Monthly Media Reviews Series
Reviewing and recommending the best films, books and documentaries in Global Affairs! Whatever your interests may be, there's something for everyone. Brought to you by the YDS team.
Sergio (2009 Documentary)
Reviewed by Victoria Jagger
Rating: 4 out of 5
Where to watch: Netflix
Based on Samantha Power’s biography titled ‘Sergio: One Man’s Fight to Save the World’, Sergio portrays the life and death of former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The biographical drama alternates between two storylines. Firstly, retracing Sergio’s life from a young boy, and secondly, the 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Iraq and the unsuccessful rescue mission that resulted in his unfortunate death.
From the outset, Sergio is depicted as a trailblazer who was willing to put his life on the line and believed going into the field was essential to understanding the security issues vulnerable people face. His charisma and unique approach to conflict resolution led to leaders, and diplomatic officials often considering: ‘What would Sergio do?’ in any given situation. Yet, Sergio was not without flaws, having heavily prioritised his work over his family.
The director, Greg Barker, rightfully portrays the complex politics of the 2003 US-led Iraq invasion; how the UN’s mandate differed from humanitarian missions, Sergio’s opposition to the invasion, and his reluctance to serve in Iraq. This provides a multifaceted insight into the differing rationales of the US and the UN. Sergio adamantly reinforced these differences, intending to critique the US’s decisions in a press release on the day of his death, August 19, 2003. This leaves the viewer wondering whether or not the Iraq invasion have played out differently had Sergio survived.
Aside from too great an emphasis on Sergio’s romantic life and an unrealistic depiction of him being a real-life James Bond, the documentary provides a fascinating portrayal of his dedication to his work.
Ultimately, Sergio leaves viewers respecting a complex individual, unafraid to push the boundaries when negotiating peaceful resolutions whilst committed to the UN’s mission to help all human beings live equally in dignity and rights.
Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change (2019 Book)
Reviewed by Adam Bourne
Where to read: Digital and hard copies available for purchase online. Also available as an audiobook.
Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: How Nations cope with Crisis and Change is an anecdotal exploration of national crises and the steps nations implement to respond. Diamond uses his experiences living abroad to paint a more personal picture of the nations and the crises which they are undergoing, reflecting on personal conversations he had with individuals during the very events he writes about.
Diamond's purpose here isn't to reflect on the individual nations at hand; rather, he claims that his goal is, through comparative examination, to understand the relationship between crisis and major social change - set the foundational working point for future research in an increasingly turbulent 21st century.
Using seven national anecdotes, Diamond has categorized ‘upheaval’ into three categories; sudden and rapid changes brought on by external affairs; a second category which similarly looks at eruptions of change, but these changes were sparked through internal events in the nation. The third and final categorization that Diamond examines is that of slow and drawn-out change within a nation, but a change that is no less catastrophic.
Diamond’s categorizations and examinations of the nations he seeks to represent are well evidenced and provide a gross overview of the national crisis at hand while maintaining the easy to comprehend narrative form. This makes the book a must-have for International Relations students wanting to understand crisis management while gaining deep insights in the geopolitical situations of the nations at hand.
Oppenheimer (2023 film)
Reviewed by Melissa Li
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Where to watch: currently in theatres. Also available in IMAX.
Christopher Nolan’s newest film Oppenheimer, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, serves as a biopic of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Nolan’s style of filmmaking immerses the audience into the narrative of the “father of the atomic bomb”.
The film is told in a non-linear fashion and alternates between colour and black-and-white scenes. The shifting of perspectives, from Oppenheimer’s personal experience to the historical objective recount of events, works to bring the audience along the ride with Oppenheimer through his career. Oppenheimer’s interactions with Albert Einstein throughout the film depicts a mentee—mentor and confidant relationship between the two that is interesting as Einstein has often been linked to the creation of the atomic bomb and was once known as “the father of the bomb” – a title that Oppenheimer now holds.
