Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. The podcast about Hollywood and history.
I’m Lia Paradis
And I’m Brian Crim
None of us knew the Cold War was in its death throes when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985. But, I think we all sensed some change in the air and Hollywood did too. Depicting the Soviets as bad guys, the evil empire, or even just poor downtrodden slaves to an inhuman communist ideology was so passe. None of it rang true with this young (ok, in his 50s), smiling reformer with a pretty wife and distinctive birthmark on his bald head running the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s ascension to power changed the Cold War dynamic in several ways. He dialed back Afghanistan, opened up the Soviet Union culturally, set free some political prisoners, that sort of thing. In the process, he also changed the Soviet rhetoric. Ronald Reagan was in his second term and didn’t need to keep posturing against the ‘evil empire’ to get votes anymore, so he was looking for some legacies. So US rhetoric responded in kind.
Hollywood reflected this thaw in the Cold War by beginning to appreciate the idea of two Russias. There’s the Soviet bureaucratic state filled with gray men doing their best to prop up a crumbling artifice. We see them in any film about the Eastern bloc. But then there’s the hidden beauty of the Russians (and sometimes other nationalities, although Hollywood rarely bothers to distinguish between Russians and Soviets) who live rich and full lives despite it all. There’s beauty in the country, good people like us who also want the nonsense to end.
You might think it’s crazy, but one of the first films to not just reflect this change in the Cold War but predict it is Rocky IV. I mean, not high art, but Rocky’s speech at the end after he beats Ivan Drago is remarkable when you consider it is 1985. Sylvester Stallone directed the movie and had the foresight to depict Gorbachev in the crowd, seeing him as a reason for this change he talks about. Rocky IV is not one of our movies this week. We’re not snobs or anything, but it isn’t. Still, we need to give Stallone credit for this speech because it sets the stage for what comes later in the Gorbachev era.
The visuals are key because Gorbachev begins a slow clap and all these uniformed Soviets start cheering. Rambo, killer of communists on two continents, can change because the Soviets clearly have. Ok – it’s Rocky, not Rambo. But in the American movie palaces of the 1980s – same thing….
Our three films this week show the two Russias in different ways and in different stages of the 1980s Cold War. The differences in release dates, even in some cases just months, are really important. White Nights, the story of a Russian ballet dancer who defected to America and is forced to return, came out in December 1985. The Hunt for Red October, based on a 1984 Tom Clancy novel, was released in March 1990, a few months after the world changed. The Russia House, based on John le Carre’s 1989 novel came out Christmas Day, 1990, exactly one year before the Soviet Union closed up shop for good.
What are our lies agreed upon for these late-stage Cold War films? The first gets to our episode title – there are two Russias. This isn’t a lie of course, but it took Hollywood long enough to show us likable, fully developed Russian characters. Each of our films reveal two Russias, although in very different ways. I mean, can you think of two different novelists than Tom Clancy and John le Carre? White Nights definitely skewers the Soviet system, but it pays attention to its victims.
The second lie is that Americans, or the British and Americans in the case of Russia House, and Soviets can’t work together. This could be state to state or person to person. Sometimes the Russian and American/Brit work together against their own systems, kind of a F you to the Cold War. Or, the systems come together to manage it more effectively, almost prolonging it but in a mutually beneficial manner. If you want to be cynical, and we do, the Cold War served itself and there were plenty of Cold Warriors who never wanted it to end.
A third lie is that the Americans, again include the Brits, are the good guys in these relationships. We see some pretty varied representations of the West in our three films. It’s worth noting the diversity of views out there by the time we get to mid 80s. After decades of John le Carre’s cynical operatives – functioning in the grey zone of Cold War politics, espionage, and morality – competing against the uncomplicated certainty of Bond, Rambo, and others, Hollywood kind of comes around to le Carre’s perspective that the whole artifice is rotten and ordinary people are ground to dust by what amounts to a Great Game.
White Nights is really a showcase for the amazing talents of Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, two characters with completely different backgrounds and perspectives. It is directed by Taylor Hackford, who has an impressive filmography over several decades. An Officer and a Gentleman, Everybody’s All American, Against All Odds, and Ray are some of the highlights. Aside from Baryshikov and Hines, we have the film debut of Isabella Rossellini, a Russian translator married to Hines, and Hellen Mirren, who plays a former ballerina and lover of Baryshnikov and who eventually married Taylor Hackford – they’re still married. The great Geraldine Page plays Baryshnikov’s manager. White Nights is remembered for pairing up the premier ballet dancer with the world’s most famous tap dancer, but it also features the Academy Award winning original song, Say You, Say Me from Lionel Ritchie.
