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States of the Union, Part 5: A Cloudy Morning in America

While Steven Spielberg’s success in the 1980s evinced a society desperate for positivity, the decade was also filled with films that questioned those lucky enough to be positive

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In 2016, the Toronto-based author and my friend Kevin Courrier was working on a book proposal based on a lecture series he had started entitled Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors, an examination of the past six decades of American cinema organized by various presidential administrations. Kevin passed away in 2018 after a long illness without writing the book, by which point I had taken over the lecture series. It is out of respect to him and the many long conversations we had on the topic that I’m introducing a monthly essay series at The Ringer that looks at the direct and subtextual representations of U.S. presidents and their social and political impact, beginning in 1960 with the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy and continuing through October to the Age of Trump—ending on a cliffhanger that may or may not have a sequel. By integrating some of Kevin’s film selections with more of my own, it is my hope to simultaneously reexamine a series of classic American movies and call attention to some neglected titles to further the idea of cinema as a fractured funhouse mirror that distorts and reflects in all directions.

1980-1989: Morning in America

The attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan by John Hinckley Jr. in March 1981 ranks as one of the most astonishing life-imitates-art moments of the modern era. By his own admission, the shooter imagined himself as a version of Taxi Driver protagonist Travis Bickle: a disenfranchised loner taking up arms in tribute to Jodie Foster. Hinckley’s belief that the actress would be impressed by his gesture spoke to the delusions of grandeur informing Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece, in which a Vietnam vet becomes so alienated from his city, country, and sense of self that he seeks to emulate Lee Harvey Oswald. Feeling powerless, Travis transforms himself into a symbol of crackshot potency; his life becomes an audition for a sequel to the Zapruder film.

That Taxi Driver could compel a disturbed individual to attempt murder—of a sitting U.S. president no less—was at once a testament to the film’s acuity as psychodrama and a cautionary tale about the dangers of conflating cinematic fiction with lived reality, a point that resonated all the more strongly in the context of Reagan’s own résumé.

“Tell me, future boy,” snarks Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to Marty (Michael J. Fox), “Who’s the president of the United States in 1985?” The answer provides the biggest laugh in Back to the Future, by some distance the most emblematic film of the Reagan era—and not only because it uses the commander-in-chief as a punch line.

If Reagan’s much-hyped candidacy and ultimate triumph over Jimmy Carter in 1980 could be seen as an exercise in politicized nostalgia—of reaching back to the halcyon days of the 1950s to assure voters that a return to Eisenhower-era prosperity was within reach—Robert Zemeckis’s time-travel comedy rode the zeitgeist as deftly as Marty McFly rode his trademark skateboard. Back to the Future’s ingeniously engineered premise juxtaposed old-fashioned, Norman Rockwell-ish Americana with poster boys for yuppie-era cool; not only Fox, who had gotten seriously famous for playing a Reagan Youth on Family Ties, but also hip-to-be-square Huey Lewis and the News, the favorite band of Reagan supporter and certified American Psycho Patrick Bateman.

In American Psycho, Bret Easton Ellis’s Wall Street–based literary antihero explains that he’s a great admirer of Brian De Palma, particularly of the brutally violent Body Double. His fandom manifests as a joke on the fact that Bateman, who gets off on the gore, doesn’t understand De Palma’s subversiveness as a satirist, which was in full effect in the early 1980s. Where Greetings and Hi, Mom! had simultaneously enshrined and burlesqued countercultural praxis, bigger-scaled films like Blow Out and Scarface were directed at the national mainstream, and their aim was true.

A peerlessly bleak conspiracy thriller with one of the most hopeless codas in American cinema, Blow Out relitigated Watergate not from the moral high ground staked out by All the President’s Men but via the wild machinations of exploitation. Its hapless protagonist (John Travolta) goes from soundtracking lurid slasher movies to recording audio of an actual assassination, only to be forced—or does he simply concede?—to use the recording of a second, even more brutal murder to complete the production of another movie: a pandering, misogynistic piece of shit entitled Co-Ed Frenzy.

Released into the blockbuster context of a Hollywood awash in cynical sequels and new-fangled serials (i.e. Raiders of the Lost Ark), Blow Out flopped. But De Palma, whose pattern of alternating between setbacks and triumphs is like a tarnished badge of honor, triumphed at the box office in 1983 with Scarface, which provided a preemptive answer to Nancy Reagan’s catchy, sloganeering 1984 antidrug campaign. If Al Pacino’s gun-toting, empire-building, powder-fingered Tony Montana had a motto, it would have been “Just Say Yes.”

