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Reel Negotiation: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly Reflections Of Negotiation And Mediation In Film

Almost ten years ago, we did a workshop showing film clips from popular films we thought were relevant to negotiation and conflict management practice. Since then, each of us have expanded and refined our repertoire of films and regularly include them in presentations and trainings. The visual experience of watching movie scenes is, needless to say, a great learning tool that helps to illustrate, clarify or frame the discussion not only about negotiation and mediation, strategies, techniques and skills, but approaches to problem solving and leadership as well. Many of our favorites are listed below with brief annotations as to why and how we think they might be helpful, along with references to articles and reviews of a few movies that are especially important.

The value and importance of films as a learning tool can’t be underestimated. Popular movies offer a window into the prevailing cultural beliefs and myths and reflect how people tend to approach and respond to both conflict in general, and negotiation as a particularly important mode of conflict management. While virtually everyone negotiates at some time or another, we contend there is still considerable resistance in our society to the idea of negotiating differences and has been for centuries. At the same time, also because of their nature, or in spite of it, humans have, from time to time, managed to collaborate with each other. Films reflect both, our greatest hopes and our worst tendencies. Therefore, viewing and sometimes studying movies can be very useful to prepare for conflict management work.

While the stories that movies tell are not technically true, they carry a truth. The scripts lie somewhere between art imitating life or life imitating art, and after a while it doesn’t make much difference which. To the extent that they elicit authentic human responses of fear, anger, frustration, sadness, and sometimes even hope, they are real enough.

When movies tell stories of significance, the kind that help us make sense of the world around us, then they perpetuate what ‘licensed’ anthropologists call myths. While not technically true, a myth is not, as many tend to think, a lie either. It carries within it a special kind of truth, often metaphoric, that offers insight into how people would like to believe things are or should be. The myths presented in movies become a guide of sorts for viewers’ behavior—sometimes directly and other times more subtly and sub-consciously. So that, when John Wayne says, “I don’t believe in surrender…” or Gary Cooper resolutely stands up to the bad guys in High Noon, or Harrison Ford, playing an American President in Air Force One, says with white hot determination, “We will not negotiate with terrorists,” those lines resonate with us and we want to be like the hero.. Who among us doesn’t want to believe that if faced with evil, that we wouldn’t stand up and do the right thing, whatever the cost.

Our culture has certain over arching operational myths that are close to sacred. Among those are the myth of justice and it’s first cousin the myth of truth, which holds that both are susceptible to clear determination. The myth of rationality posits the belief that events are causal and predictable and decisions can be made analytically and objectively. Finally, there is the myth of finality that suggests that once things are decided, they are effectively resolved. If these myths were, in fact true, there would be no need for negotiation. Thus, primary myths spawn second-order myths, such as the still widespread belief that negotiation is a sign of weakness at best, and often a deceptive activity that compromises the truth. Negotiators continue to often be seen as moral relativists who would ‘sell their souls to the Devil for the sake of a deal.” Or, in the words of Dante, ”The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in time of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” (See Benjamin, Robert D., “Managing the Natural Energy of Conflict: Tricksters, Mediators and The Constructive Uses of Deception,” in Bringing Peace Into the Room, eds. Bowling and Hoffman, 2004).

It should be no surprise then, with only a few notable exceptions, in particular, Hotel Rwanda (2005), movies past and present have not been favorable to negotiation. Mediation, the first cousin of negotiation, is seldom mentioned, and when it is, often not accurately or in an almost derisive off-handed way such as in a silly comedy like The Wedding Crashers (2006), where the two leads play divorce mediators trying to seduce women at a wedding party. In fact, most movies have been downright hostile to negotiation, favoring armed force as the preferred means of revenge and conflict management. Current day movies, many unfortunately not great by any cinematic or creative standard, continue to foster resistance to negotiation and mediation.

While there has been a falling off in attendance, people still go to movies, rent them or steal them off the web and practicing negotiators and mediators would do well to be familiar with them. First, movies have contributed to the negative impressions many have about negotiation that very well might be carried into the mediation process. Experienced mediators have learned that even outwardly sophisticated looking and sounding people, are often reluctant to negotiate. They are afraid they are going to be played for a fool. The real world of conflict is like a movie script—things are not what they seem. A mediator would do well to not presume that because people have showed up for a mediation session, they want to be there or they can be expected to be rational and reasonable. Second, movies are fodder for forming a common frame of reference with parties and may even offer insight into how they construct their reality. What movies they like or don’t like isn’t conclusive information but definitely useful. And making reference to a movie they liked can open up a possibility for different thinking.

