Stuck inside? Brookings Foreign Policy recommends movies and shows to watch

Image of someone holding up a remote pointed at a television screen.

With an estimated 20% of the global population on lockdown related to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are in search of ways to occupy ourselves online or on our TVs. Here, scholars and staff from across Brookings Foreign Policy recommend feature films, TV shows, and documentaries that can enhance your understanding of the world and of U.S. history — and, of course, that can entertain.

William Burke-White recommends


HBO's ChernobylWhat it’s about: The inside story of the 1986 meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Soviet Union highlights the dangers of a failed national response to an unexpected catastrophe and the heroism of the individuals who stepped up in time of crisis. The (relatively) accurate period drama brings alive late Soviet politics, showing how a closed, top-down system under-appreciated the magnitude of the disaster and hid it from its own people. As the Chernobyl reactor melts down, the viewer sees the melt-down of the Soviet system itself, leading to the countries’ eventual collapse just a few years later. Yet, in a moment when we need heroes, the mini-series also highlights the incredible ingenuity and bravery of the individuals and groups that responded both during the accident and in the fraught containment and cleanup efforts that followed. The parallels to the challenges and failures of the response to COVID-19 are powerful and informative.

How to watch it: HBO or Amazon Prime

Adrien Chorn recommends

First They Killed My Father (មុនដំបូងខ្មែរក្រហមសម្លាប់ប៉ារបស់ខ្ញុំ)

"First they killed my father"What it’s about: “First They Killed My Father” is an excellent film directed by Angelina Jolie, based on the memoir written by Loung Ung of the same name. The film was released on Netflix in 2017 and depicts the harrowing experience of five-year-old Loung living in Cambodia from the outset of the takeover by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975 through to the period of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 and then takeover in January 1979. This film is incredibly important for educating audiences (including the children of Cambodian refugees who still today struggle to discuss this recent traumatic period with their families) of the atrocities and genocide committed by the Khmer Rouge, as well the realities of famine, disease, and overwork in the concentration camps. The film’s actors also give great performances, and its cinematography is beautiful and expressive.

How to watch it: Netflix

Eyal Tsir Cohen recommends

Band of Brothers

"Band of Brothers" imageWhat it’s about: This 10-hour miniseries recounts the chronicles of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division in the U.S. Army. The story follows them from D-Day till the end of World War II. This almost-documentary is based on powerful interviews with survivors of Easy Company, as well as soldiers’ journals and letters. In this series, we intimately share the experiences of ordinary young men who accomplished extraordinary things under unthinkable duress and gruesome fear. The series outlines beautifully extremely admirable, yet complex, characters such as Lieutenant Richard Winters and Captain Ronald Speirs. Their actions, decisions, and the values they lived by offer exceptional food for thought and a lesson in humility. It was the worst of times, with flashes of humanity at its best. Something to think about in today’s unprecedented times.

How to watch it: Amazon Prime

Samuel Denney recommends

Babylon Berlin

"Babylon Berlin"What it’s about: “Babylon Berlin” is one of the most enjoyable, interesting, and most importantly accessible representations of interwar Germany I’ve seen in quite a long time. Combining a discussion of the legacy of World War I, a noir detective story, increasingly fractured politics, and a vivid depiction of Weimar-era Berlin’s unique and hedonistic cultural milieu, Babylon Berlin has something to offer for both Germany-nerds (read: me, who once wrote a thesis on Weimar-era literature) and casual viewers drawn to an under-explored time period. And for those who have visited Berlin, the fact that the show is filmed largely in the city adds another draw as you watch the show’s cast traverse its streets and neighborhoods.

How to watch it: Netflix

James Haynes recommends

The Farewell

"The Farewell"What it’s about: “The Farewell” depicts a family gathering, ostensibly for a wedding in China, but actually for a final reunion before the death of the grandmother and family matriarch (who isn’t told the truth about her health situation or the reason for the gathering). The story is based on director Lulu Wang’s own experience, initially shared in a radio story on This American Life. Nominated for two Golden Globes, The Farewell” made President Obama’s 2019 list of favorite films. Among the film’s highlights include Zhao Shu-zhen’s portrayal of the grandmother, the visual depictions of hospitals, banquet halls, and apartments in a mid-tier Chinese city, and the too-brief scene where Chinese family members who emigrated to the U.S. and those who stayed on the mainland argue about the future of the U.S. and China. For those looking for an accessible film on U.S.-China issues (that isn’t very political), The Farewell” deserves a watch.