It’s an interesting bit of trivia that Scarface’s most over-the-top set piece—the multidirectional shoot-out whose coked-out excess is typically attributed to the unholy trinity of De Palma, screenwriter Oliver Stone, and a gloriously showboating Pacino—was actually partially directed by Steven Spielberg, who was visiting the set and took the opportunity to channel his usual virtuosity in new directions. It’s tempting to call Spielberg the ultimate Reagan-era filmmaker, and not only because he happened to have his name on several of the biggest, most inescapably populist hits of the early 1980s. What connected Raiders of the Lost Ark to E.T. and Back to the Future (which Spielberg produced) was a running subtext of innocence, a worldview split comfortably between good and evil. Where De Palma and fellow ’70s hellions like Robert Altman and Martin Scorsese kept things bitter (see: the pummeling double bill of Raging Bull and The King of Comedy, blistering twin studies in macho posturing), Spielberg accentuated the positive, to the point that whatever his personal politics, his films felt synced to the soothing cadence employed by Reagan to signal the coming—and the staying power—of “Morning in America.”

The crucial, elusive overlap between light and dark—between “Morning in America” and the vast of night—was exemplified by a few shadowy outliers: Blow Out, for sure, but also Czech emigre Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way, about two beach-bum vigilantes played by Jeff Bridges and John Heard who pool their resources to take down a sexually predatory high roller. These were adult movies in every sense of the word, and as such an endangered species in a Hollywood that sought to either cozily infantilize its viewership by awakening the proverbial “inner child”—the unspoken mission of Star Wars and the deliberate platform of E.T.—or service a growing adolescent constituency desperate to see itself enshrined onscreen. There was, accordingly, more need than ever for filmmakers who could use the language of “family-friendly” moviemaking to slip some nastiness into the syntax.

Take Joe Dante’s ace E.T. parody Gremlins, a film whose satirical mandate was only strengthened by Spielberg’s official sign-off in the credits as a producer. In E.T., a lone, holy alien had rescued a prepubescent loner from an unhappy childhood, doubling as a symbol of one kid’s self-actualization and a generational belief in the power of positive thinking. In Gremlins, a similarly adorable creature arrives in small-town America—direct from the Mysterious Far East—and multiplies into a set of destructive doppelgängers whose ready-made status as ambulatory social allegories rivaled Jaws shark or George A. Romero’s zombies. Whatever the Gremlins represented—rampant mass production; Asian market dominance; the way that cute curdles into grotesque via overexposure—their take-no-prisoners M.O. in the midst of a PG-rated crowd-pleaser made them genuinely subversive.

As Gremlins is to E.T., so too were a number of key Reagan-era movies recognizable as twins, or distorted mirror images. When indie figurehead John Sayles wrote and directed his exemplary Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980), he was gently but firmly eulogizing the spirit of the ’60s, sketching a group of socially incestuous, variably principled ex-activists and radicals measuring each others’ wavering political commitment over the course of a weekend getaway. The film was stripped down, lo-fi, and completely devastating in its diagnosis of a generation aging out of its anti-establishment stance: “I’m sorry” is the final line, scribbled on a farewell note.

Return of the Secaucus 7 was copied and commodified in The Big Chill by Lawrence Kasdan, whose mega-franchise bona fides as a writer on The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark explained why his version of the same story featured an A-list cast and top-dollar Motown soundtrack while bungling the message. At the end of the movie, we’re reassured that none of its flawed-yet-attractive characters have actually sold out, shifting the opening scene’s use of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” from fatalistic prophecy to sunny self-help bromide. Translation: Things could be worse.

The Big Chill’s brilliantly curated soundtrack served the same function as American Graffiti’s a decade earlier—it coated the action in a thick glaze of nostalgia, marking the movie as a kind of Reaganite byproduct even as it kept its heroes and heroines left of center. (In 1984, the Coen brothers would use the Four Tops more subversively, syncing the circular cruelty of Blood Simple to the reiterative refrain of “It’s the Same Old Song.”

Where The Big Chill tried to rekindle Top 40 memories, Rob Reiner’s This Is Spinal Tap (1984) used the mockumentary format to skewer rock-world opportunism, imagining its central heavy-metal trio as shape-shifters who never met a musical moment they couldn’t exploit. Uproarious, archivally styled flashbacks showing Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer as Liverpool-era Beatles clones (braying “gimme some money” instead of insisting “can’t buy me love”) and then tie-dyed free love advocates (“listen … shhhh … to what the flower people say”) reoriented a film featuring some of the dumbest jokes of all time (“these go to 11”) as a sterling work of musical criticism. Four years later, Penelope Spheeris’s actual metal-head documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II would be compared to This Is Spinal Tap; the highest compliment you could pay either movie is that you could splice sections together and nobody would notice.

The end-times implications in the title of Spheeris’s rock-doc trilogy fit in with the apocalyptic ethos of so many ’80s hits, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The Road Warrior to Blade Runner to The Terminator. Maybe it was Reagan’s muscular anti-Soviet speechifying—boldly describing America’s Cold War rivals as an “Evil Empire” while name-checking Star Wars in a missile-defense proposal—but the genre movies of the period provided plenty of that old start-worrying-and-hate-the-bomb anxiety, from the explicitly paranoid Red Dawn (about a Communist invasion bypassing national defense systems yet repelled by a high school football team) to WarGames (featuring an update of the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey as an implacable artificially intelligent villain) to The Terminator.

