The Foreign Service has had its share of cinematic coverage from the Golden Age of Hollywood on the big screen, to today's digital streaming services for your home theater. Unfortunately, we diplomats are usually portrayed as cocktail-sipping elitists, bumbling bureaucrats or wanna-be James Bond-types. But if you dig deep, there are a few gems here.
This list of Foreign Service Films and TV shows was first compiled by my former boss, Leslie Bassett (ret), when she was DCM Seoul and later Ambassador to Paraguay. Her list first appeared in her awesome internal DOS leadership blog. A similar list appeared in the Foreign Service Journal. I started my own list during the 2014-2015 TV season that featured an unusual number of FS-related films -- most of them since cancelled.
This compilation includes films and television shows portraying the Foreign Service, the U.S. State Department, or diplomats in general. Most of the films on this list portray the U.S. Foreign Service, but some titles also cover the life and work of British, Canadian and other members of the international diplomatic community. Most of the synopsis and movie posters below are from IMDB.com. Each synopsis is followed by an appropriate reference. Where none exists, the description was written by Mr. Crab. If we missed any titles, please share! So with no further ado, we present:
The Two Crabs' Ultimate Compendium of Foreign Service on Screen
In chronological order by release date:
Espionage Agent (1939): When Barry Corvall discovers that his new bride is a possible enemy agent, he resigns from the diplomatic service to go undercover to route out an espionage ring planning to destroy American industrial capability. (IMDB)
Panama Patrol (1939): The head of the cipher bureau, Phillip Waring, is about to marry his secretary, Helen Lane, when he is informed that the State Department has discovered a message that must be decoded. With the information given, Waring and his assistant, Lieutenant Murdock, investigate but their every move seems to be known to their alien adversaries. Helen discovers that Arlie Johnson, interpreter for the bureau is the real leader of the spy ring but, before she can relay the information, she falls into the hands of Johnson and his spy-ring henchmen. (IMDB)
The Dippy Diplomat (1945): (Animated short) A newspaper announces that Ivan Awfulitch, the famous ambassador, is due to have a barbecue with local resident Wally Walrus. Unfortunately, while Wally is preparing the barbecue, the scent of the steaks he is cooking attracts an unwelcome guest in the form of Woody Woodpecker. Wally throws him out but when Woody hears of the visitor he is expecting, he dresses as Awfulitch himself and finally gets the remainder of Wally’s food. (IMDB)
State Department — File 649 (1949): U.S. Foreign Service officer matches wits with a Chinese warlord to try to save American citizens threatened with execution. (IMDB). Note: This is probably one of the most well-known Foreign Service movies. The Foreign Service Journal recently wrote a detailed history of this underrated film, calling it an "our cinematic showcase."
Call Me Madam (1953): Washington hostess Sally Adams (Ethel Merman) becomes a Truman-era US ambassador to a European grand duchy. (IMDB)
Dream Wife (1953): Clemson Reade, a business tycoon with marriage on his mind, and Effie, a U.S. diplomat, are a modern couple. Unfortunately there seems to be too much business and not enough pleasure on the part of Effie. When Clemson meets Tarji, a princess trained in all the arts of pleasing men, he decides he wants an old fashioned girl. Princess Tarji’s father is king of oil-rich Bukistan. Because of the oil situation and to maintain good political relations during the courtship between Clemson & Tarji, the State Department assigns a diplomat to maintain protocol until the wedding. Effie!” (IMDB)
“Blonde Bait” (1956): U.S. State Department agent Kent Foster, on the trail of a murderous traitor, Nick Randall, hopes to trap Randall through singer/stripper Angela Booth. The latter has promised to marry Randall on New Year’s Eve, even though she is not to see him until then. However, she lands in prison. Foster arranges for her escape, with the aid of “Granny” Ramsey, in the hopes she will lead him to Randall. The plan is snarled and Angela slips away. She manages to meet Randall, and when he slaps her, she realizes that all she has heard about him is true. (IMDB)
The Ambassador’s Daughter (1956): Joan Fisk, daughter of the American ambassador to France, is bored with entertaining the wives of visiting V.I.P.s and decides to conduct an experiment. She accepts a date with an American G.I. and tries to prove to her father and his friends that not all soldiers are wolves. But by the end of their first date, when wine, music and the young man’s charms have swept her off her feet, she realizes that she may have won more than the bet. (IMDB)
The Ugly American (1963): An intelligent, articulate scholar, Harrison MacWhite (Marlon Brando), survives a hostile Senate confirmation hearing at the hands of conservatives to become ambassador to Sarkan, a southeast Asian country where civil war threatens a tense peace. Despite his knowledge, once he's there, MacWhite sees only a dichotomy between the U.S. and Communism. He can't accept that anti-American sentiment might be a longing for self-determination and nationalism. So, he breaks from his friend Deong, a local opposition leader, ignores a foreman's advice about slowing the building of a road, and tries to muscle ahead. What price must the country and his friends pay for him to get some sense? (IMDB)