Viewing conflict and negotiation through film, not unlike other art forms, allows for thinking differently about things. Theatre and film allow us to access our intuitive sensibilities and encourages what de Bono calls lateral thinking. (Bono, Edward de, Lateral Thinking, Harper and Row, 1970). Ironically, sometimes the best way to approach a confounding issue maybe to not think about it directly. Distracting ourselves with activities like watching a movie or a play, accesses different parts of the brain and can spark a whole different perspective. It’s a kind of crazy wisdom. If you’re stuck, go to the movies.

Articles and Reviews

Benjamin, Robert D., “The Movies- Constructions Of Reality And Sources Of Metaphors” , 1998

Benjamin, Robert D., “Mediation As Theater And Negotiation As Performance Art,” , 2001.

Benjamin, Robert D., “Hotel Rwanda and the Guerrilla Negotiator,” , February, 2005

Benjamin, Robert D., “Film Review: Thank You For Smoking Offers An Advanced Tutorial in Negotiation Strategies and Ethics,” , April, 2006


Air Force One (1997) Harrison Ford plays a US President, and echoes President Ronald Reagan, giving the modern day version of John Wayne, “We will not negotiate with Terrorists.

Apollo 13 (1995) Tom Hanks plays Astronaut Jim Lovell in this classic docudrama of American “can do” problem solving that requires putting a square object into a round hole.

Braveheart (1995) Mel Gibson plays 13th Century Scottish rebel hero William Wallace who fights the tyranny of Edward I. Juxtaposes the historical place of war and negotiation.

Changing Lanes (2002) Samuel Jackson is the stressed out working class stiff who is involved in a car collision with Ben Affleck, a slick NYC lawyer, who slights Jackson and records how conflict quickly spins out of control from a seemingly innocuous event. A worthwhile study for conflict managers.

A Civil Action (1998) Frames the ‘myth of justice,’ Travolta plays the conniver come hero attorney in this ‘torn from the headlines backdrop of alleged corporate malfeasance ( see also Erin Brockovich, 2000) in dumping hazardous waste. Best scene, however, is Robert Duvall. Especially valuable as sample of legal offer/counter offer negotiation.

Columbo (1971-1978) While not technically a movie, the television series about a seemingly unassuming, obsequious homicide detective ever ready with another silly question, starring Peter Falk, offers a rich vein of worthwhile material for study of effective negotiation and mediation technique. Columbo is well within the trickster folklore tradition of the ‘wise fool.’

Crash (2005) Excellent exercise for conflict managers. Presses viewers to careen back and forth between hating and admiring the players behavior as the story develops, forcing into the open the natural inclination to be judgmental and deny it. Matt Dillon, and Sandra Bullock. See also Dead Man Walking.

Dances With Wolves (1990) Provides a number of scenes useful in the study of communication between cultures. Kevin Costner, in arguably his best movie, plays a dedicated US Calvary soldier isolated deep in Lakota Sioux territory and forced to come to terms not only with the environment but his most skeptical hosts.

Dead Man Walking (1995) Setting aside the religious stuff, this is a powerful film that compels viewers to feel the pressure of the validity of both sides of the capital punishment issue. Particularly useful for conflict mediators training. Sean Penn plays the convicted murderer on death row, Susan Sarandon, plays the Nun who connects with him and the family of the young girl he brutally killed.

Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Some of Al Pacino’s best work. A true story of a loser who holds up a car dealer to raise money for his lover’s sex-change operation, botches it, and ends up in a hostage negotiation. A useful study of the way hostage negotiation is often done.

The Fifth Element (1997) Set in 23rd Century, Bruce Willis is the hero who prefers shooting to negotiating. Is hostage negotiation too often used as little more than a ruse to set up a kill shot?

The Flim Flam Man (1967) George C. Scott plays the classic con-man. A study in the use of deception, swindling and selling.

Ghostbusters (1984) Classic Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, et al., stuff that more than honorably echoes the Marx Brothers movies several generations earlier. As three ex-communicated academics they set up their zany business which is the backdrop for endless negotiations among themselves and everyone in their path.

The Great Santini (1979) Pat Conroy’s book on film with Robert Duvall as “a warrior without a war” who treats his family as his command and wages a cringe inducing war with his teenage son in an unforgettable scene on the backyard basketball court. Very useful in ferreting out peoples’ emotional response to conflict that is all too real.

High Noon, (1952) In this classic American Western, Gary Cooper plays the quintessential reluctant hero who has provided the model for many American Presidents. Juxtaposes the hero and the mediator, the town leader who counsels appeasement, wants “Coop” to disappear and avoid the showdown.

