attenborough twenty years to bring the story of Mohandas Gandhi to the silver screen. Like most moviemakers, he had to find financial backing for the film. But he also had to find a way to condense the life of one of the twentieth century’s towering figures and the father of modern India into movie length. Gandhi’s activism began in South Africa at the turn of the century, continued until his assassination in 1948, and led to India’s independence from Britain. In the end, Attenborough overcame both obstacles and produced a brilliant movie. Gandhi won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. British actor Ben Kingsley (born Krishna Bhanji) won the Oscar for Best Actor for the intimacy he brought to his portrayal of the man who followers called “Mahatma,” which is Sanskrit for “the great souled one.” You can stream Gandhi on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.

The Iron Lady (2011). In 1976 a Moscow newspaper nicknamed Margaret Thatcher “The Iron Lady.” The newspaper meant it as an insult for her unwavering anti-communism and her uncompromising politics. Thatcher, then three years away from becoming Britain’s first woman prime minister, embraced the epithet as a badge of pride. During her tenure as Britain’s longest-serving prime minister of the twentieth century, she oversaw the war to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina, vigorously opposed European integration, and bonded with President Ronald Reagan over a mutual dislike for the Soviet Union. Director Phyllida Lloyd explores Thatcher’s rise to power from her beginnings as a grocer’s daughter and the tolls her success took on her private life. Meryl Streep won her third Oscar for Best Actress for her performance as Thatcher. You can watch The Iron Lady on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or Netflix.

The Last Emperor (1987). Pu Yi was two years old in 1908 when his grandmother designated him the new emperor of China. He would also be the country’s last. Two thousand years of imperial rule in China came to an end when he was forced to abdicate in 1912. He later became a political pawn for various Chinese factions and for Japan during its occupation of Manchuria. Director Bernardo Bertolucci uses the unique story of the powerless emperor, played by John Lone, to trace the larger plot of China’s upheaval in the twentieth century. The Chinese government gave Bertolucci unprecedented access to film The Last Emperor in the Forbidden City, once Pu Yi’s home. The lavish result won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. You can find The Last Emperor on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or HBO Max.

More on:

Politics and Government

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Patton (1970). Friend and enemy alike recognized General George Patton as one of the great military commanders in World War II. It was his abrasive conduct outside of battle that got him in trouble. Patton earned the nickname “Old Blood and Guts” for leading his troops to victory in North Africa, Sicily, and France—his decisive action at the Battle of the Bulge enabled Allied forces to turn back the last German offensive of the war. But Patton very nearly derailed his career when he slapped a shell-shocked soldier during the Sicily campaign, and he was relieved of command late in the war for comparing America’s political parties to the Nazis. George C. Scott won Best Actor for his portrayal of Patton, though he refused to accept the award to protest competition among actors. Patton won six other Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Franklin J. Schaffner. You can stream Patton on Amazon Prime, Hulu, or YouTube.

For this week’s bonus pick, we turned to our colleague Jeremy Sherlick. He is CFR’s deputy director of multimedia and the senior producer of the CFR podcasts The President’s Inbox, The World Next Week, and Why It Matters. Jeremy is a proud graduate of USC’s film school. So he knows a thing or two about movies. Jeremy’s recommendation is:

Darkest Hour (2017). Some impressive prosthetics helped Gary Oldman turn in an Oscar-winning tour de force performance as Winston Churchill. The new British prime minister must overcome political infighting and internal doubts to rally his country as Nazi Germany invades France. His rousing wartime speeches inspired director Joe Wright to highlight the “power of political speech to move nations.” While Churchill’s leadership was undeniably critical to the Allied war effort, many of his pre-war policies have drawn increased criticism in recent years, and deservedly so. Jeremy says that Darkest Hour “is a gripping portrait of a man whose life seemed destined for this one moment in time and the doubts he faced while doing what he thought was best for his country.” You can watch Darkest Hour on Amazon Prime, Google Play, or YouTube.

Next week’s recommendations will be movies that highlight the experiences of prisoners of war.

Check out our other foreign-policy-themed movie recommendations: 

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