Film actress Natalie Portman, best known for her role as Queen Amidala in the Star Wars saga, recently put in a surprise appearance at Stuart Gottlieb's political science class on "Terrorism & Counterterrorism."
She was invited to discuss the treatment of these themes in her newest film, V for Vendetta. Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore and his illustrator-collaborator David Lloyd (originally a comic book series the pair issued in Britain in the 1980s), the film is set in a future time, around 2020. America has collapsed under the strain of terror, plague and civil war, and England is now under totalitarian rule, its airwaves dominated by a hate-filled commentator and its citizens under constant Orwellian-like surveillance.
The action centers on the machinations of V (played by Hugo Weaving, above), the sole survivor of one of Britain's infamous detention centers of several years back. All that is known of V from this era was that he was subjected to medical experiments and his face became disfigured in the process -- hence the mask.
When the action of the film begins, the mysterious V has embarked on a vendetta against the officers at the camp and on a campaign to bring down the government. Portman plays Evey, V's apprentice freedom fighter.
"We used Portman's film in my class to explore the use of violence as a means to foment political change," said Gottlieb. "Terrorism is a very complex issue, and it's important that the students get a range of opinions and perspectives."
Gottlieb, who has previously worked as a foreign policy advisor and speechwriter for two U.S. senators, said he believes in bringing his students as close as possible to real-world experience, which has meant using film, particularly documentaries, in his classes on political violence.
"Terrorism has a very visual component, very high impact, and there is only so long you want to be standing there lecturing on it," Gottlieb said. "Rather, you want people to see and hear and experience it from a variety of angles."
Gottlieb is currently teaching two of the handful of courses on the topic of political violence offered by the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and the Department of Political Science. Besides the class on terrorism and counterterrorism, he leads a seminar on weapons of mass destruction.
His syllabus for the WMD seminar includes the film Dirty War, which premiered on HBO in January. It tells the fictional story of a radiological "dirty bomb" attack on central London.
And for his terrorism course, Gottlieb typically spends three weeks showing several Frontline documentaries on al-Qaeda, along with the classic Battle of Algiers -- all of which, plus related readings, become the basis for lively classroom debate, he explained.
This year, he added V for Vendetta to the mix because when Warner Brothers approached him about showing their film in his class, he realized that it was "current and relevant to a lot of our themes for the semester," and sensed it would appeal to his students. "When pop culture and education converge, it's a good opportunity," he said.
Portman's appearance sparked off a debate about the terrorist methods she employs in the film, Gottlieb reported. Students were also interested to learn Portman's own views on terrorism.
"They were happy to learn that she was not as violent in real life as she appeared in the film," he added, smiling.
Portman's visit to Columbia was sponsored by MTV Networks and will be aired at college campuses around the country as part of MTV University's Stand In series, which surprises college classes by replacing their professor with celebrity instructors for the day.