How to watch it: Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu for rent or purchase (subtitled)

Scarlett Ho recommends

The Man Who Cracked the Nazi Code

"The Man Who Cracked the Nazi Code"What it’s about: “The Man Who Cracked the Nazi Code” is a documentary by Denis van Waerebeke. It tells the story of Alan Turing, a brilliant British mathematician, who contributed to the Allied success in World War II by ciphering Nazi Germany’s “Enigma” encryption machine. Amidst today’s global panic and fight against COVID-19, this remarkable story provides grounds for much-needed optimism and inspiration. This short documentary combines themes of humanity and chaos with scientific reason and logic. It also demonstrates how solidarity and the coming together of human minds can overcome a united threat that transcends borders. Lastly, viewers can also get a deeper understanding of the genesis of modern-day computing and artificial intelligence, whose discovery can be traced back to Turing, the father of modern computing.

How to watch it: Amazon Prime

Robert Kagan recommends

Casablanca/To Have and Have Not Bogey Double Feature

"To Have and Have Not" and "Casablanca" movie postersWhat it’s about: “Casablanca” is not a love story. No one is in love. It is a geopolitical romance about America’s relationship with Europe and the evolving American foreign policy character. Every person in the movie represents a country — except Ingrid Bergman, who plays Europe to Bogart’s America. Watch it with that in mind. “To Have and Have Not” is a much, much better movie but with the same general message. I know, you’ve seen them. Watch again! These films will make your day. Documentaries will not.

How to watch it: Amazon Prime

Emilie Kimball recommends

The Spy

"The Spy"What it’s about: “The Spy” chronicles the true story of Eli Cohen, a Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) operative who infiltrated Syria’s political and military community. Eli is played by Sacha Baron Cohen — a welcome reversal away from the comedy the actor is largely known for. The series delivers a satisfying espionage tale along with some history, as you watch Cohen establish a relationship with Colonel Amin al-Hafez, who eventually goes on to become Syria’s president. Viewers also see Eli Cohen touring the Syrian regime’s military infrastructure at the Golan Heights which Israel would go on to capture during the Six-Day War in 1967.

How to watch it: Netflix

Caroline Klaff recommends


"Miracle" posterWhat it’s about: My favorite movie, “Miracle,” chronicles the real-life story of the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team. It’s a film that you may be familiar with, but should watch again (and again, and again…). “Miracle” taps into the American Cold War mentality and the politicization of international sports competitions by layering engaging interpersonal stories, hometown rivalries, and arguably the greatest locker room speech of all time, against a backdrop of domestic social and economic malaise and geopolitical antagonism. From a foreign policy perspective, the movie puts the importance of the “miracle on ice” into context. By rooting the film amid U.S.-Soviet tensions, splicing in segments of President Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech and footage of the Iran hostage crisis, and highlighting the uncertainty of Olympic boycotts, “Miracle” underscores why the American victory was such a boost to the nation then, just as this feel-good movie can be a boost to us now.

How to watch it: Netflix

Jesse I. Kornbluth recommends

The Motorcycle Diaries

"Motorcycle Diaries"What it’s about: On a motorcycle journey up the spine of the Andes and through the heart of the Amazon, a young middle-class medical student from Rosario, Argentina, Ernesto Guevara, is exposed to the immeasurable inequality on his home continent. Throughout the journey with his friend and “co-pilot,” Alberto Granado, the pair come face to face with the exploitation of the continent’s indigenous and marginalized peoples and its natural resources at the hands of corrupt political systems and foreign capitalist endeavors. It is over this road trip that Ernesto begins to develop the identity that will lead him to become the Marxist revolutionary, “Che” Guevara. “The Motorcycle Diaries” is a visually and emotionally captivating coming-of-age film and a thought-provoking view into the politics of inequality in South America. Ideal for a quarantine, it is a film of magnificent views — of breathtaking landscapes and the vibrant and diverse mestizo cultures of South America.