The Tamarind Seed (1974): While on holiday in Barbados to recover from the lingering effects of a love affair that ended badly, Judith Farrow (Julie Andrews) meets Feodor Sverdlov (Omar Sharif), a handsome Russian. They find pleasure in each other’s company as they visit colorful places on the island, but there are complications to their budding romance after their holiday in the tropical paradise comes to an end. Problems arise due to geopolitical concerns of the Cold War, for Judith is the assistant to an important minister serving in the British Home Office in London, and Feodor is the Soviet air attaché assigned in Paris to Soviet General Golitsyn. British intelligence officer, Jack Loder, suspects the Sverdlov is attempting to recruit Judith to work as a Soviet spy, and this is in fact what Feodor tells his boss that he is attempting to accomplish. Feodor tells Judith that this is a way for him to be able to see her without bringing about suspicion from his people. Due to somewhat similar thinking on the British side, she is encouraged to see him as well. Loder is attempting to discover the identity of an undercover Soviet agent that has been sending confidential reports to Moscow. Soon he also is told to help a Soviet agent who wishes to defect to the West. (IMDB)
The Omen (1976; remade 2006): A U.S. diplomat (Gregory Peck) and his wife Katherine (Lee Remick) adopt the infant Damien in Rome, then find out he's the Antichrist! When the diplomat becomes U.S. Ambassador to the UK, things go from bad to worse as seemingly everyone around Damien mysteriously dies. One of the scariest horror movies ever that spawned numerous bad sequels and copy-cats.
Midnight Express (1978): Billy Hayes is caught attempting to smuggle drugs out of Turkey. The Turkish courts decide to make an example of him, sentencing him to more than 30 years in prison. While his family attempt to seek his release through legal and diplomatic channels, a fellow inmate tells him the only way out is the "midnight express," meaning to escape. (IMDB)
Missing (1982): Starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek and based on the real-life experiences of Ed Horman, this is the story of an American father of conservative background who comes to a South American country to search for his missing son, a journalist. Ed joins with his daughter-in-law Beth, who like her husband is politically polarized from the father, in prying through the bureaucracy and dangerous political intrigue in search of their son and husband. Little by little, the father comes to realize that his own beloved government is not telling him the truth. (IMDB)
Who Dares, Wins (1982): When SAS Captain Peter Skellen is thrown out of the service for gross misconduct due to unnecessary violence and bullying, he is soon recruited by The People’s Lobby, a fanatical group aiming to hold several US dignitaries hostage. But Skellen’s dismissal is a front to enable him to get close to the terrorist group. Can he get close enough to stop the Lobby from creating an international incident? (IMDB)
The Ambassador (1984): Robert Mitchum plays a controversial U.S. ambassador to Israel who tries to solve the Palestinian question while being criticized by all factions, which takes a turn when his wife begins having an affair with a PLO chief. Rock Hudson (in his last theatrical movie role) plays Mitchum’s chief security officer who saves his life in an assassination attempt and tries to help him resolve the conflicts around them. (IMDB)
Protocol (1984): The US needs to convince the visiting emir Khala'ad of Othar to allow an American military base in his strategic realm. Clueless nightclub waitress Sunny Ann Davis (Goldie Hawn) accidentally spots and stops a terrorist shooting at the president and his royal guest. Her naive comments charm the press, so the State Department recruits her for its Protocol. She falls in love with charming Middle East desk chief Michael Ransome, who rather resigns then help trick her into a 'contact mission' to Othar, where the emir's plan with her unexpectedly stirs a revolution. (IMDB)
Spies Like Us (1985): A classic John Landis 80s flick starring Chevy Chase as Emmitt Fitz-Hume, a State Department civil servant Information Officer (IO) from a Foreign Service legacy family, and Dan Akroyd as Austin Milbarge, a DIA code breaker. The film begins with the two hapless heroes taking the Foreign Service Written Exam in hopes of moving up the DOS ladder. They get caught cheating on the FSWE and end up as expendable decoys on an intelligence operation. Zany antics abound. Trivia: Dan Akroyd's love interest is his real-life wife.
Visas and Virtue (1997): Winner of the 1998 Academy Award for Best Short Film. Haunted by the sight of hundreds of Jewish refugees outside the consulate gates, a Japanese diplomat and his wife, stationed in Kaunas, Lithuania at the beginning of World War II, must decide how much they are willing to risk. Inspired by a true story, VISAS AND VIRTUE explores the moral and professional dilemmas that Consul General Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara faces in making a life or death decision: defy his own government's direct orders and risk his career, by issuing live-saving transit visas, or obey orders and turn his back on humanity. (IMDB).