Hotel Rwanda (2004), In this docudrama, Don Cheadle plays Paul Rusesabagina, a hotel manager caught in the middle of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and saves the lives of some 1200 people through his negotiation prowess with all sides, the UN, the Rebels, the Hutus, the Tutsis and the White corporate owners of the Hotel. This is one of the only films where a negotiator is the hero and not backed up by blazing guns that save the day.

The Hurricane (1999), Denzel Washington plays Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the great prizefighter wrongly convicted and imprisoned for murder. Great scene showing prison guard negotiating with him as moral extremist to survive.

Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep play in this drama of a couple in divorce, raising gender, parenting responsibility and conflict management issues. Mediation is not given much attention. Should be required viewing for family and divorce mediators especially.

Longitude (2000) Although not well known, this film offers a valuable study in problem solving and specifically, how to escape the constraints of established patterns of thinking and assumptions.

Michael (1996) John Travolta plays a slightly degenerate, rumpled, and God forbid, smoking Angel, who comes directly out of the Trickster tradition, and loves life, women, and competition, allowing humans to learn by his use of both sacred and profane means.

The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) Reuben Blades plays a small town sheriff who stumbles into the role of a mediator to settle a dispute between local Hispanic farmers, the US Forest Service and Corporate Developers who want the land for a golf course and resort. It is a half way serious comedy of difficult dispute with a humorous bent.

The Negotiator (1998) Even though it deteriorates into a standard Hollywood action thriller, and not a bad one, Samuel Jackson and Kevin Spacey play sparring police hostage negotiators and offer up some useful scenes on the nature of authenticity and negotiation technique.

Tombstone (1993) Another retelling of the Old West saga of the shootout at the OK Coral, but though violent, offers terrific insights into the dynamics of the escalation of conflict and the risks / benefits of confrontation.

12 Angry Men (1957) Don’t bother with the re-make, the original with Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, et al., can’t be improved upon. The belief in the triumph of rational inquiry deliberation over emotionalism in the jury room is profiled, setting the scene for the ‘myth of justice.’ If the court process really worked like this, why negotiate?

Schindler’s List (1993) Steven Spielberg’s compelling film on the Holocaust provides a powerful backdrop for the study of negotiation as a means of survival and the nature of authenticity. Liam Neeson, as Oskar Schindler, a real life war profiteer/scoundrel who appears to become a hero, negotiates with the Jews to allow for their survival and in a brilliant scene, with a German soldier for the life of a little girl being placed on the train for the concentration camp.

State and Main (2000) A great, but not well known film about the adventures of a Hollywood film crew in a small New England town, the resulting clash of cultures and negotiations within the crew and with the townsfolk. Illustrates a variety of styles of negotiation from ‘hard ball’ to empathetic. William Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, and Sarah Jessica Parker.

The Searchers (1956) Would John Wayne negotiate? classic American; more than a mere actor, he is an icon that reflects our cultural resistance to resistance to negotiation: “…I don’t believe in surrender… “

Thank You For Smoking (2006) Some brilliant scenes that illustrate advanced negotiation technique, specifically, the use of paradoxical injunction and reframing

Thirteen Days (2000) Absorbing dramatization of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, depicting the negotiations of President John F. Kennedy, first with his own military advisors and then with the Soviet Union leader, Nikita Kruschev. Unusually accurate, it is worthy of being viewed in its entirety and carefully studied for negotiation strategy and technique. The only downside is Kevin Costner’s horrendous effort at a Boston accent.

The War of the Roses (1989) A classic study of the escalation of conflict in a divorce, but should be required viewing not just for family and divorce mediators, but every student of conflict management. Often dismissed as satire, from years of practice experience, found it all too real and plausible. Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas as the principles and Danny Devito as one of the lawyers.

Wit (2001) This is an absolute must see for anyone who works in or around healthcare. Emma Thompson is brilliant as a literature professor come ovarian cancer patient who must engage and endure doctors, and the hospital system in the last days of her life. Directed by Mike Nichols, this film is perhaps the most poignant depiction of doctor/patient communication—or miscommunication around.

October, 2006


Peter Adler

Peter Adler directs ACCORD3.0, a group of independent consultants specializing in foresight, fact-finding and conseneus building. He is the former President and CEO of The Keystone Center and has held executive positions with the Hawaii Supreme Court, the Hawaii Justice Foundation, and Neighborhood Justice Center of Honolulu. Peter can also… MORE >


Robert Benjamin

Robert Benjamin, M.S.W., J.D., has been a practicing mediator since 1979, working in most dispute contexts including: business/civil, family/divorce, employment, and health care. A lawyer and social worker by training, he practiced law for over 25 years and now teaches and presents professional negotiation, mediation, and conflict management seminars and… MORE >

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