Teach? How about we watch a movie instead

Pro tip for negotiators: Keep your vulnerabilities to yourself.
Pro tip for negotiators: Keep your vulnerabilities to yourself.


It happens every semester. I get to a point where I really just want to show a movie in class. And my students get to a point where they really just want to watch a movie.

We hit that moment in my course on international negotiation last evening. When I walked into the classroom, one of the students straight up asked if we could watch a movie. Ironically, I was thinking the same thing.

Truth be told, as I was packing my lecture notes and books and getting set to head out from my office, I paused in front of my shelf of DVDs looking for a film that would highlight the evening’s topic: adversarial bargaining with an emphasis on coercive diplomacy and strategies of punishment.

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2I came up empty. And as I thought more about it, nothing really came to mind. That was a surprise because I use films a lot in the classroom. I mean I taught an entire course last year for the Honors College using feature films to explore theories and highlight key issues in international relations.

And it’s not that films don’t have the potential to illustrate the kinds of concepts and theories that I’m trying to teach my negotiation students. It’s just that the lessons tend to come in bits and pieces. Take, for instance, The Godfather saga.

In the first film, the encounter between Tom Hagen, Corleone Family consigliere, and movie studio executive Jack Woltz is a terrific example of several key points I try to emphasize for my students.

Tom’s opening bid is straightforward and to the point, clearly laying out his preferences and identifying what he is willing to offer in return for a mutually beneficial negotiated settlement. This is a straightforward application of the strategy of reward described in Richard Ned Lebow’s book, The Art of Persuasion.

Woltz, however,  makes several classic errors. Chief among them is allowing his emotions to overrule his rational assessment of the potential benefits of agreement, something that Zartman and Berman caution against in their book The Practical Negotiator. Fisher and Ury, in Getting to Yes, would characterize this as failing to separate the people from the problem.

Woltz also makes the error of showing his counterpart where his points of vulnerability lie, giving  Hagen an informational advantage that he is able to exploit to punish Woltz for his failure to cooperate. In short, it’s no wonder Woltz ends up with a horse head in his bed.

If we move past the first film, The Godfather Part 2 provides additional material. In the scene below, we get another example of the failure to separate the people from the problem, but more importantly, what happens when you misunderstand exactly where asymmetries of power lie in a negotiation situation.

As we learn later, the senator’s fatal mistake is believing that he holds both an informational and power advantage over Michael, and can translate those asymmetries into leverage that allows him to dictate terms to the Corleone Family. Michael’s counteroffer demonstrates that he understands otherwise.

But frankly, isolated clips can only take you so far. If I’m trying to kill a full 3-hour class period, I need a film that can give me more than a couple of isolated snippets of relevant material.

So I’m turning to the collective wisdom of those of you who read this post. Give me your suggestions for the films you would use if you were teaching a course on negotiation and bargaining, and tell me why they work.

I’ll give you credit on my syllabus the next time the course comes around.

*By the way, notice the new badge? You’ve totally stumbled on an award-winning blog. Go figure.

Self-interest, survival, and hope on “Fury Road”



Note — This post is by Benjamin Walthers, a freshman in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in English and Secondary Education. Over the course of this semester, students in my course, International Relations on Film, contributed posts to the blog reflecting on the movies watched in class and the ideas those films helped us to think about. Benjamin’s piece, the last in this series, is presented here with minor editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road depicts a world transformed into a state of dystopian survival. But hidden under the façade of a high-octane action movie is a social critique on the true nature of humanity.

On the surface, the film focuses on Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), two survivors struggling in their way to mend their broken world. These two heroes fight against the creatively grotesque, if not pretentious, armies of Gas Town, the Bullet Farm, and the Citadel.

Through intense action scenes and cinematic explosions, gunfights, and car tricks, the duo fight almost relentlessly in order to capture the Citadel and restart the world. Beneath the expectedly over-the-top action scenes and clichéd story lies a harsh criticism about human instinct in a dystopian world.

The film opens with a brief history explaining what happened to the world to make it virtually uninhabitable. The exposition is presented in a form of old news reports containing words such as: “The water wars” and “The oil wars.” Without fully revealing the history, the dialogue alludes to the idea that humanity, in times of limited resources, fought over the water and oil.