What does this have to do with the Cold War? White Nights, which refers to the long summer nights in Leningrad (or St. Petersburg) near the Arctic Circle, shows the human cost of the Cold War on people who are forced to live in its shadow, whose lives are ruined by it in fact. The fact that one character is Russian who defected to America and the other is an American who defected to Russia allows White Nights to address a “both sides” sort of scenario. While the Soviet state comes off considerably worse, Gregory Hines’ character had good reason to turn his back on the home of the free.
The film begins with Nikolai Rodchenko (Baryshnikov) and his manager flying back from a world tour. The plane experiences technical problems and is forced to land in the Soviet Union, which is kind of a problem because Nikolai defected 8 years ago and he is rightly terrified. We should say the real Baryshnikov defected from the Soviet Union in 1974 to Canada. Nikolai is injured in the landing and a wily KGB colonel figures out it’s him. His manager is desperate to get him back, but Soviet authorities see an opportunity to reclaim their great prize but need to convince him as well as intimidate him to stay.
For this savvy move, they use an American defector, Raymond Greenwood, played by Hines, who happens to be a great tap dancer exiled in Siberia with his wife Darya (Rosselini) for some unknown reason. The idea is to get Nikolai to accept being repatriated with the promise he can get his old privileges back. White Nights stages this interesting collision of an embittered Russian defector who loves America with an embittered American defector who hates America, or at least the one that forced him to fight in Vietnam. Needless to say, they don’t get along at first.
Let’s listen to a drunken Raymond explain his reasons for abandoning the country Nikolai so desperately wants to return to.
Including this perspective balances out the KGB as basically Snidely Whiplash characters. But there are sympathetic Russians like Darya, Galina, Nikolai’s ex-lover and another noted ballet dancer (played by Hellen Mirren whose grandfather was a diplomat for the Romanovs, trapped in London when the revolution happened in 1917…I kid you not), and there are plenty of everyday Russians.
The plot isn’t complicated but it’s completely improbable and insane. The two great dancers become friends and we learn that the KGB is using Raymond, is pretty racist in its own right, and have no intention of keeping their promises to either Nikolai or Raymond. The CIA gets wind of Nikolai’s plight and seem willing to abandon him too, but they also want to stick it to the KGB. The point is they’re not interested in the human dimension here any more than the KGB is.
The film ends with Raymond, Darya, and Nikolai engineering an escape and outwitting the KGB, who can’t afford the bad press of forcing Nikolai to stay. He makes it to the US consulate in Leningrad with Darya, but poor Raymond is stuck for several months. The last scene is a haggard Raymond being exchanged for a Soviet prisoner. When he embraces Nikolai and Darya Raymond says, “I’m going home. For better or worse I’m going home.”
Let’s leave the ballet and the love stories and all that for good clean military fetishism and highly quotable dialogue. Yes, I’m talking about The Hunt for Red October, which came out in 1990 but depicts a semi-fictional event in 1984. It’s directed by the great action director John McTiernan, whose credits include Predator, Die Hard (a few of them), Last Action Hero (ok, they can’t all be classics), and The Thomas Crown Affair (also, why does Hollywood keep remaking classics?) It’s of course based on the Tom Clancy novel.
His particular brand of military adventure novels are always well-researched, and that includes his knowledge of the Soviet Union. For example, Clancy understood the nationalities issue better than most. Whether it was Muslims in Central Asia resisting Soviet rule or a Lithuanian submarine commander in a Russian dominated military, Clancy’s stories were always a bit more complex than he’s given credit for.
Let’s gaze admiringly at this all-male cast, shall we. This is one of three movies we discuss starring Sean Connery, and two are in this episode. It just so happens that the vast majority of his career as a leading man coincides with the Cold War. So it’s hard to avoid him. He is Marko Ramius. We have Alec Baldwin, the first of the Jack Ryans. (There have been 5, for those keeping score), Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Jones, Tim Curry makes an appearance as the sub doctor, James Earl Jones as Admiral Greer, Stellen Skarsgard, Fred Thompson, Sam Neill, Courtney B. Vance, Joss Ackland as the hapless Soviet Ambassador, and I loved Richard Jones as Jeffrey Pelt, the National Security Advisor. Any women of note? I do believe you see Jack Ryan’s English wife for like 10 seconds, so there’s that. Oh, and there’s a flight attendant.
