Stephen Arnell

The geopolitical thrillers to watch during COP26

The geopolitical thrillers to watch during COP26
Matt Damon in Green Zone (Shutterstock)
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This year is a bumper year for the UK in terms of international summitry; in June Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosted the G7 ‘Build Back Better’ conference in Cornwall; and on Sunday he welcomes participating countries to 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.

Before the 13-day summit, which perhaps ominously begins on Halloween, the PM jets off to Rome for the G20. International conferences and high-stakes meetings being largely static events, are not inherently cinematic, although movies such as Oslo (2021), The French Minister (2013), Paris 1919 (2009), In the Loop (2009), Conspiracy (2001), and The Name of the Rose (1986) all enjoyed popularity with audiences.

Back in 2014, BBC2 dedicated a 3-part mini-series to following the conferences, phone calls and meetings of political leaders from the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 to the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914.

Real-life summits have proved popular enough as dramas to warrant recounting multiple times, for instance the negotiations surrounding the formation of The Irish Free State (The Treaty and Michael Collins) and the Reagan/Gorbachev one-on-one in Iceland (Breakthrough at Reykjavik and upcoming Reykjavik).

The events of the infamous 1942 Wannsee Conference, which formalised the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’ has been dramatized twice, firstly in 1984 (the German language The Wannsee Conference) and later in 2001 (HBO’s Conspiracy). Both films used the recorded minutes of the meeting as a basis for their scripts.

Considerably more light-hearted, The Interview (2014) posited a comedic scenario where North Korean ruler Kim Jong‑un (Randall Park) attempts to improve his international standing by conducting a ‘bromantic’ interview with vapid talk show host Dave Skylar (James Franco).

If the prospect of COP26 has put you in the mood for some political sparring, here are ten feature films to watch:

Vantage Point (2011) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Vantage Point deploys the Rashomon effect in recounting multiple accounts of the apparent assassination of US President Harry Ashton (William Hurt) when on a state visit to Spain.

A fluttering curtain offers the initial clue for Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes’ (Dennis Quaid) investigation of events. Vantage Point is needlessly complex, but is diverting enough, with support that also includes Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, Édgar Ramírez and Sigourney Weaver.

Green Zone (2010) Amazon Rent/Buy

Inspired by the non-fiction book Imperial Life in the Emerald City (2006) by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Green Zone explores the US hunt for non-existent WMDs and the origins of the post-invasion insurrection.

Director Paul Greengrass reunites with his Bourne star Matt Damon (as officer Roy Miller, assigned as part of the team sent to unearth the WMDs), delivering a somewhat preachy movie, but one that has plenty of intense action scenes.

Iraq War fatigue meant that Green Zone did not emulate the pair’s Bourne box office success, failing to recoup its $100m budget.

The Debt (2010)

A botched operation to kidnap Nazi war criminal Dieter Vogel (aka “The Surgeon of Birkenau") in East Berlin results in a years long cover-up for the Mossad team that conducted the failed mission.

The Debt boasts an abundant supply of nail-biting scenes in a change of pace for director John Madden, best known for Shakespeare in Love (1998) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012).

The cast is strong (including Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain), but I confess that the older versions of the male characters (Tom Wilkinson, Ciarán Hinds) bore little likeness to their younger counterparts (Marton Csokas, Sam Worthington).

You may recognise the actor Jesper Christensen (Vogel) as Mr White from the first three Daniel Craig Bonds – and from his superb portrayal of Norway’s Haakon VII in The King’s Choice (2016).

Blood Diamond (2006) Netflix, Amazon Rent/Buy

Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental and political activism is at the forefront in Blood Diamond, where the actor plays a cynical Zimbabwean diamond smuggler/mercenary in Sierra Leone who finds redemption after joining the search for a kidnapped boy condemned to become a child soldier.

Not a bad accent by DiCaprio, whether it is particularly authentic or not I do not know, but at least it doesn’t detract from the action – and there is plenty of that.

The onscreen company is rounded out by Djimon Hounsou (as the boy’s father), Jennifer Connolly, Michael Sheen and Arnold ‘Imhotep’ Vosloo.

Blood Diamond was a box office and middling critical hit, raking in $172m on a $100m production budget.

The Interpreter (2005) Amazon Prime, Rent/Buy

Sadly, The Interpreter was director Sydney Pollack’s (Jeremiah Johnson) final movie.

A political thriller set in the UN (which for the first time gave permission for filming inside the complex) starring Nicole Kidman as Silvia Broome, a United Nations interpreter who overhears what seems be a plot to assassinate the African dictator/Robert Mugabe avatar President Edmond Zwane (the late Earl Cameron) at the General Assembly.

A scowling Sean Penn plays Secret Service Agent Tobin Keller, assigned to find out whether Broone is on the level.

The Interpreter is an OK watch but takes itself way too seriously and is nowhere near the quality of Pollack’s excellent conspiracy thriller Three Days of the Condor (1975).  Kidman’s quasi-South African/Zimbabwean accent grates after remarkably short time.

