Life
    Culture

    Tom Hanks, Bridge of Spies (Photo: Rex features/Shutterstock)

    The art of the deal: 10 films about negotiations

    29 September 2020

    The Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) memorably stated that ‘War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.’

    But thus far in the UK/EU trade talks, one would be tempted to say that the reverse was true and that the negotiations have in fact begun to resemble war – ‘by other means’.

    With this in mind, submitted for your approval, an investigation of the art of diplomacy and negotiations, illustrated in ten movies of (relatively) recent years.

    There Will be Blood (2007) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

    Malted dairy beverage enthusiast Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) wheedles, badgers, connives, deceives and ultimately murders his way into Texas oil wealth in the opening decades of the twentieth century.

    Using Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil! (1927) as inspiration, Paul Thomas Anderson’s picture depicts the corruption and double-dealing of the era, where the infamous ‘Teapot Dome Scandal’ led to the imprisonment of a US cabinet member for taking bribes from petroleum companies.

    Duplicity (2009) – Netflix

    After the excellent Michael Clayton (2007) writer/director Tony Gilroy followed it up with this stylish, but too-smart-for-his-own good industrial espionage romantic comedy.

    Julia Roberts reteamed with her Closer (2004) co-star Clive Owen to play a pair of former CIA and MI6 spies now working in the private sector.

    The convoluted plot concerns corporate rivalry, stock manipulation and intellectual property theft. Most of the picture revolves around complex negotiations of the characters attempts to one-up each other, which means Duplicity requires a level of attention that you may think not totally worth the effort.

    Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

    Oliver Stone’s belated follow-up to his 1987 classic takes the 2008 financial crisis as its stepping off point, with Michael Douglas’s predatory financier Gordon Gekko back on the prowl.

    There’s much wheeling and dealing, as Gekko inserts himself back into the life of his estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan) and trader boyfriend Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf). Subprime loans, toxic debt and the dot-com bubble all make appearances on Stone’s check list.

    The director assembled a fine supporting cast, which included Josh Brolin, Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, and Eli Wallach in his last movie. Charlie Sheen cameoed as his character Bud Fox from the first picture, but Donald Trump’s appearance was deleted, although that of his short-lived communications director Anthony Scaramucci made the cut.

    Arbitrage (2012) – Netflix

    Silver Fox Richard Gere essays another profile in moral ambiguity, playing corrupt hedge fund boss Robert Miller, in the process of offloading his tanking company to a buyer (former Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter) before he wises up to the true nature of the deal.

    When Miller inadvertently kills in his mistress in a car crash, his house of cards threatens to come falling down. Gere’s character is not one to really root for, but perhaps you can admire his instinct for survival if nothing else.

    Argo (2012) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

    Ben Affleck’s Academy Award winning picture about one particular episode in the Iranian Hostage Crisis covers three pillars of statecraft – diplomacy, deception, and armed intervention.

    After force (via the failed 1980 rescue mission) and diplomacy (as the Iranians were stalling until Reagan became President) fail, the US successfully relies on deception to stage the improbable rescue of six US diplomats who had managed to slip out of their Tehran embassy just as Revolutionary Guards were forcing their way into the compound.

    Affleck’s picture is a satisfyingly old-fashioned piece of moviemaking, although it does take more than few liberties with the true story in order to create the necessary suspense.

    Of course, the behaviour of the Iranians didn’t stop Reagan selling arms to them in an attempt to resolve a later hostage crisis.

    Diplomacy (2014) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy

    This 2014 Franco-German two-hander directed by Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum/Swann In Love) dramatizes the tense negotiations between Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling (André Dussollier) and Paris commandant General Dietrich von Choltitz (Niels Arestrup), who Hitler has been ordered to destroy the city before the Allied forces arrive.

    Something of a hidden gem, Diplomacy is a masterclass of understated acting and well worth checking out.

    Some of the story was told in René Clément’s all-star Is Paris Burning? (1966), with Orson Welles as Nordling and Gert Fröbe as Cholitz.

    Note: Arestrup played a wily civil servant advising the French Foreign Minister (Thierry Lhermitte) in the run up to the 2005 Iraq War in Bertrand Tavernier’s comedy drama Quai d’Orsay (2013).

    A Most Violent Year (2014) – Amazon Rent/Buy

    Set in New York in 1981, J. C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year can be seen as a love letter to the 70s movies of Sidney Lumet.

    Heating oil company owner Oscar Isaac and his tough as nails wife Jessica Chastain face criminal investigation and betrayal by business partners in their attempt to set up a complex deal guaranteeing freedom from violent rivals and an assistant DA (David Oyelowo) keen to make a name for himself.

    The film’s languid pace is more than offset by strong performances and Chandor’s evocation of early 80’s New York, when everyone seemed to be either working an angle or on the take.

    Bridge of Spies (2015) – Netflix

    Spielberg’s true-life Cold War thriller is a superior companion piece to the earlier Argo, with Tom Hank’s lawyer James B Donovan engaged in the Byzantine negotiations for a prisoner swap of his client, Russian spy Rudolf Abel for the downed U2 spy pilot Gary Powers from the Soviets.

    The picture demonstrated that the director had lost none of his powers, and the more intimate focus of BoS confirmed that Spielberg could always handle personal drama as well spectacular set pieces.

    Hanks shows some sly humour in the role of Donovan, and has a great cast around him, including Mark Rylance, who deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award as Abel.

    Other players include Amy Ryan, Alan Alda and Sebastian Koch as the prickly East German lawyer/negotiator Wolfgang Vogel.

     Coalition (2015)

    This Channel 4 TV movie took a very broadly humorous approach to the torturous events surrounding the negotiations around the formation of the 2010 Tory-Lib Dem government.

    Possibly the right slant, bearing in mind the personalities involved, it must make especially rueful viewing to Liberal Democrats, bearing mind the subsequent electoral near wipe-outs suffered by the part.

    Coalition stars Bertie Carvel as Nick Clegg, Ian Grieve as Gordon Brown, and Mark Dexter as David Cameron.

    The Journey (2016) – Amazon Prime

    Playing as semi-comedic road movie, Nick Hamm’s picture posits a mainly fictious trip where DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuiness are set up by M15 to share an increasingly lengthy car journey, thereby hopefully bonding enough to rescue the ailing peace process and conclude a deal.

    Both Timothy Spall (as Paisley) and Colm Meaney (as McGuiness) acquit themselves well, although Spall’s Bugs Bunny-style fake gnashers can be distracting.