When the president said he would be “honored” to meet with Pyongyang bad boy Kim Jong Un, detractors went more ballistic than a North Korean missile test. The uproar was understandable. Dealing with authoritarian governments is always a challenge for democratic regimes that both respect human rights and are responsible for safeguarding their own state’s interests. Getting the balance right is the acme of statecraft.
While Hollywood pretty much hates Trump, it has been pretty tough on dictators at times as well. Perhaps a movie night at the White House might help bridge the divide. Here are the top movies that ought to be on the menu.
In later life, Charlie Chaplin confessed he could have never made this comedic send-up of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, fascism, antisemitism, and Nazism all at the same time if he had known the full extent of the horrors Hitler would perpetrate. But in 1940, while most Americans were still dead set against being dragged into another European war, Chaplin wanted to speak out. So one of the silent screen’s greatest stars made his first “talkie.” Ironically, while Americans might not have been interested in taking on Hitler at the time, they loved the film. The Great Dictator did the second biggest box office of 1941.
A great war film reminded Americans of the price of ignoring post-war dictators. Caught up in the bitter war to rescue South Korea after a surprise invasion by the Communist North, the Marines of the First Division fight their way through the bitter Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.
Americans trumpeted the softer side of communism before the Second World War. Soviet Russia helped win the great crusade. Still, the incredible excesses of the Stalinist dictatorship in the post-war years turned hot war allies into Cold War adversaries. The Korean War brought the Cold War home to Main Street. In 1954, an animated version of the classic George Orwell story showed how totalitarianism grips the livestock of Manor Farm. Secretly underwritten in part by the CIA as part of the war of ideas against communist ideology, the film became a Cold War classic.
This 1963 film depicts an American diplomatic corps ill-equipped to prevent a communist takeover of a fictional Southeast Asian country. Intended as a wake-up call that America was losing the fight against totalitarianism in the Third World, the movie flopped at the time. Still, it remains an icon of Cold War cinema.
Not all the world’s worst strongmen were inspired by communist ideology. Decolonization in Africa left some peoples far worse off than when they were ruled by colonial overlords. This 1978 film about a band of mercenaries paid by corporate interests to substitute one corrupt ruler for another was derived from mysterious real-life events that took place in Rhodesia in 1968.
Asia also had its share of post-colonial bad regimes. This 1982 romantic drama tells the story of a fictional reporter covering a coup against President Sukarno in Indonesia. The film helped turn Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver into box office stars.
This terrific 2006 movie about one of the world’s worst dictators (that the world did nothing about) tells the tale of a fictional Scottish doctor who befriends Ugandan madman Idi Amin. Threaded with real-life events, it is a terrifying portrayal of a leader who murdered over 300,000 of his own countrymen.
This list ends where it started—with a comedy. Chaplin might not have believed there could be that much evil in the world, but over a century of violence, a long Cold War, and the struggles of decolonization proved otherwise. Then the Cold War came to an end. America became too complacent, believing that with the end of history dictators would become like dinosaurs. Since then, the U.S. has had two decades of dealing with everyone from the likes of Saddam Hussein to president-for-life Robert Mugabe. Ten years after 9/11, the big joke was the thought that anyone could have really believed the world would be forever safe from really bad actors (dictators) and bad acting (like Sacha Noam Baron Cohen). In this 2012 black comedy, Admiral General Aladeen, the dictator of the Republic of Wadiya, discovers love and democracy in New York City.
In a world filled with people from Putin to Kim Jong Un, the future of freedom is no laughing matter. It would be a mistake to take Trump’s offhand comments as serious policy on how America will deal with dictators. In the end, U.S. statecraft will likely do what it always does—try to serve both our interests and our values to the best that can be done. Dictators will likely be worse off for our efforts. Maybe Hollywood will make a movie about that.