Ivory Tower Writing #19: Writing a film review for class

Though a film review wouldn’t necessarily qualify as a piece of academic writing (a book review would, which I’ll address in a future post), it’s indeed a nifty and also low-stress (experience may vary) exercise which helps sharpen that eye for detail, analytical argument, and reflexive skills (as in, “reflection” not motoric reflexes). 

And not to mention there’s an entire field of study in IR devoted to understanding the influence of pop culture and IR. In that sub-field, reflective analysis of films (also known as “visual artifacts”) make up a substantial part of the literature (see, for example, Heck’s analysis of narratives in docudramas [paywall]).

So, how do you write a reflective film review? This post provides some general guidelines. As such, it shouldn’t be treated as an authoritative template; instead, think of it as a simple checklist of things you may want to make sure are included in your review.

But first, let me explain what a film review is not. It is not a summary or a synopsis of the film; that’s what Wikipedia and IMDB are for. If you are asked to review a film, you are not expected to provide a summary of plot details. Chances are, if your professor assigns you a film review, they’ve already watched the film multiple times over. 

It is also not a piece of writing where you’re expected to give an arbitrary grade to the film. That’s usually what film critics and “critics” do on websites like Rotten Tomatoes. Your job as a reviewer isn’t to assess whether Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting in The Wolf of Wall Street was too over-the-top, or how the final act of Interstellar doesn’t make any sense in physics. You also aren’t expected to rate the film’s visuals or cast; leave that to legions of review sites on the Internet.

Instead, you’re expected to reflect.

In my Study of War class, I once assigned students to watch War Machine, a dark comedy of the US counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan. The aim was to help students visualize and understand important concepts in counterinsurgency, such as “winning hearts and minds”. Here, Brad Pitt’s character, General Glenn McMahon, is a key character to watch out because he is a representation of US counterinsurgency doctrine at that time. Based on this, I posed the question: do you agree with what Glenn McMahon did?

Glenn McMahon in War Machine. Picture from Vox.

The question basically forced students to think in detail about what McMahon did, cross-check it with their understanding of counterinsurgency theories learned weeks before, and come up with an argument either for or against McMahon’s actions in the movie.

Think about what the characters on screen represent. In the HBO series, Chernobyl, Ulyana Khomyuk is a representation of the Soviet nuclear scientists (this is mentioned in the credits in the finale, and despite her being fictional, she does help drive the narrative). Her character basically represents the concerns of Soviet scientists, who lived in a time of stringent censorship. In V for Vendetta, the mysterious Guy Fawkes mask-wearing V represents ideals of liberty and revolution, contrasted against the totalitarian British state. 

It also helps to think about how the characters interact and what the interaction represents. In Captain America: Civil War, Captain America represents the realist tradition in IR, whereas Tony Stark represents Liberal Institutionalism. This is shown in their stances to the Sokovia Accords. Cap doesn’t want to be bound by petty legislation as he believes the Avengers would be unnecessarily burdened by bureaucracy. On the other hand, Stark, having seen the destruction that they did, believes that signing the Sokovia Accords would allow the Avengers to be more accountable and responsible in exercising their powers. The rest of the film, especially the third act, shows a literal clash between these two schools of thought, which serves as a visualization of the abstract clash between Realists and Liberals in IR canon. Too bad the Constructivists aren’t represented. 

Steve vs Tony in Captain America: Civil War. Image from Looper.

After you’ve identified what the characters and their interactions represent, you may then start to insert your own thought about the on-screen dynamics. Here is where you can make your film review unique. Perhaps you feel that Black Panther made a strong point about contributing to international security, and that failure to do so only leads to grievances. You may also want to take Killmonger’s side, perhaps arguing that T’Challa is too naive of pre-existing international norms, and that amassing power and supporting global revolution is the only way to achieve Wakanda’s national interests.  

Here’s an example of a film review outline:

  1. Your central thesis/argument, e.g. “Captain America: Civil War represents a clash between Realism and Liberalism…”
  2. An explanation of key plot moments and relevant literature that supports your thesis, e.g. “…Realism is reflected in Captain America’s refusal to abide by the Sokovia Accords, which reflects a central tenet of Realism that is undisputed sovereignty of states…”
  3. Your own thoughts about what you have written, e.g. “…the film does not necessarily conclude the metaphorical clash between schools of thought in a satisfying manner because…”
  4. A conclusive conclusion, e.g. “In sum, Civil War does a decent job of bringing the clash of ideas in IR to life.”

So there you have it, a guide on how to ace that reflective film review assignment!

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