Monday, April 14, 2014

World Politics on Screen

New Book Explores the Movies that Shape Opinion

By David Luhrssen
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Mark Sachleben’s book, World Politics on Screen: Understanding International Relations through Popular Culture (University Press of Kentucky), explores the relation between film (along with TV) and American perceptions of war, foreign affairs and our place in the world. Do motion pictures reflect politics, shape politics or both? The answer should be clear enough: politics influence the content of pop culture and pop culture—the lens through which much of reality is read—inevitably alters the shape of politics.

Sachleben is less concerned with those productions with overt designs on opinion making, whether from Michael Moore or Bill O’Reilly, than with pictures with no explicit agenda (or no conscious agenda at all). A political science professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania, Sachleben focuses on war, the subject that has driven the study of international relations, and uses film to examine popular perceptions of the unavoidability of war, the case against war and nuclear weapons. Of course, films can reflect contemporary concerns without ever referencing the sources of geo-political anxiety. Sachleben overreaches by asserting that Alfred Hitchock’s Rear Window “can be read as the paranoia of the United States as it looks out on the world and sees all its petty disagreements,” but is correct that Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky alerted Russians to the prospect of another invasion from the West, and may be onto something in asserting that 300’s subtext was the triumph of the West over Iran.

Speaking of Iran, World Politics on Screen includes a short chapter on that country’s cinema. Aside from highlighting the obvious value of understanding a nation through its art, Sachleben makes the good observation that Iranian films focus on common people, unlike Hollywood, where “characters are often the best, the bravest, or brightest.” Western movies have superheroes while Iran’s value the heroism of everyday life under difficult circumstances.

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