With the film’s airing dates overlapping with the dates of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer faces criticisms over the lack of Japanese perspectives in the film. However, Nolan’s intentional omission of this perspective focuses the movie solely on the character of Oppenheimer and his subjective and objective experiences of the event. The deafening silence of the Trinity test sequence serves as both a wonder of scientific breakthrough as well as the horrific destruction of a nuclear weapon which hints at the utter devastation of the atomic bombings that we know are to come.
Overall, Nolan’s Oppenheimer does well in providing a nuanced retelling of Oppenheimer’s story that remains faithful to historical events. For those interested in a documentary style of Oppenheimer’s career, the documentary To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Bomb is a great accompaniment to the biopic.
Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima (1967 book)
Reviewed by Elizabeth Lawler
Rating: 4 out of 5
Where to read: Digital or hard copies available for purchase online..
As we pass the 78th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear war is ever-present. Current and potential conflicts, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine and tensions around the Taiwan strait, make this threat all the more pressing. Robert Jay Lifton’s Death in Life: Survivors of Hiroshima provides a stark reminder of the effects of nuclear weapons beyond their geopolitical impact.
Originally published in 1967, Death in Life compiles studies of the psychological aftereffects of the bombing of Hiroshima. Specifically, Lifton focuses on the psychological impact what he calls “death saturation” – a sudden and overwhelming exposure to death – on the survivors of the bombing (known as hibakusha). Beginning with the immediate effects of the bombing, the book methodically details the impact of the attacks over time, from social stigma and survivor’s guilt to the ongoing physical effects of the “A-Bomb Sickness”.
The most impactful aspect of this book is that Lifton’s analysis is punctuated by first-hand accounts from hibakusha. The stories of hibakusha have consistently been one of the driving forces of anti-nuclear movements. As such, documentation of stories such as those featured in Death in Life is a crucial tool of non-proliferation. The stories themselves are given in significant detail and paint a confronting picture of life after a nuclear attack.
Having been published only 20 years after the attacks, Death in Life provides us with a clear and sobering image of the experience of individual victims, as well as the impact that such an atrocity has on society more broadly. Naturally, the chronological distance between us and the bombing of Hiroshima will only continue to grow. As this distance grows, the concept of using nuclear weapons becomes more abstract, and less personal, to powers who make use of this strategic tool. Analyses such as Lifton’s are crucial to the modern day, as the remind us – and world leaders – of the devastating human cost of nuclear weapons.
Vice (2018 film)
Reviewed by Abby Wellington
Rating: 4 out of 5
Where to watch: Apple TV and Google Play.
Winning Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, Adam Mckay’s Vice is a fast-paced and energetic biopic detailing former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney’s rise to power. The film, boasting a star-studded cast, is a commentary on Cheney’s unyielding pursuit of power and the individuals that shaped both him and his career.
In just two hours, viewers are navigated through the development of Cheney’s career that spans over four decades. The film begins with Cheney as a young alcoholic freshly kicked out of Yale before he lands an internship in the White House Program. After this, there is no opportunity to catch your breath as you witness Cheney’s incredible rise through the ranks of the White House, furiously supported by his wife Lynne.
Although, as the film acknowledges in its opening scene, it is a story loosely based on fact. Many of the narratives that feature throughout the film are far more Mckay’s interpretation and inference of Cheney’s life than the truth. The film goes so far to suggest Cheney gave up his Presidential dream to protect his gay daughter from scrutiny and that his interest in intervening in Iraq was based on his personal motivations within the oil industry.
Nonetheless, it is a truly exciting and entertaining watch. Mckay’s employment of symbolism and use of real historical footage emphasises the important hand Cheney has had in shaping history. Further, his use of dark comedy highlights how ludicrous some of the ideas, many tragic, that Cheney was able to put into practice. It also highlights the unique level of power Cheney secured in his Vice Presidency.
If you’re looking for a fun watch that has got some depth and relevance to it, this is the movie for you. However, take the film as far more of an interpretation of the fascinating life of Dick Cheney rather than the true story of it.