In retrospect, James Cameron’s tech-noir exercise is the evil twin to Back to the Future, replacing Zemeckis’s wicked Freudian panic about getting it on with mom with a scenario in which an expectant mother has to be protected on behalf of an unborn messiah. In the other corner: Arnold Schwarzenegger, who saw Sylvester Stallone’s hard-body act in the Rocky films and raised it by playing an actual robot—the perfect steely, poker-faced avatar for Cameron’s unique mix of techno-fetishism and technophobia. An amazing piece of low-budget engineering without an ounce of fat on its bones or any rust on its chassis, The Terminator was a big enough hit that Cameron was entrusted with the sequel to Alien. Which, to his credit, he staged as a wild, gooey Vietnam allegory about heavily-armed mercenaries ambushed and exterminated by heavily camouflaged extra-terrestrial insurgents.

There were similar Vietnam echoes in the jungle-set chaos of Predator, which, depending on your taste, ranks somewhere in the top five ’80s action movies with The Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, and RoboCop. My top vote goes to the latter for its vicious, bloodletting satire of American manufacturing in crisis: If Paul Verhoeven is a genius, it’s because he knows the difference between a movie made on an assembly line and one with a healthy sense of skepticism about the entire process. The sequence where a malfunctioning police robot blows away a terrified hireling in full view of his corporate overlords is as concise and funny a summation of top-down, cutthroat workplace ethics and economics as has ever been filmed—the last word in callow, lethal military-industrial profiteering.

RoboCop’s Detroit wasteland pairs effectively with the run-down backdrop for Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, another (nonfiction) horror movie set in Michigan about faceless power brokers selling out the local populace. Not yet ensconced as a brand name in American agitprop, Moore filled his doc with references to—and sometimes images of—Reagan to draw a connection between the president and the film’s explicit corporate target, GM honcho Roger Smith, whose refusal to be interviewed gave the director an irresistible hook and a hissable structuring absence. Always an adroit semiotician, Moore realized that the best way to stick it to Reagan was to meet him on an aesthetic level, and so Roger & Me is thick with archival footage enshrining bygone ’50s virtues and values, deployed in ironic counterpoint to images of pre-millennial economic devastation.

Technically, Roger & Me, released in 1989, is a George H.W. Bush movie rather than a Reagan one, but in the same way that Bush’s victory the year earlier was seen as an extension of his predecessor’s administration, it’s possible to see certain late-’80s classics as being addressed primarily to the previous decade instead of their immediate present tense. Exhibit A: John Carpenter’s marvelous 1988 B-movie They Live, a revamp of Invasion of the Body Snatchers minus the pods—this time, the alien enemy hides in plain sight, invisible to a subliminally hypnotized populace. Shades of The Manchurian Candidate and literal shades provide the answer to the question of what lies beneath: Once hero Rowdy Roddy Piper puts on his “Hoffman lenses,” he can see the perps for the ruling-class ghouls they are (“You look like your head fell into the cheese dip in 1957”).

Never one for subtlety, Carpenter includes in the film’s immortal centerpiece “unveiling” sequence a distinctly Reagan-esque pol pontificating about the need to put pessimism aside and embrace a “new dawn”; when Piper looks at the TV set with the 20/20 vision afforded by his new eyewear, he sees a mouldering skeleton in a three-piece suit.

It’s an interesting experiment to look at some other movies of the Reagan era through the eyes of They Live, starting with Back to the Future, which for all its (very funny) jokes at Reagan’s expense, concludes in a fugue of materialism (Marty’s adventure earns him a nice new Toyota). Another subject ripe for this experiment is 1989’s Field of Dreams, a movie about resurrecting the ghosts of the past in order to play baseball with them. Say what you will about Steven Spielberg’s daddy issues, but nothing in his oeuvre matches the faux pathos of lanky, square-jawed Kevin Costner having a catch with his long-dead pop in front of a literal cornfield. The better Shoeless Joe Jackson movie, meanwhile, is Sayles’s Eight Men Out, which plunges into the seamy realities of game-fixing and sports-as-business instead of hand-waving it away.

Field of Dreams corniness is both its greatest liability and its not-so-secret weapon. Coming at the end of a decade in which the most alert studio comedies—Spinal Tap, Lost in America, and Bull Durham—examined and satirized culture clash, the film’s homespun charm was like a lullaby; somewhere in the film’s sound mix, the disembodied voice from They Live can almost be heard chanting “sleep, sleep, sleep,” a call not to action but to push the snooze button for a few more years. Carpenter’s film, on the other hand, was a wake-up call about the need to fight the power—a sentiment that at least one incendiary American auteur would pick up and run with in an impending and not-so-subliminally Bush-bashing masterpiece.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.