We won’t give you an exhaustive plot summary here. After all, what’s wrong with you if haven’t seen it? But, here it is succinctly. The Red October is a brand new nuclear submarine with a silent propulsion system designed to evade detection and essentially be a first strike weapon. Marko Ramius and his trusted officers plan to defect with the Red October to the West, but the entire Soviet Navy is after them. Jack Ryan, CIA analyst and naval historian, knows Ramius and is brought in to help predict his intentions, which are unclear as far as the US is concerned. Maybe Ramius is a madman. Courtney B. Vance figures out how to track the caterpillar system and Jack Ryan winds up on the US submarine Dallas to help Ramius stage his defection, save the crew, outwit the Soviet navy, and prevent World War III. It’s great teamwork by adversaries. The final scene gives you all the feels from the vantage point of 1990. The Red October is somewhere in Maine now and Jack and Marko are speaking:
A little revolution now and then is a good thing. It seemed like that in 1990, I guess.
Our last film is The Russia House, a beautiful film based on the novel by John le Carre. We both love le Carre, an understatement, and the film is pretty faithful to it until the very end. But, we’re jumping ahead. It’s directed by Australian director Fred Schepisi who has a real eclectic filmography. There’s Roxanne, Mr. Baseball, Six Degrees of Separation, and the miniseries Empire Falls.
The cast is great. Sean Connery as Barley Scott-Blair, the rumpled British publisher caught up in the Great Game. His double-barreled last name, for those who aren’t in the know, is a signal that he comes from a long line of the British ruling elite. If you see a hyphenated last name for a Brit, odds are they’re from an old family.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Katya Orlova, the former lover of the nuclear physicist Dante, played by the great German actor Klaus Maria Brandauer. I absolutely love Roy Scheider in this as the CIA officer Russell. Roy Schieder is another star of the 70s who isn’t remembered much now. There’s a wonderful supporting cast of recognizable British actors – James Fox, Michael Kitchen, and the esoteric director Ken Russell, in an acting role for a change.
I think an uncredited actor is Russia itself. It’s only the second American production to be allowed into Soviet Russia and most of it is filmed on location in Moscow and Leningrad. This goes with the novel because le Carre received permission to visit the Soviet Union in 1987 to research the novel, which was a big deal because he was labeled a Cold War provocateur for decades, which means it’s very clear the Kremlin didn’t actually read his books. Russia House, the movie, lingers on everyday life in Russia – beautiful countrysides, colorful houses and Orthodox churches, bustling streets and markets, people living life. I want to give a shout out to cinematographer Ian Baker for bringing 1989 Russia to life. For those in the West, it was a revelation.
We probably can’t do justice to le Carre’s intricate, humanistic plot, but The Russia House is in one sense the same as his others – ordinary people are victimized by the entrenched interests of intelligence bureaucrats on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The story begins when Katya approaches Barley Blair’s publishing house booth at a Moscow book fair with a manuscript written by Dante, a Soviet nuclear weapons expert. Dante intends it to go to Barley, but since he wasn’t there it winds up in the hands of British intelligence who think they’ve found the mother lode. They need Barley to rekindle his relationship with Dante to make it all work. Barley is captivated by seeing Katya (it’s Michelle Pfeiffer, we get it) and actually does believe in Dante’s cause, which is to tell the truth about the Soviet equivalent of the military-industrial complex.
During his extended debriefing with MI6 and some CIA visitors, we are treated to a flashback with a drunken Barley enchanting Soviet writers. It turns out this is why Dante chose Barley to give his manuscript to. Barley gave this long speech, over much vodka,where Dante thought he recognized a fellow traveller. Let’s play part of that scene:
This is what convinces Dante he can trust Barley, so now he’s stuck helping the intelligence services mine Dante for all he’s worth. Remember, this is glasnost and perestroika time and the MI6 and CIA are all about exploiting Gorbachev’s new openness. They train Barley to make contact with Dante through Katya, but the KGB seemingly got a hold of Dante first and Barley decides to make a deal for Katya – give up the giant list of questions the West has for Dante and secure their freedom.