Fueled by greed, humanity itself is what caused the collapse into a dystopian future in which whoever owns the resources possesses the power.

From the beginning of the film to the end, one idea is represented: In a time of anarchy, humanity devolves to its primal state and acts on basic instincts of self-interest or preservation. Outside of the three main outposts of “civilization” left — Citadel, Gas Town, the Bullet Farm — there is no security offered. It becomes the individual’s responsibility to protect itself against any threat.

When Max first encounters Furiosa, his immediate instinct is to threaten her. Shortly after his threat, a fight ensues between Max, Furiosa, and the wives that she had stolen from Immortan Joe, ruler of the Citadel.

At the end of the fight, Max is able to steal the war rig Furiosa was driving, leaving her and the wives in the desert vulnerable to a vengeful, pursuing Immortan Joe. Max acted with cruel indifference, but, in this world, he did the right thing, serving his own interests. Stealing the truck meant increased chances of survival and the ability to outrun Joe. That’s what mattered.

In this world even cooperation is done out of selfish necessity. The three outposts in the film are shown connected to each other through trade. Without no other explanation for their cooperation, it can be assumed from the film that a forced dependence has been established. Citadel has water and food; Gas Town and Bullet Farm have commodities corresponding to their names.

Subtle reminders of the dying nature of the world are scattered visually throughout the movie. Most notable are the depictions of the characters; some are attached to medical devices, some are sickly pale, and others are covered in malformations.

Stuck in an unforgiving world, the towns have no choice but to trade to gain needed resources. Therefore, cooperation with one another in different ways must be maintained.

Even Furiosa’s actions of saving the wives from Joe is a result of self-interest. Near the end of the film, Max asks Furiosa why she is choosing to help the wives and incur the wrath of Joe. Furiosa replies that perhaps she’s looking for redemption. This explanation foreshadows Max’s final decision to help take over the Citadel.

With a satchel full of seeds from her dying matriarchal tribe, the Vuvalini, Furiosa and the brides plot to use the water in the Citadel to regrow the world.

Throughout the movie, Max is afflicted by visions of a young girl he had failed to save in the past. From this, it can be extrapolated that perhaps, like Furiosa, Max is looking to repent. When presented with a seed symbolizing birth, life, and growth, Max understands that he has the opportunity to aid in the regrowth of his dead world.

By saving the world, Max could finally redeem himself.

In an anarchic dystopia, humanity devolves to a primordial state of self. Actions are dictated by selfish needs. Max and Furiosa’s self-interest allowed for survival and, regardless of motives, the overtaking of the Citadel where they could plant a new seed and begin a new world.

Mad Max: Fury Road shows that, in the fall of civilization, so long as survival is maintained, hope is not lost.

Other posts in this series can be found by following the links below.

Hotel Rwanda

The International

The Battle of Algiers

Dr. Strangelove

Thirteen Days

Alexander Nevsky

The Godfather

High Noon


The Mission

Bloody Sunday

“Hotel Rwanda”: Dramatizing the world’s moral failure

hotel rwanda
Don Cheadle stars in “Hotel Rwanda.”


Note — This post is by Gillian Elder, a freshman in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in International Studies. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Gillian’s piece is presented here with minor editing.

The film, Hotel Rwanda, recounts the events of the Rwandan genocide of 1994 from the perspective of Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) and the refugees that have taken shelter in the Hôtel des Mille-Collines which he manages.

Through its depiction of what happened in Rwanda, the systematic slaughter of more than 800,000 mainly Tutsi civilians in only 100 days, the film invites discussion of the problems of humanitarian intervention and what can and should be done to solve such complex problems quickly and effectively. It also gives us a chance to think about how to improve crisis response to prevent instances like Rwanda from taking so many civilian lives, should they occur in the future.

As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has observed, “in many of today’s conflicts, civilians have become the main targets of violence,” proportionally, 75 percent are civilian casualties. As tensions between Hutu and Tutsi reaches a breaking point and civil war erupts, the United Nations is called in to maintain a non-existent peace. But as the film shows over and over, the UN intervention force is hardly given the means or the men to do so effectively.