Mexico City (2000): After divorce and the death of her two children, Mitch is headed for Oaxaca with her brother Sam, a photographer. During their one-day layover in Mexico City, Sam goes out for a night on the town and doesn’t return. Mitch goes for help to the American embassy and starts her own search with the aid of Pedro, a cabbie. (IMDB)
The American Embassy (2002): A short-lived Fox television teen angst series that only lasted about 6 episodes. It stars Arija Bareikis as Emma Brody first-tour consular officer at US Embassy London. Emma is young, single and beautiful woman who joins the Foreign Service to escape from her cheating boyfriend and dysfunctional family in Toledo (never a good enough reason to join the FS!) In London, she squares off with her colleagues and superiors in dealing with various political cases. Unfortunately, the show has never been released on video or streaming service, but you can find bootlegs online. Episode 2 - and ONLY Episode 2 - can be found on YouTube. Takeaways from Episode 2: never mail "toys" via diplomatic pouch, don't discuss classified information in the Embassy lobby or London streets; and hire a dozen EEO officers...STAT!
I Witness (2003): Jim Rhodes is a human rights worker in Tijuana for a few days to make sure that union elections are fair at a maquiladora owned by a U.S. corporation. In quick succession, the police assault the strikers, the bodies of 27 peasants turn up in an abandoned tunnel that has caved in, and two U.S. teen bikers are missing. As Rhodes pokes around and speculates on connections among these events, he’s beaten up, warned off by a drug dealer’s attorney, and given varying degrees of help by the U.S. State Department rep, the U.S. Trade rep, and an honest local cop. It’s always about money, but whose is at stake and how cheap is Rhodes’s life? (IMDB)
The Constant Gardener (2005): Mild-mannered British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes) is assigned to British Embassy in Kenya. He is accompanied by his wife, Tessa (Rachel Weisz). After Tessa is murdered, Quayle After his wife is murdered in Kenya, Justin, with a passion for gardening, decides to uncover the truth behind the death of his wife - with no regards for the consequences.
The White Countess (2005): Set in 1930s Shanghai, where a blind American diplomat (Ralph Fiennes, in his second role as a diplomat) develops a curious relationship with a young Russian refugee who works odd -- and sometimes illicit -- jobs to support members of her dead husband's aristocratic family. (IMDB)
American Visa (2005): Bolivian film. After being denied an American visa, a Bolivian professor becomes involved in a web of criminal activities, holds-up the American consulate and falls for a beautiful prostitute from the Bolivian lowlands. (IMDB)
Cooking with Stella (2009): A warmhearted social satire about a Canadian diplomat and her chef husband who are posted to New Delhi. Upon arrival they inherit a household of Indian servants headed by the charming, totally inspiring – and wily -cook, Stella (Seema Biswas). When Stella agrees to become Michael’s cooking guru and to teach him traditional Indian dishes, little does he know that she’s cooking up a scheme of her own. (IMDB)
Julie & Julia (2009): Based on a true story of the Foreign Service's most famous EFM, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is the wife of a diplomat assigned to a 4-year posting at US Embassy Paris. Looking for ways to pass her time, Julia takes cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu, where she discovers her true passion. The film time travels between Julia's story and that of young writer Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Underemployed with an unpublished novel, Julie decides to cook her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in a year and to blog about it. We go back and forth between these stories of two women learning to cook and finding success. Sympathetic, loving husbands support them both, and friendships, too, add zest.
The Diplomat (2009): A British diplomat is arrested on charges of working with Russian mafia. After death threats to his wife, they are taken into protective custody. Then the MI6 shows up with a new piece of the puzzle. (IMDB)
From Paris with Love (2010): Awful, implausible action thriller starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers as James, an ambitious aide to the U.S. Ambassador in Paris, yet moonlighting for the CIA. On the night he and his girlfriend become engaged, he's assigned to serve as driver/control officer for Charlie Wax, an unorthodox government employee played by John Travolta. James learns that a terrorist cell is preparing to attack the American delegation. The two embark on a wild ride to save the day.
The Ambassador (2011): Danish journalist Mads Brügger goes undercover as a Liberian Ambassador to embark on a dangerous yet hysterical journey to uncover the blood diamond trade in Africa. (IMDB)
Argo (2012): Winner of the 2013 Academy Award for Best Picture, Argo is based on a true story. In 1979, Iranian militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in November 1979, taking 56 American diplomats hostage. Six American from the consulate section manage to escape and took refuge in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor. With few options remaining, CIA exfiltration expert Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) devices a daring plan to create a phony sci-fi film project called "Argo," visit Iran to supposedly scout filming locations, and smuggle out the Americans as part of the production crew. This film introduced a whole new generation to the work of the U.S. diplomats and the real dangers of life in the Foreign Service.