Deterrence (1999) Amazon Rent/Buy

Contender/Last Castle director Rod Lurie made his debut with this clever micro-budget what if? thriller about US President Walter Emerson (Kevin Pollak) trapped with his campaign staff by a blizzard in a Colorado diner when Iraq (now under Saddam’s successor, his eldest son Uday Hussein) invades Kuwait (again).

How Emerson deals with the threat is at the heart of the picture - I won’t spoil it by mentioning any other plot details, but suffice to say there are more than a few surprises in store if you haven’t yet seen Deterrence.

Timothy Hutton and a pre-LOTR Sean (Samwise Gamgee) Astin provide able support.

Absolute Power (1997) Amazon Rent/Buy

Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of David Baldacci’s thriller is pulpy fun; William (Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid) Goldman wrote the script, which plays in part like a black comedy.

Briefly, veteran master-burglar Luther Witney (Eastwood) breaks into a billionaire’s mansion only to witness randy US President Alan Richmond (Gene Hackman) getting rough with at-first willing Christy (Melora Hardin), the younger wife of aged tycoon and compound-owner Walter Sullivan (E. G. Marshall).

The secret service burst in and shoot Christy as she raises a knife to the Prez when he becomes violently over-excited.

Eastwood absconds from the mansion, knowing that he can either flee the country, or expose the sleazy Commander-in-Chief.

Entertainingly ripe performances from supporting players Ed Harris, Laura Linney, Judy Davis, Scott Glenn, and Dennis Haysbert make Absolute Power enjoyable hokum.

Clint appears to spoof the movie in one scene where he ‘disguises’ himself to meet his daughter on a hot summer day, donning an oversized Bogart-style trench coat and fedora hat.

I’m left to speculate that Witney’s striped sweater, mask and sack marked ‘swag’ were in the wash when he pulled the opening job.

The Assignment (1997) Amazon Rent/Buy

Aidan Quinn portrays both Carlos the Jackal and US Naval officer named Annibal Ramirez, the hapless lookalike inveigled by the CIA (Donald Sutherland) and Mossad (Ben Kingsley) into taking down the notorious terrorist.

The plot anticipates The Departed, as Quinn is pressured into impersonating Carlos, unfortunately adopting his vicious temperament in the process.

Both Quinn, Sutherland and Kingsley all have fun in chewing the scenery during the picture.

Lookalikes in political thrillers was also the theme in The Devil's Double (2011) where Dominic Cooper was the expendable decoy for Saddam Hussein’s unhinged playboy son Uday (again).

Michael Collins (1996) Amazon Rent/Buy

December 6th, 2021, will mark the 100th anniversary of Michael Collins signing the treaty that led to the foundation of the Irish Free State.

Lord Birkenhead (one of the British signatories) famously said: 'I may have signed my political death-warrant tonight.'

Collins replied laconically: 'I have signed my actual death-warrant.'

Within nine months he was dead, killed by his fellow Irishmen in the bloody civil war of 1922-23.

Neil Jordan’s biopic consciously harks back to the epic movies of David Lean (who visited similar territory in his 1970 flop Ryan’s Daughter) and succeeds in doing so, providing a watchable look into a period of history neglected by many on the ‘mainland’.

Despite longueurs (chiefly romantic interludes with Julia Roberts as Collins’ fiancée Kitty Kiernan) the picture includes some well-staged set pieces, including the 1916 Easter Rising, the Croke Park Massacre (1920) and the battle for the Four Courts building in Dublin (1922).

Liam Neeson is impressive as Collins, but Alan Rickman steals the movie as his Machiavellian rival Éamon de Valera.

In 1991 Brendan Gleeson (who appeared as Liam Tobin in the 1996 movie) played Collins in the TV movie The Treaty, aided by distinct physical resemblance to the rebel leader.

The Treaty also saw Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes unconvincingly essay Winston Churchill, who was Secretary of State for War (nice title) in Lloyd-George’s cabinet at the time.

Interestingly, Gleeson also played Churchill in Into the Storm (2009); not something you can imagine Liam Neeson pulling off. Or wanting to, for that matter.

The Day of The Jackal (1973) Amazon Rent/Buy

Forget the travesty of Bruce Willis’s ‘Hair Club for Men’ remake (1997), Fred Zinnemann’s vastly superior take on Frederick Forsyth’s 1971 bestseller is an all-time classic, one which I find difficult not to watch whenever it appears on TV.

Forsyth’s painstaking research was apparently so accurate that his description of how to obtain a passport under a deceased name prompted a change in UK rules in 2007, a mere 34 years after TDOTJ was released.

Ramrod-backed and with more than a touch of the catwalk in his stride, Edward Fox is nonetheless convincing as an English assassin dubbed ‘The Jackal,’ hired by the rogue French ex-military OAS to kill President de Gaulle in revenge for his abandonment of Algeria.

A great supporting cast includes standout roles for Michael Lonsdale as Deputy Commissioner Claude Lebel, Alan Badel (the French Interior Minister) and the late Ronald Pickup as a seedy forger.

Fans of classic British sitcoms will notice the presence of Donald Sinden (Never the Twain), Anton Rodgers (May to December), David Swift (Drop the Dead Donkey) and Tony Britton (Don’t Wait Up/Robin’s Nest) in the picture.