Poor Ned (James Fox), who started the operation, is the first to see Barley’s gone rogue because he’s in love. The film ends with Barley waiting in his Lisbon flat for his ship to literally come in – Katya, her kids, and her uncle. And guess what, they do! It’s 1990! Anything is possible! Would it surprise you to know that le Carre’s 1989 ending is completely different, cynical and ambiguous? Barley makes the same deal, but he is left waiting on the dock for a ship that likely will never come in. Even at the end of the Cold War, with optimism on the rise, le Carre sees the same institutions prevailing, crushing honest, innocent people beneath the wheel.
Let’s revisit our lies agreed upon, starting with the concept of two Russias in Hollywood films coming at the end of the Cold War. We think its important to remember how captivating the two words glasnost and perestroika were to Westerners. Gorbachev was this strange new phenomenon, a gregarious Soviet leader who didn’t keel over within 18 months of assuming power.
Here’s how most Americans learned about glasnost, from news reports like this with some ordinary Russians, who Americans almost never got to see or hear, speaking about both the opportunities and limits of this trend. Glasnost usually translates to openness, but as Peter Jennings reminds us it also means publicity. Perestroika meant restructuring – the economy, local politics.This newscast is from October 1987:
You hear Katya in The Russia House say similar things – you are free to complain about all the annoyances of living in the Soviet Union, but there was always deep cynicism about real change. If only they knew what was coming next.
White Nights is definitely pre-glasnost and perestroika, but there are hints of it even with the evil KGB colonel who is forced to consider public relations when dealing with Nikolai. Even the emergency landing is seized on as an opportunity to look good in front of the West. You can sense that the gray men like the colonel are on their last legs in White Nights. As Nikolai tells him when Raymond is exchanged, “Face it, you lost.” Eventually the Galinas and Daryas of the Soviet Union will overshadow the decaying surveillance state. They already lost Nikolai, twice, and even the American defector is beginning to regret his decision. The real Russia will break out eventually.
And what we definitely see in White Nights is part of Hollywood’s reaction to the concerns about increased belligerence between the two nations, and the fears of nuclear annihilation we’ve talked about in previous episodes. By humanizing Russians, and pointing out that both nations have policies that mistreat their own people, the plot here is trying to do what we saw a lot of during the height of the nuclear scare – separating out the people who would be the ones dying, from the regimes who seemed increasingly intent on disregarding those people.
In The Hunt for Red October we are immersed in the Soviet military culture, at least how Tom Clancy sees it, again about nuclear capabilities (remember it was published in 1984). Almost all the Soviets are competent, moral, likable characters, and that includes those who have no intention of defecting. The crew of Red October are patriots and we respect them for it. This is a conflict between professionals who know the stakes and harbor mutual respect for each other. We empathize with the Soviet ambassador sitting cross from the National Security Advisor who knows so much more than he does. The only bad guy is the political officer Ramius kills in the first few minutes. Ramius is Lithuanian, as Jack Ryan likes to point out, which matters because he already has a problem with the Soviet Union for its oppressive nationalities policy. The Baltics did not fare well, as we know, and Clancy suggests this plays into his resentment as well.
The Russia House is interesting because it highlights the Russia we never got to see and the one that is emerging from what by 1989 is pretty much the end of the Cold War. Katya and her family are worth fighting for, Barley believes. The writers Barley serenades in the dacha are worth fighting for. As Barley sees it, this stupid and pointless competition will whither away and the new Russia can emerge. That was le Carre’s hope as well.
Let’s stick with The Russia House for a moment as we break down the second lie – that the West, represented by the US and Britain, can work together with Soviet counterparts. That’s now always a good thing. More useful to us than to themselves. Russell and Ned, one American and one Brit, want to help but their bosses are more vested in the Cold War than seeing it end. We’ve talked a lot about the military-industrial complex and the capitalist drive to create and perpetuate needs and customers for the military. In other words, the Cold War can’t really, truly, go cold.
Russell, my absolute favorite character, gets to the point about why he’s willing to risk everything on Barley and Dante even when it blows up in his face.
Well, guess what, the favorite sons, their customers, get their wish and are secretly relieved the KGB got a hold of Dante before the truth about how awful Soviet missiles really were got out. It’s just not good for business. And, surprise, that means Russia’s new businessmen too.
It’s worth pointing out that we should have remembered this plot line when the war in Ukraine broke out. Maybe we wouldn’t have been so surprised that the Russian military capabilities were so meager.
