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Patterson Film Series: Red Dawn

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Last night we screened Red Dawn at the Patterson School, first of the Spring Film Series. Red Dawn is not… a good movie. Most of us found it entertaining, although probably not all for the same reasons. I screened it for two reasons. First, Red Dawn perfectly evokes the political climate of the early 1980s, a period which saw our leaders patiently explain to us that a tiny, impoverished Central American country posed a clear and present danger to our security, and which relentlessly subjected us to inflated accounts of the Soviet threat and ominous warnings about Soviet intentions. People who don’t remember the Cold War forget that the Soviet Union was not believed to be in its dottering dottage in the early 1980s; we were told, over and over again, that the Reds might come through the Fulda Gap at any minute, and that we needed to be prepared. Second, the contemporary import of Red Dawn stems from its portrayal of Americans as insurgents, a move that, in spite of the fumbling manner of its execution, still has some resonance.

I’ll confess to taking the film too seriously from a military point of view. It’s hardly sensible to approach a movie like this with an attitude of realism. I shouldn’t be bothered by the suggestion of a 500000 man Nicaraguan army capable of marching up Central America into Texas, or by the idea that the Soviet Union could support a 60 division force through Siberia, Alaska, and Canada. There are plenty of other things to dislike about the film, including the terrible dialogue, poor acting, and Milius’ need to turn every scene into a recitation of right wing talking points. This last is actually kind of interesting; I would suggest that Red Dawn is one of the most explicitly political feature films that Hollywood has ever produced. The inclusion of the right wing points isn’t accidental, and Milius hits everything, from the repeated emphasis on gun control, to attacks on feminism and immigration, to support for a 1950s vision of the family structure. Red Dawn also, of course, demonstrates the aesthetic consequence of straightforward propaganda in the hands of a writer and director and middling talent. Even at the time much of Red Dawn was laughter inducing, and the film has not aged well. Rocky IV has a roughly similar theme (gigantic Russian supermen are coming to kill our heavyweight champions), but does a somewhat better job of obscuring its political intent (and given the success of the Klitschko brothers, has the advantage of being almost true).

Milius isn’t a hack. He’s insane, and his insanity gets in the way of making movies, but he has some talent. The first twenty minutes of Conan, and in particular the descent of the Riders of Doom upon the Conan’s village are brilliantly executed. I suspect that his genuine talent might lie in emotional set pieces like that, and that he could have done well as a director of music videos. As such, it’s not surprising that isolated parts of Red Dawn are extremely well done, even though the film as a whole can’t bear much weight. I love Powers Boothe’s description of the war to date (“I thought there were a billion Chinese” “There were”.), but Milius really does himself credit with the helicopter sequence. Towards the end of the film, our heroes are beset by a trio of Mi-24 “Hind” helicopter gunships. Although Milius substantially downplays the actual capabilities of these craft (even one could have laid waste to the landscape), they nonetheless present an appropriately terrifying vision of Soviet military power. By this point in the film, one could be excused for not taking the threat of Soviet power all that seriously. After all, a group of high school football players has thus far been able to wipe out the greater portion of a Soviet Airborne battalion with only minor casualties, and we know that the United States has vast reserves of high school football players. Milius needs to remind us that the Russians are scary, which is why the helicopters are there. The high point of the scene comes when a Wolverine fires an RPG at one of the Hinds, an manages to score an internal hit. The music soars, and the helicopter begins what appears to be a crash dive. However, before hitting the side of a mountain, the Hind rights itself and pulls back into formation, soon killing our friendly insurgent. Milius point is that heroism isn’t enough; it’s all well and good to be an Eagle Scout and to be willing to shoot at a few Russians and Cubans and Nicaraguans, but the reality of Soviet power is too overwhelming to be handled by a few high school students. He’s telling us that while heroism is part of the equation, we also need military preparedness, tanks, fighter jets, etc. It’s a brilliant scene, and a well crafted piece of political propaganda that looks almost subtle in comparison to the rest of the film.

As for the “Americans as insurgents” theme, I can say first that I’m glad that Iraqis don’t have high school football. If they did, we’d be in real trouble. More seriously, Red Dawn doesn’t paint an implausible picture of the motivations of insurgents. The Wolverines fight partly out of patriotism, but largely in revenge for attacks on their families, or through solidarity with their friends. As trivial an observation as this seems, it should still help remind people that insurgency isn’t always or even primarily about grand political goals or clashes between civilizations. The politics of insurgency, like the politics of much else, are local. It’s unfortunate that this point seems to remain controversial. Were Milius to make Red Dawn today, I suspect he would come under attack from the aesthetic Stalinists of the Right, even if he kept all of the right wing propaganda. Recall, for example, Jonah Goldberg flying into conniptions over the portrayal of the insurgency in Battlestar Galactica. Goldberg and his kindred spirits were irritable even though they believed (indefensibly) that BSG was essentially conservative in orientation.

Anyway, it was a worthwhile viewing, or at least as worthwhile as a viewing of Red Dawn can be. Next up: Zhang Yimou’s Hero.

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