How to watch it: Rent on Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play, Apple iTunes

Filippos Letsas recommends


"Quantico"What it’s about: The drama thriller TV series “Quantico” exposes the lives of young FBI recruits training at the Quantico base in Virginia when one of them becomes a prime suspect in a terrorist attack on Grand Central Terminal. The story shifts between the present day (the quest to find the suspect) and the past (the training at the academy, during which recruits’ complex personal stories and tangled relationships are revealed). Some viewers are captivated by the fast-paced, intricate, and suspenseful plot; critics claim that the story line is out of touch with reality. No matter which camp you might fall into, the show’s character-driven narrative will put on full display the strikingly diverse set of motives driving young people to work in law enforcement, to conduct sensitive national security investigations, and to become public servants. It may even kick up enough adrenaline for you to pursue a career as a FBI agent.

How to watch it: Netflix

Michael O’Hanlon recommends

The Interview

"The Interview"What it’s about: This movie actually produced a diplomatic crisis. At the time of its completion, back in 2014, North Korea carried out massive cyberattacks against SONY, which distributed the film, and threatened any movie theaters that might show it. The movie mocked the young North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un about three years into his rule, and also pilloried the North Korean state, including for the horrible treatment of its own people. As mediocre as it may have been artistically, it clearly struck a nerve in Pyongyang. And I sort of liked it, I have to admit, for the comedic value and for how it (not completely inaccurately) portrayed North Korean life. I may be alone in the Brookings Foreign Policy program in recommending this movie, however!

How to watch it: Netflix

Ted Reinert recommends


"Atlantics" posterWhat it’s about: Young African men tired of stark inequality at home braving a sea crossing in hopes of making a better living in Europe form the backdrop for Mati Diop’s Senegal-set feature directorial debut. But the film stays on the coast with the young women left behind — and some supernatural developments. “Atlantics” is a fascinating piece of storytelling, and I look forward to Diop’s next film. In the meantime, her earlier shorts are being featured on the Criterion Channel (easily the best streaming service for cinephiles, so please subscribe if you don’t already).

How to watch it: Netflix

Bruce Riedel recommends

Charlie Wilson’s War

"Charlie Wilson's War"What it’s about: The 2007 movie about America’s secret war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan gets the most important part of the war right: the central and crucial role of Pakistan, and especially its dictator, Zia ul Huq. It was really Zia’s war. The CIA provided aid to Zia, he decided who got it, and he favored the most extreme Islamists. Much of the rest of the movie is either fiction (Israel did not help the war effort) or exaggerated (Congressman Wilson was far less important than President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in determining American strategy). It’s a great movie which gets the most important history right and played an important role after 9/11 in helping Americans understand Afghanistan, now its longest war.

How to watch it: Rent or purchase on Amazon

Frank Rose recommends

The World at War

"The World at War"What it’s about: “The World at War,” produced by Jeremy Issacs, remains the definitive documentary of World War II. Filmed in the early 1970s, the program features interviews with key political and military leaders from the war (on both the Axis and Allied sides) as well as ordinary people. I have viewed the series numerous times over the past 30 years, and have always learned some new and interesting fact each time I have watched it.

How to watch it: YouTube

Israa Saber recommends


"Capernum" posterWhat it’s about: Focusing on 12-year-old Zain who’s suing his parents for giving him life, “Capernaum” uses flashbacks to provide an intimate glimpse into life for Lebanon’s most vulnerable. Though the film focuses on the difficulties children face, especially those born in poverty, and the rights society owes them, the film also highlights the refugee and migrant struggle in Lebanon. Lebanon hosts the most refugees per capita in the world, a result of the Syrian civil war, and has struggled economically, socially, and politically under the strains of this influx. “Capernaum” also sheds light on other social issues such as human trafficking, child marriage, misogyny, and official indifference, depicting how entangled they all are. The film is at times difficult to watch but its occasional dark humor and Zain’s streetwise antics help blunt the emotional toll it takes on the viewer. I’d highly recommend you give this film your time and undivided attention.