As for The Hunt for Red October, the whole movie is about Soviets and Americans cooperating. There’s a threat to the nice, careful, managed Cold War order. The 1984 novel is different in tone because the film is made during the eventful year of 1989. That’s why Ramius quoting Jefferson – “A little revolution now and then is a good thing” – is so effective. We know what’s happening and the Ramiuses of the world caused it. Not rogue sub captains, but lots of non-Russians challenging the whole premise of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.
White Nights is similar to The Russia House because you have two people, four if you include their wives and ex-girlfriend, fulfilling their own life’s desires and ambitions despite the Cold War. Nikolai did not want to languish in the Soviet Union, where his talents would never be fully appreciated. Raymond thought the grass was greener on the other side, but he just exchanged one form of oppression for another. The KGB is obviously evil and indifferent to human costs, but the CIA characters are similarly invested in beating their competition, and if Nikolai is a useful tool to accomplish this, his personal feelings or those close to him are secondary.
Our final lie about the West as the good guys is one we’ve alluded to a few times in these films. And all of these films utilize a real world phenomenon of the Cold War that’s worth touching on – defecting. Throughout the decades, both sides dreaded high profile defections. There was, perhaps, no other action that could so thoroughly undermine the argument that they (whether the US or the USSR) was “right”.
In the 50s and 60s, there were the VERY high profile revelations about the Cambridge 5 – British moles, some of whom managed to rise to the heights of the British intelligence services and other positions of influence and authority, 3 of whom defected when they were discovered. Most defectors that the Western public were aware of were either artists or athletes, and there were a lot of them, ranging from Martina Navratalova, to…well, Micael Baryshnikov. And the director, Milos Forman, The UN Undersecretary Arkady Shevchenko, and even Stalin’s own daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. Here’s Svetlana’s press conference after her defection.
So it’s very significant that White Nights, despite a pretty vicious portrayal of Soviet authorities, has a character who defected in the other direction. The movie might seem like a light film about love and dancing, but it doesn’t shy away from scathing criticism of American racism and the Vietnam War. Raymond’s emotional speech we played earlier is pretty direct and accurate. Emptying the ghettos into the army happened, something we talked about in Da Five Bloods.
Nikolai is a treasure in America, as was Baryshnikov, an elite with special talent, so he doesn’t see it or have to live with any of America’s social problems. What do we make of Raymond’s repatriation? He’s no Nikolai, and he deserted from Vietnam, so how will America welcome him?
John le Carre is all about skewering the West’s inflated national security state, particularly Americans. If there is a consistent criticism of his work, it’s the anti-Americanism. Not because its unjustified, but it can be overbearing. In The Russia House, Russell is indeed a “good American,” but he’s an anomaly. There’s a great scene where we see the arrogance and parochialism of the CIA getting in the way of genuine intelligence collection and analysis. They just don’t know what to make of cosmopolitanism, or the joy of a rich life. JT Walsh leads the questioning here and the complete lack of comprehension on his face throughout this exchange is the real point:
As corrupt as America, but less bullshit. Sigh, if he could only see us now.
Of course, there’s no ambivalence in The Hunt for Red October. We are totally the good guys, everyone wants to be like us, just ask Sam Neill in one of my favorite quiet moments in the film. Here he is fantasizing about what his post-defection life will look like. Soviets piece together all the fantasies of the American dream from whatever they’re allowed to see. It’s kind of cute and funny in an otherwise tense film.
Hollywood picked up on the Two Russias theme in the 1980s because it was not only good story telling, it was current events. And Hollywood is always topical if nothing else. We talked about three different films from different genres – a movie about artists showcasing their talents; a techno-military thriller; and a le Carre adaptation about spies behaving the opposite of James Bond starring the most iconic Bond of them all.
The Hunt for Red October might be the most uncomplicatedly pro-West of the 3, but by fully humanizing its Russians, it shows the new political reality – sabre-rattling needs to be replaced by another kind of perestroika: a restructuring of the central Cold War relationship. White Nights and Russia House both question how much both the East and West has kept its promises to its people. And are very cynical about the Great Game itself. And, all of them are about defecting – the one, concrete way that the average Westerner was able to keep checking in on the rightness of the West. After all, the Russians voted with their feet. And even there, these mainstream movies manage to put a little sting in their tail.