Episode 1: Go East Young Men

Episode One Podcast

The three movies we cover in this episode are: Ridley Scott’s 2005 Crusade saga  – Kingdom of Heaven; Oliver Stone’s 2004 bio-pic – Alexander; and Zach Snyder’s 2006 extravaganza – 300. We decided to start with these because they all fall into a classic Hollywood genre: the sword and sandals epics. What these films have in common is also what makes them weird because when you think about that kind of movie, you think of it as something way outdated and not a popular draw. But in the years since 9/11 THEY KEEP SHOWING UP

Sure, Ridley Scott made Gladiator in the 1990s, but part of what made that movie such a success was that it sort of reimagined the genre. We weren’t expecting him to go back to that well again. And Oliver Stone, whose obsession with history is usually – even notoriously – centered in 20th century American history – is suddenly interested in Alexander the Great. And superhero movie auteur Zach Snyder decided that the best follow up to his remake of Dawn of the Dead was a graphic novel revisiting a battle from ancient Greek history. 

What are the lies agreed upon that these movies have in common? 

  1. That lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians.
  2. That the East and the West have always and will always be enemies.

Kingdom of Heaven (2005) – Directed by Ridley Scott, written by William Monahan. It stars Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Eva Green, Edward Norton, Brendan Gleeson, and Michael Sheen, among others. Bloom is a French blacksmith named Balian who heads off to the Crusades because his life is really crappy in Europe. In fact, at the beginning of the film we get a helpful scroll telling us all that Europe is a mess and men are fleeing to the east to seek their fortunes. 

The year is  1184 to be precise (which is between the Second and Third Crusades for those keeping score), Jerusalem is ruled over by Christians at this point in the 200-year collision between Christain and Muslim. Apparently, because he’s the bastard son of a knight (Liam Neeson) who convinces him to go along, Balian is able to quickly acquire all the skill he needs, like swordfighting. 

Once we’re in Jerusalem, it isn’t really what the average viewer is expecting. After their previous victory, the Christians have set up a King in Jerusalem (Edward Norton), who is trying to keep the multi-ethnic, multi-religion, multi-racial territory in a workable peace and hates it when fundamentalists show up – in other words, Crusaders. The rest of the movie is the tolerant/enlightened Christians, including the King, his advisor Tiberias (played by Jeremy Irons), Balian, and the King’s sister, Sybilla, played by Eva Green,  as well as the equally reasonable Saladin (played really well by Syrian actor/filmmaker Ghassan Massoud) trying to stop the region from blowing up into a war because of the ignorant, violence-loving radical Christian Knights Templar, who act as the posse for Sybilla’s husband, Guy de Lusignan. 

Initially, when Balian arrives and claims the lands given to his now-dead father, the plot is dedicated to showing the improvement of the lands, and the wise leadership of the King. We are introduced first to Saladin’s chief minister and then to Saladin himself, who are also eager to keep the peace so that the various people can prosper. 

There are a series of escalating events, all caused by either Guy himself or the leader of the Knights Templar, Raynard (played by Brendan Gleeson). Multiple times, a major war is averted due to the tolerant leadership on both sides. But eventually, war is provoked. Raynard kills Saladin’s sister and so Saladin is forced to respond. And that gives Guy and his fundamentalist followers the excuse to drag the entire society into a giant confrontation between Muslims and Christians. 

The battle becomes a siege which becomes a stalemate. Eventually, Balian and Saladin parlay. They agree to spare the innocent people of Jerusalem by having the Christians retreat and leave the city to Saladin. 

Of course this also means that the lands and title that Balian inherited from his crusader father must also be abandoned. And the end of the movie finds Balian living happily as a blacksmith in France again, with Sybilla as his wife. The next wave of crusaders come through town on their way to retake Jerusalem yet again, but Balian refuses to join them.  A final message on the screen reads “nearly a thousand years later, peace in the Holy Land still remains elusive.”

It seems since Braveheart every one of these sweeping historical dramas needs a big speech. Let’s listen to Balian describing the true meaning of the Kingdom of Heaven:

Ridley Scott and William Monahan are getting the 12th Century to do a lot of heavy lifting in the cultural commentary department. But they aren’t alone. Oliver Stone, similarly, seems to have thought Alexander the Great would be a good vehicle for him to work out what he was feeling in response to the current state of affairs. 

Alexander (2004) was written by Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and stars Colin Farrel, Val Kilmer, Angelina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins, Rosario Dawson, Jared Leto among others.