Despite the fact that large refugee flows are rightly seen as a humanitarian emergency, states were unwilling to use the word “genocide” to describe what was happening. They were unwilling to invoke the word given the political, legal, and moral ramifications that came with it.

This observation is painfully evident in the film when we hear an audio clip of an actual statement by a US State Department spokeswoman during a press conference about the events occurring in Rwanda. The American official says “we are aware acts of genocide may have been committed” but is “not in a position to answer” whether or not it is considered to be genocide.

The international community’s hesitance and indecisiveness in defending the Rwandan civilians, and later the UN’s decision to withdraw nearly all of their peacekeepers from the country, results in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives.

Many nations fear involvement in civil crises that would morally obligate them to step in, even when civilians have no one else to defend them. But if these nations were to combine their military strategies with addressing the underlying sources of conflict, and committing to their actions as they resolve the complex conflict at hand, losses can be contained. Even in a place like Rwanda.

Political scientists Jon Western and Joshua S. Goldstein argue that the emotional impact of crises like Rwanda are “heightened by new communications technologies that transmitted graphic images of human suffering across the world.” Yet this may not be enough to trigger an international response.

In Hotel Rwanda, Joaquin Phoenix’s minor role as journalist Jack Daglish shows this in action. He is the reminder of how publicized the Rwandan genocide was, how the world could see it unfold in near real time. Phoenix’s character is the embodiment of the fact that the world was watching and choosing not to act.

The international community acted to save its own, evacuating Europeans and other Westerners but abandoning Rwandans to their bloody fate. By dramatizing this sorry episode, Hotel Rwanda presents the moral dilemmas that lurk behind international interventions, and highlights the international community’s ultimate failure to, as Annan wrote, “reaffirm faith in…the dignity and worth of the human person.”

“The International” and hydra-headed global finance


Note — This post is by Angela Givens, a junior in the Honors College at Oakland University majoring in Chemistry. Students in my course, International Relations on Film, are  contributing posts to the blog reflecting on the movies we are watching in class and the ideas those films are helping us to think about. Angela’s piece is presented here with minor editing.

Loosely based on the 1980s scandal of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), the 2009 film The International, directed by Tom Tykwer, is about corruption and organized crime surrounding the International Bank of Business and Credit (IBBC), a fictional bank in Luxembourg.

Along the way it raises hard questions about about the effects of global finance on international politics.

The two main characters – Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and New York District Attorney Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts) — are currently working the IBBC case, trying to uncover the truth about the IBBC’s hidden agenda as an arms broker and dealer in missile control systems.

As the story unfolds we learn the bank’s intent is to not only act as an arms broker to Third World countries and rebel movements, but in doing so control the customers by controlling their debt.  Umberto Calvini (Luca Barbareschi), an Italian defense magnate caught up in, and eventually victim of the banks schemes, explains IBBC’s – and by implication the global banking industry’s – business model this way:

The IBBC is a bank. Their objective isn’t to control the conflict, it’s to control the debt that the conflict produces. You see, the real value of a conflict, the true value, is in the debt that it creates. You control the debt, you control everything. You find this upsetting, yes? But this is the very essence of the banking industry, to make us all, whether we be nations or individuals, slaves to debt.

This is a huge effect of global finance in the film, one that we see play out over the end credits sequence. While the sinister head of IBBC lies dead, his plans seemingly in ruins,  instead we see the IBBC is still in business and seems to have won. All the investigations have come to naught  because everyone has their hands in the IBBC pot, securing the bank’s safety.

In explaining the essence of political economy as a reciprocal relationship between wealth and power, political scientist Robert Gilpin argued that wealth is leveraged to change the balance of power, and that new power is used to change economic relationships to gain more wealth. Repeat. Power and wealth to go hand in hand.

All those wealthy countries have an interest in the IBBC. But more importantly, they have an interest in maintaining the system as it is, one where wealth and power work together to benefit a select few.

If the IBBC gets shut down, another bank will rise to take its place. The IBBC is like a hydra, cut off one head and another takes its place. It’s like a never-ending cycle.