How to watch it: Amazon Prime

Suzanne Schaefer recommends

The Expanse

"The Expanse"What it’s about: “The Expanse” is a science fiction drama that is set hundreds of years into the future when humanity has colonized space and where political tensions are high between Earth (ruled by the United Nations), the Martian Congressional Republic on Mars, and the Outer Planets Alliance (the OPA). In the midst of this galactic feud over power and resources, the viewer is taken aboard the Rocinante, whose crew — brought together by circumstance — pulls at the thread of an unprecedented and dark discovery. “The Expanse” is both a detective thriller and political spectacle that explores the themes of diplomacy, governance, technology, exploration, the human condition, and even involves a brewing pandemic. Sure to satisfy any connoisseur of foreign affairs, it is a complex drama that expertly entertains while making you ponder the world as you know it and the distant future of foreign policy.

How to watch it: Amazon Prime

Rachel Slattery recommends

Atomic Blonde

"Atomic Blonde"What it’s about: If you’ve read Constanze Stelzenmüller’s excellent essay, “German lessons,” you’ll know how pivotal the fall of the Berlin Wall was for how Germany views its place in the world. Well, “Atomic Blonde” is a different kind of Berlin Wall story. Based on a comic book, the movie follows MI-6 operative Lorraine Broughton (played by Charlize Theron) as she navigates a divided Berlin in search of a mole in the intelligence community before the wall falls. Featuring head-bopping iconic 80s tunes and kick-ass fight scenes, this spy thriller will have you ready to fight the KGB too.

How to watch it: Hulu, or you can rent from Amazon or Vudu

Amanda Sloat recommends


"Occupied" posterWhat it’s about: “Occupied” is a Norwegian show, with three seasons currently available. Set in the near future, Middle East turmoil and U.S. withdrawal from NATO triggers an energy crisis. The Green Party takes power, led by an idealistic prime minister who cuts off fossil fuel production in the hopes of developing thorium-based nuclear power as an alternative. A desperate European Union acquiesces to a Russian-led invasion and soft occupation of Norway. As viewers are sitting at home during the coronavirus pandemic, “Occupied” provides interesting food for thought about future scenarios that could confront the trans-Atlantic relationship.

How to watch it: Netflix

Tom Stefanick recommends

The Best Years of Our Lives

"The Best Years of our Lives"What it’s about: I collaborated on this pick with my friend Murray Biggs, a semi-retired associate professor of English and theater at Yale who has lectured on “The Cinema of War” there and at West Point. Released in 1946, “The Best Years of Our Lives” remains an American classic. Winner of numerous Oscars and other awards, with black-and-white cinematography by the innovative Gregg Toland, and running at nearly three hours, the film depicts in painful detail the social difficulties of returning veterans seeking to resume a normal place in mainstream American life. Not quite a documentary, the movie nevertheless brings home the everyday experience of those trying to adjust to civilian routine after years of acutely disruptive military service abroad. It includes a brief scene in which someone asserts that the United States made a mistake in going to war. He is promptly knocked out.

How to watch it: Netflix

Constanze Stelzenmüller recommends

The Loved One

"The Loved One" posterWhat it’s about: On the principle of confronting one’s worst fears head-on in grim times, I emphatically recommend the undeservedly obscure “The Loved One,” an absolutely-nothing-is-sacred 1965 black-and-white satire of the American funeral industry based on books by Evelyn Waugh and Jessica Mitford, with a screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood. If that’s not enough to make you drop everything, consider the stars: Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters, John Gielgud, Robert Morley, Roddy McDowall, James Coburn, Rod Steiger, Milton Berle, Tab Hunter, and — wait for it — Liberace as a funeral director at the “Whispering Glades” cemetery and mortuary. But Anjanette Comer playing an embalmer named “Aimée Thanatogenos” alone is worth the price of admission. What are you waiting for?

How to watch it: Apple iTunes