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Top 5 Films for Negotiators

When it comes to negotiations, the movie industry has a conflict bias.

On one end of the spectrum, films often associate negotiations with weakness. The steadfast hero spurns negotiation in favor of a good fight (e.g. High Noon, Air Force One, The Fifth Element). On the other end, films depict negotiation as a type of war by other means. The aggressive negotiator cows his opponents into submission (e.g. Wolf of Wall Street, Django Unchained, Nightcrawler).

Every now and again, though, movies succeed in portraying the constructive potential of real-life negotiations. These features make negotiations engaging, exciting, and educational.

Below are five of our favorites at NextArrow:

A Hijacking (2013)

A harrowing thriller about the kidnapping and attempted release of a Danish freighter and its crew. The film centers around the hardball negotiations between the shipping company’s CEO and the chief translator for the Somali pirates. Throughout the movie we see the emotional toll exacted by the 120-day protracted bargaining. As the main characters unravel, the film powerfully explores the tension between corporate economic rationality and basic human worth. A classic for competitive negotiation.

Lincoln (2012)

Spielberg’s cinematic rendering of the means by which the Sixteenth President got a Congressional majority to abolish slavery. The film provides us with a masterful use of both carrots and sticks in complex multi-party negotiations. Lincoln’s negotiating style is varied and speaks to the importance of knowing your audience. At times, he persuades through storytelling and metaphors. Other times, through appeals to reason and logic. Still others, by incentivizing and pressuring. The film shows the value of having a vision to guide a negotiation, while at the same time being able to adapt to the situation to bring that vision to fruition.

Waco (Miniseries, 2018)

A six-part series about the infamous 1993 standoff between law enforcement and the Branch Davidians at the religious group’s compound in Waco, Texas. The show highlights the efforts of Gary Noesner (former Chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit and a NextArrow Advisory Board member) and his team to bring the situation to a peaceful resolution by negotiating both with David Koresh, the group’s leader, and with more bellicose factions within the FBI. Waco gives viewers insight into the challenges and best practices in hostage negotiation. Despite a tragic ending, Noesner and his team’s negotiation strategy saved 35 lives (including 21 children) and, likely, could’ve saved more had disagreements and misalignments within the FBI not derailed their efforts.

Thirteen Days (2000) “Thirteen Days” tells the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis from the point of view of Kenny O’Donnell, special advisor to President Kennedy. The film provides the viewers a fly-on-the-wall perspective at a moment in which the world’s fate depended on the judgment and negotiating skills of a few men (and they were all men). Like Lincoln, “Thirteen Days” shows the President (and his brother) to be a skillful negotiator: adopting different negotiating styles (contentious, compromising, collaborative) to fit the situation; unlocking solutions to seemingly intractable problems by using perspective-taking and divergent thinking; encouraging vigorous debate and discussion before making any decision; and taking time to deliberate (despite unimaginable stress) before taking a course of action.

The Founder (2017) “The Founder” documents businessman Ray Kroc’s rise to power and the transformation of McDonald’s from a small drive-in restaurant in Saint Bernardino, California, to a global powerhouse. The success of the franchise, however, takes place at the eventual expense of the restaurant’s original founders (the brothers McDonald). Unlike most of the other films on this list, ‘The Founder’ stands as a cautionary tale. The biopic powerfully portrays what happens when a business relationship sours and negotiations become internally competitive. While the film can be seen as an indictment of avariciousness and capitalism, the outcome of the story is hardly inevitable. Throughout the film we see evidence of poor communication continuously eroding trust between the partners. It’s only when Kroc realizes the risk-averse McDonald brothers are unwilling to provide him with the timely support and autonomy that his vision requires that he carves his own path. The clip below demonstrates the inability of the partners to properly negotiate, and the dog-eat-dog worldview that Kroc develops and eventually turns on his partners.

So there you have it, five times movies gave us “reel” insight into the world of negotiations.

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