More on Films, Intelligence Studies, and International Law

by Chris Borgen

Kent’s Imperative has a follow-up to their previous post on the film Twelve Angry Men and its uses in teaching intelligence (as oppsed to legal) analysis.

The new post considers which films do– and do not–provide good discussion examples for students of intelligence. I was dissappointed that the film versions of le Carre were disposed of as quickly as the James Bond movies. (Oh come on, even Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?) And I was surprised that The Kingdom got the equivalent of two (OK, maybe only one) thumbs up.

This of course, reminds me how rarely international law is accurately portrayed in film. See, for example, Kevin’s incisive legal anaylsis of.. cough…. cough… Rush Hour 3. Or Kevin’s and my posts on Battlestar Galactica (or was that interstellar law?). The West Wing also had a couple of long discussions about the role of international law in policymaking in episodes dealing with the assassination of a foreign leader who supported terrorism. (If I remember correctly, I thought they basically treated internationl law as “morality.” How very Bentham of President Bartlett.)

So, international law does crop up a fair amount in popular films. Unfortunately it is often handled in a manner that shows little understanding of the field–usually reducing it to little more than moral platitudes, sometimes empowering it into a strict supranational law enforced by some folks in “the World Court”.

For an ongoing discussion of this topic that looks at a broad variety of films, NYU’s Center for International Law and Justice has the International Law and Films Blog. I think it is great resource for educators.

This has gotten me thinking about international law in novels, but I’ll leave that for another post. I invite readers to share any suggestions about movies or television shows they think do a particulalry good or a particularly bad job in portraying some international law-related theme. I’ve got dibs on Sesame Street…

5 Responses

  1. Here was my take on the Da Vinci Code (the book, not the movie). In any event, I think there’s a business opportunity here — we need Opinio Juris to become Hollywood’s resource for accuracy in international law, no?

  2. For a particularly bad job, look no further than E-Ring. I understand that’s been pulled from the NBC lineup, and rightly so, but it is currently on the air in Germany (with the odd addition of ‘Military Minds’, in English, to the title – not that there aren’t any, but the show doesn’t seem to involve much in the way of hard thinking, as will appear shortly).

    Every episode asks the main characters, officers and some politicians at the Pentagon, to make ‘tough decisions’. So far as I can tell, almost every one of them involves a violation of international law – sometimes hinted at, for instance by saying that there will be diplomatic trouble. The solution is always that the top brass do in the end have the guts/decency to go ahead, and all works out as planned.

    There are no difficult legal questions in the plots, much less are any actually discussed by the characters. The problem is usually that of the US military operating abroad without the consent of the local sovereign. A simple jurisdictional problem; a violation of what Lotus has called ‘the first and foremost restriction imposed … on a State’. International law, then, is not actually misrepresented; it is either completely ignored or sidelined, in a TV take on the idea of ‘efficient breaches’. Or something like that…

    A bit like JAG, then, only with a lot less law…

  3. Oh, and then there’s War Crimes, a double episode of British TV show Judge John Deed.

    Judge John Deed generally is about a maverick Justice of the High Court, who constantly rails and works against, and consequently is opposed by, the scheming Establishment (represented by some of his judicial colleagues and superiors and various Government departments, chief among which is the Lord Chancellor’s Department, later the Department of Constitutional Affairs).

    He therefore always keeps getting, or rather taking on, cases involving some terrible injustice suffered by a nice guy at the hands of the Government. The side of the good guy is almost invariably represented by his on-off-girlfriend, Jo Mills QC, or his daughter. If he needs a second Judge to hear a case, it’s his former father-in-law, Lord Justice Channing. Sir John himself also regularly goes about interviewing witnesses (in court and elsewhere), and generally pursues the baddies as best he can. Note that he is not held back by any rules of evidence or procedure; in fact, he is usually as biased as anyone could ever be.

    [Incidentally, the title of the show also uses a wrong form: the proper job title is ‘Mr Justice Deed’.]

    All that is, of course, a misrepresentation of the law, including of the requirement of Article 6 ECHR that judges must be impartial. But War Crimes goes one step further in the misrepresentation particularly of international law:

    Despite not being a darling of the legal Establishment, Sir John is called upon to act as a Judge ad hoc in the International Criminal Court. A low-ranking British soldier is accused of war crimes, having killed eleven civilians in Iraq.

    The President of the Court (which sits in a three-judge composition throughout) is French. He doesn’t care one bit about the case of the poor soldier. He wants to convict, and that on the basis that the UK and US shouldn’t have invaded Iraq in the first place. I think he even says at one point that killing anyone in an unlawful war was a war crime. The President also has an affair with the Prosecutor, who also seems to be French. Somehow, that is portrayed as bad, unlike the fact that the defence lawyer is Sir John’s on-off-girlfriend again (their relationship is at a low point in that episode, and his love interest at that point is someone else – sent by Islamic extremists to kill him in revenge for allowing hate speech against Islam in a previous case in England).

    The Prosecutor for her part is even slightly more polemic than the President of the Court. She shares his position, of course, and conspires with him against the accused.

    All works out fine when Sir John and his friend on the defence side get a British general to testify for the defence. Of course, the British Establishment had tried to suppress that testimony. They had intended to use the conviction in that case as part of their exit strategy for Iraq, and so formed another conspiracy against the accused.

    It then falls to Sir John to take the side of reason in the Court’s deliberations. After some initial trouble in knocking some sense into the – still vehemently anti-British and anti-American – President, he succeeds. The soldier is acquitted. The Establishment is livid.

  4. Chris,

    I think Hotel Rwanda does a fairly good job of portraying the ineffectiveness of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in stopping the genocide in Rwanda.


  5. I would recommend Trade — the Kevin Kline (just out on DVD) about a young Mexican girl whose virginity is auctioned off online to a guy in New England. Her brother sets out to rescue her and Kline is a Texas Ranger who helps. Brutal and accurate of an aspect of international sex slave trade.

    I would also recommend Lord of War — the Nicholas Cage movie dealing with arms dealing as at least a discussion starter (ditto Blood Diamond).

    On a lighter note the 1950s Petter Sellers movie The Mouse That Roared is a hoot and is good for a discussion on international trade, preemptive defense, etc.

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