Pulling Strings / Amor A Primera Visa (2013): This Rom-Com stars Laura Ramsey as a young, Type-A consular officer at US Embassy Mexico City who is focused on nothing but climbing the Foreign Service ladder. She throws herself a goodbye party to celebrate her assignment to US Embassy London. But after a night of heavy drinking, she gets drunk and passes out on the street (Hello? RSO?). She's rescued by a Alejandro, a mariachi singer who was denied for a visa by our consular star on the previous day. Breaking nearly every State Department rule in the process, Laura falls in love with her visa client. What could possible go wrong!?! In Spanish-speaking countries, the film was more appropriately titled, "Amor A Primera Visa" - a word play on 'Love at First Sight'.
Blue Jasmine (2013): Directed by Woody Allen, the film follows Cate Blanchett as Jasmine, a ruined, mentally unstable New York socialite. After her fall from grace, she hooks up with diplomat Dwight (Peter Sarsgaard), who Jasmine believes will help her social position. The film makes FSOs appear to be fabulously rich and have months of leave for R&R in California and fancy cocktail parties in Vienna.
The Ambassadors (2013): A BBC television comedy starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb as two hapless British diplomats in the fictional republic of Tazbekistan. (BBC)
Madame Secretary (2014): MADAM SECRETARY stars Tèa Leoni as Elizabeth McCord, the shrewd, determined, newly appointed Secretary of State who drives international diplomacy, battles office politics and circumvents protocol as she negotiates global and domestic issues, both at the White House and at home. A college professor and a brilliant former CIA analyst who left for ethical reasons, Elizabeth returns to public life at the request of the President following the suspicious death of her predecessor. The President values her apolitical leanings, her deep knowledge of the Middle East, her flair for languages and her ability to not just think outside the box, but to not even acknowledge there is a box. McCord's team includes her Chief of Staff Nadine Tolliver, speechwriter Matt Mahoney, press coordinator Daisy Grant and her charming assistant Blake Moran. When McCord debates third world problems, finesses foreign dignitaries at work and does battle with the President's combative Chief of Staff Russell Jackson, it's just a warm-up for when she goes home to her supportive husband, Henry, and their two bright children, where "politics" and "compromise" take on new meaning. (CBS)
The Embassy (2014): Australian reality show following the real work of consular officers at the Australian Embassy in Bangkok. Although the producers have taken some slight over-dramatic licenses, "The Embassy" realistically portrays life and work of consular officers and the help they provide to their citizens. Having worked in American Citizen Services (ACS), I can attest the work of our Aussie counterparts closely mirrors the work of U.S. consular officers. The first full episode of "The Embassy" is available on YouTube. Subsequent episodes are only available on Australia's Channel Nine website, which can be viewed using a VPN.
Survivor (2015) - A Foreign Service Officer in London tries to prevent a terrorist attack set in New York, but is forced to go on the run after she is framed for crimes she didn't commit. The A-list cast stars Dylan McDermott and Milla Jovovich and directed by James McTeigue.
The Brink (2015) - HBO series described as a "dark geopolitical comedy" starred Tim Robbins as the Secretary of State, and Jack Black as a "lowly Foreign Service Officer" assigned to U.S. Embassy Islamabad, and John Larroquette as the evangelical Ambassador. Cancelled after just 1 season.\
Diplomats (2015 - In turnaround) - A comedy film based on Dennis Rodman's "basketball diplomacy" trips to North Korea. Announced in 2015 but has apparently never been filmed. Was to be directed by "Barbershop" and "Fantastic Four" director Tim Story
Stanistan (2016?) - A show about a Press Officer at a US Embassy compound in the Middle East. The show was cancelled before the pilot ever aired.
Inside the American Embassy (2018) - Documentary-style reality show about the inner workings of U.S. Embassy London and its extremely pro-Trump, billionaire political appointee ambassador. The show aired on UK's Channel4 and there doesn't appear to be a way of watching the series unless you are a UK cable subscriber. If anyone has a work-around or knows of other streaming service where it can be found, please let me know. Brief snippets can be found on YouTube.
Long Shot (2019) - Rom-Com starring the lovely Charlize Theron as "S" - the Secretary of State who is running for President in 2020. Seth Rogan, as his usual lovable stoner self, plays a journalist who becomes her speechwriter. Hilarious film, even more-so for FS folks due to several inside DOS/USG jokes. Anyone who has ever served as a control officer for an "S" visit will truly appreciate this flick (or trigger nightmares!) Sadly, this movie was badly marketed and the trailers and posters really did the film injustice.
Good Omens (2019) - An angel and a demon must work to stop Armageddon, brought upon in the form of the Antichrist - who may or may not be the son of a U.S. Diplomat in London! Based on a book. From BBC and available on AmazonPrime. Best quote from EP1: "An American diplomat? REALLY? As if Armageddon were a cinematographic show you wished to sell in as many countries as possible."