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The Movies- Constructions Of Reality And Sources Of Metaphors

This article was previously published in “Peripheral Visions,” Mediation News, Spring 1998, Vol. 17, No. 2. Copyright © 1998,
Academy of Family Mediators

You can still go to movies for pure entertainment and “escapism,” but don’t disregard the impact of movies on our culture and miss the opportunity to draw from them lines, meanings, and metaphors that are useful in your mediation practice. Movies are one of the most potent contributors to our popular culture, and they give us a glimpse of the realities we have constructed for ourselves. The topics, themes and dialogue of movies express our conventional wisdom-our truths, beliefs and values about the world we live in. In short, they represent our operative mythology and folklore (as Joseph Campbell or Claude Levi-Strauss might say). That conventional wisdom sets out what’s right or wrong, good or bad, and gives rise to our sense of optimism or pessimism about the world.

Movies deal with the exact same issues that mediators do in their daily practice of managing conflict: love and attachment, separation and loss, and ultimately, good and evil. How screen stories approach and suggest the resolution of those conflicts reflects and represents how people in their daily lives deal with the same issues. Their fears, stresses, hatreds, and the cathartic or ambiguous resolution of the same are graphically illustrated and then carried along with them out of theatre to contribute to the context of their next real human interaction. Movies can alternatively encourage or discourage peoples’ tendencies to fight, flee or negotiate their own life conflicts.

Would John Wayne negotiate? Many might dismiss John Wayne (or, more accurately, his screen personae) as a mere celluloid fantasy. As Gary Wills noted in his book, John Wayne is a cultural icon who institutionalized the American belief in the lone individual against the forces of corruption, and the value of fighting for principle over negotiating to resolve conflict. Wayne’s roles in virtually all his movies (by his design, says Wills) are the personification of standing-up for what you believe in. His metaphoric voice is heard in every political debate and is echoed in many disputes (family/divorce, business, and landlord-tenant matters). For Wayne, negotiation is tantamount to, at the very least, compromising your principles, and at worst, may even be sinful or immoral. I’ve written in greater depth about how negotiation is viewed with suspicion in our culture, and how over the centuries negotiation is aligned with the concept of evil and the ingrained belief that it is not just bad but immoral. Simply put, Satan, the archetype of the evil world, uses as his modus operandi negotiation-he negotiates for your soul. John Wayne is case in point of the resistance to negotiation.

With this backdrop, let’s review some well known movies and consider their message to us mediators.

The basics, of course, for family and divorce mediators are Kramer vs. Kramer and The War of the Roses. Both deal with divorce and separation in the legal context. “Kramer” is the custody case from hell; “Roses” is just your run of the mill intractable, hateful divorce. Both are oversimplified and mostly important for what they don’t show-the possibility that such conflicts might be mediated. “Roses,” however, is an especially helpful, if not curious movie for other reasons. The audience’s response is generally ambiguous: it’s hard to figure whether their typically nervous laughter is out of the belief that such outlandish behavior doesn’t happen in real life, or that such circumstances could never happen to them (the Roses end up killing pets, making their house a war zone, and they ultimately kill each other). Most professionals who work with divorcing parties know that the “tit for tat” behavior can easily escalate into sheer craziness if left unchecked just as it was displayed in “Roses.” The movie offers another point of reference for mediators. Many people, and perhaps even some mediators, don’t think mediation can work if one or both of the parties is as angry or patently irrational as Mr. and Mrs. Rose were portrayed. This movie is a good example to show that a party does not need to start off being cooperative or rational in order to mediate an effective agreement. In fact, the Roses behavior, while extreme, is not unusual for parties going through the stress of a divorce. The mediator can use the movie as a means of normalizing the feelings that generally arise and give clients the hope they can survive and take control of their lives.

More generally, but very effectively, Braveheart illustrates the choice between war and negotiation as means to redress social inequities. Mel Gibson plays the “John Wayne” heroic figure (Scotsman William Wallace) pitted against the oppressive English occupiers. In the background is the Bruce family of Scottish nobles, who have negotiated with English for land in return for keeping the Scottish people under control, or for the survival of the Scots, depending on how one looks at it. The movie suggests that Wallace (“live free or die”) is of pure heart. The Bruces, on the other hand, especially the patriarch of the clan, are unprincipled sellouts. The old man, in fact, has a gnarly face that takes on a demonic nature. Rob Roy, a film of the same genre, explores the same historical topic in a more limited way. Both films perpetuate a similar construction of reality. This type of “Come back with your shield or on it,” death in the pursuit of a noble cause is more honorable than the toleration of injustice. This is, perhaps, one of the most pervasive themes of movies.

In the present day (another historical context, but the same basic theme) Air Force One presents Harrison Ford as the hero in the role of President of the United States. He is faced with the Faustian deal of saving his family/country by negotiating with terrorists, and rejects the devil and refuses to negotiate. We in the audience want to believe we would do the same thing in those circumstances. Most of us will never be faced with this particular dilemma, but we can hold the line of principle and refuse negotiation in the conflicts we do face in our own lives. These movies are one of the primary sources of the “Myth of Justice,” by which many Americans operate: the belief we are right, that any thoughtful onlooker will see we are right, and that right will win in the end. A mediator must, of course, dislodge this operative myth if parties are to even consider negotiating their disputes.

Specifically, in terms of mediator mind set, Schindler’s List presents a more subtle, but critically important theme. Without any intention to minimize the enormity and gravity of the holocaust, separate and apart from that event, the historical and dramatic figure of Oskar Schindler offers an important source of learning for mediators. Here is a man who embodies the truest sense of the word scoundrel-a war opportunist, bent on making a profit on the backs of others’ suffering (his wife, in interviews, confirms that assertion). Suffice to say, he is not the kind of person with whom one would want to spend even a few moments at a cocktail party-sleazy, slimy and base in the extreme. And yet, within the scoundrel was a hero; he was ultimately responsible for saving the lives of a good number of Jews in the shadow of the holocaust. For the mediator, this drama has inestimable importance. The mediator should take the highest degree of care in judging the motives and actions of parties. For example, even one judged to be an abuser likely has redeeming qualities that can be constructively brought to bear in settling the conflict. At the same time, many parties divide the world (especially when they are in conflict) into friend and foe. They may benefit from the suggestion that one who has helped you is not necessarily a friend, and one who has hurt you is not necessarily an enemy. Within a scoundrel may lie a hero, and conversely, within a hero may lie a scoundrel.

Finally, be careful not to over-identify with the portrayals of lawyers and the legal system in the movies. In The Devil’s Advocate, and Rainmaker, among many others, the legal system is offered up as a real hell, or at least metaphoric one with lawyers in the role of the Devil’s agents. This black and white rendering seductively oversimplifies. Many mediators and parties would like to so believe, dismissing lawyers as merely avaricious and malicious. The legal system (a human construct) reflects little more than our human strengths and frailties. For mediators to uncritically join with the anti-lawyer sentiment is neither accurate nor good for business. Mediation is not, and should not be presented as the great panacea that obviates the need for the deformed legal system. Likewise, parties need to be counseled on the importance of legal advice if they are to make thoughtful, informed decisions.

Give movies some thought. They offer a rich source for stories and metaphors with which people can identify. By noting your own response to a movie and the clients’ responses, you’ll often catch a glimpse of your own biases and the clients’ beliefs. I don’t know if the Internal Revenue Service will allow the price of a movie to be a deductible business expense as a result of this discussion, but that is the subject for another day.


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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