Movies can be a valuable resource for consistent life ethic activists. A movie that touches on one of the life issues can engage someone’s imagination and emotions in a way that an essay, a news article, or even a novel cannot. Further, hosting a screening is a relatively easy way for students, religious communities, or other activist organizations to gather a group of people together to think and, after the screening, talk about a life issue.
With this in mind, here are five notable movies dealing with one of the life issues: war. Any of these would be a good screening choice for peace activists.
Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In this black-comedy classic, director Stanley Kubrick and his co-screenwriters Terry Southern and Peter George take the threat of nuclear war and manage to make it funny—without it becoming any less terrifying. When a crazy US Air Force general tries to launch a nuclear strike against the Soviet Union, American and Soviet leaders have to scramble to avert World War III. They discover, however, that their own elaborate plans and safeguards for ensuring a “credible nuclear deterrent” make it almost impossible to pull back from the brink. During this scramble against nuclear Armageddon, the representatives of both superpowers are revealed as ineffectual, blinkered, dim-witted, or simply insane. Filled with memorable lines, some indelible images, and an excellent cast led by the chameleon-like Peter Sellers (who plays no fewer than three different characters), Dr. Strangelove is that rare movie that can make you laugh and worry about the future of humanity simultaneously.
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). Shortly before his death, former US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara allowed himself to be interviewed by documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, who produced this haunting movie from those interviews. McNamara reflects on his long and dramatic career, which included coordinating the American bombing of Japan during World War II, serving as president of the Ford Motor Company, and being secretary of defense during such events as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Vietnam War. In the process, he tries to draw lessons from his different experiences of war that can guide future policymakers. McNamara, who was fiercely hated for his role in the Vietnam conflict, makes for a maddening protagonist: remaining unrepentant about some decisions; regretting others without ever quite apologizing for them; and offering a variety of insights into war and its destructive consequences. Of all the movies on this list, this is probably the most sure-fire conversation starter.
Grave of the Fireflies (1988). This animated tale from the famous Japanese Studio Ghibli tells the story of adolescent boy Seita and his little sister Setsuko during the final months of World War II. Driven from their home by American bombing, the two must fend for themselves under increasingly desperate circumstances as their country slowly disintegrates around them. This kind of story could be a sentimental tear-jerker or a raw, painful catalog of horrors, and Grave of the Fireflies certainly contains elements of both. What is remarkable, though, is how restrained, even aloof, director Isao Takahata is in presenting the children’s story. Horrors are briefly glimpsed or suggested rather than assaulting the viewer. The relatively spare, stylized animation is well-suited to this understated approach, yet the Studio Ghibli artists are still able to convey a great deal, such as the nuances of a child’s body language. The result of the filmmakers’ restraint and care is heart rending.
In the Name of the Father (1993). When this movie came out 20 years ago, calling it an “anti-war movie” would have seemed a stretch; now that we are used to the notion of “wars against terrorism,” it seems more relevant than any other entry on this list. A fictionalized re-telling of a true story, In the Name of the Father recounts how a group of innocent people, including father and son Giuseppe and Gerry Conlon, were wrongfully convicted in 1970s Britain for an IRA terrorist bombing. The movie touches on all-too-familiar issues, such as how justifiable fear and outrage provoked by terrorism can lead to detaining people without charges, torture, and other miscarriages of justice. Even while lambasting the British government for its policies, the movie is unequivocal in its condemnation of the IRA and its rejection of terrorist tactics. Featuring impressive performances by Daniel Day-Lewis as the wild Gerry Conlon and Pete Postlethwaite as his long-suffering father Giuseppe, In the Name of the Father is a great exploration of the ethical morass that a country can fall into when fighting terrorism. (Four Days in September , directed by Bruno Bareto; Munich , directed by Steven Spielberg; and The Conspirator , directed by Robert Redford, also offer good explorations of this same theme.)
The Train (1964). As German forces withdraw from France in 1944, art-loving Colonel von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) steals a trove of paintings by great French artists such as Gauguin, Renoir, and Cezanne with the intention of shipping them back to Germany by train. Meanwhile Resistance fighter Paul Labiche (Burt Lancaster) and his comrades are, despite their initial reservations, drawn into efforts to prevent the train from taking away these national treasures. A well-crafted action thriller—an artifact of the pre-CGI days when filming a train crash involved crashing real trains—The Train also asks disturbing questions about war and its costs. Does it make sense to risk human lives for works of art? Does it make sense to risk lives for concepts such as national independence and honor? When do wartime sacrifices simply become justification for making more sacrifices? Bleak and downbeat, The Train provides a resolution of sorts to this conflict between the Nazis and the Resistance, but whether the resolution is ultimately a victory or defeat is unclear.
A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.
© 2015 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.