The film is based on the life of Alexander the Great, King of Macedon, who conquered Asia Minor, Egypt, Persia and part of Ancient India. Stone begins by showing us Alexander’s early life, including his difficult relationship with his father Philip II of Macedon, his strained feeling towards his mother Olympias, and his “close friendships” with other noble Macedonians. But most of the film concerns the conquest of the Persian Empire in 331 BC. It also details his plans to reform his empire and the attempts he made to reach the end of the then known world.

Stone can’t decide whether Alexander’s mission of blending civilizations is laudable or fanciful, and neither do the characters. It is clear Stone is flummoxed by Alexander’s sexuality and we have to endure his discomfort as well. 

Alexander’s tutor was Aristotle, which isn’t bad I guess, but he had some nasty things to say about the Persians:

At the end of it all, Alexander’s story doesn’t quite work for the message of tolerance – because the Greeks were the ones who didn’t seem so keen – and Oliver Stone couldn’t decide whether Bablylon and India were awesome and way more fun than Greece, nor could he deal with Alexander’s homosexuality because it got in the way of his textbook exoticization of the “East”. 

300 doesn’t have any of those problems.  300 (2006) was originally a graphic novel by Frank Miller and inspired by the 1962 film The 300 Spartans. It is directed by Zach Snyder and written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad. It stars Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, and Rodgrigo Santoro as Xerxes

In the Battle of Thermopylae of 480 BC an alliance of Greek city-states fought the invading Persian army in a mountain pass. Vastly outnumbered, the Greeks held back the enemy in one of the most famous last stands of history. Persian King Xerxes led an army of well over 100,000 men to Greece and was confronted by 300 Spartans, 700 Thespians, and 400 Thebans. Xerxes waited for 10 days for King Leonidas to surrender or withdraw but left with no options he pushed forward. Leonidas and the 300 sacrifice themselves to allow Greece more time to prepare and fight another day. 

The movie version of this story sets the elders of Sparta, who refuse to ok Leonidas’s pan to keep the Persians at bay, against the brave 300. It’s revealed as the movie goes on that at least one of those politicians has been bribed by Xerxes. Played as a true slimeball by Dominic West, he forces Gorgo to hav sex with him in exchange for a promise to send reinforcements, but he doesn’t and then he tries to publicly shame Gorgo to further discredit her and her husband. Gorgo kills him. Her husband might be dead, but virtuous Sparta will live on in her son, and with the leadership of Leonidas’s right hand man Dilios, one year later, the Greeks fight as a united force and repel the Persians.

In between the bloody fighting there are moments to speak about a clash of civilizations, mythologizing Sparta as a democratic racial stronghold and Persia as the colossus from the East. Let’s listen to the fateful meeting between Xerxes and King Leonidas:

So why have we chosen these three movies? Why did the writers, directors, and producers all decide to make these movies? Why did they think the movie going public would want to watch these movies? Simply by the way we’ve summarized these films you’ve probably started to pick up some common elements. But to make things clearer, let’s remind everyone just what was going on between 2004 and 2206, when these movies were released.

 The George W. Bush administration launched an invasion of Iraq in March 2003 after misleading the public about connections between Saddam Hussein and 9/11.  Bush famously declared mission accomplished in May, although the war dragged on for another 8 years, costing hundreds of thousands of lives and untold treasure, and he infamously called the war a “crusade,” alarming even the conservative National Review, which depicted a cartoon Bush as a Knight Templar. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan was also raging, and had been since right after 9/11. The moviegoing public in the west watched wars rage in these two Muslim countries. It was styled by media and pundits and some lazy historians as a clash of civilizations. And it was in this moment that Hollywood felt compelled to excavate the history of the region where those clashes had supposedly been going on for millenia.

The problem is that Bush himself, amazingly, was unable to articulate a coherent strategy or message about what came to be known as the Global War on Terror.  Let’s listen to Bush’s address to a joint session of Congress just days after 9/11

Notice how he distinguishes between Islam and the radical extremists represented by Al Qaeda and compare that to this impromptu press conference on the White House lawn. 

So now, let’s return to the plots of these movies…and the lies agreed upon:

In the aftermath of 9/11, the lies agreed upon were that lengthy wars are inevitable and justified in the name of defending civilization against barbarians. And that the east and the west have always and will always be enemies.

Bush’s speech to Congress is a careful expression of the clash of civilizations, a sentiment that seems more like Balian’s  on the walls of Jerusalem. There are good Muslims and its a shame it had to come to this, but this war must be fought.  

Bush’s Crusade press conference, where he attacks the evil doers and condemns the barbarism trying to attack a superior western civilization is all 300, except if we were being historically accurate it is the Spartans who are the savage barbarians and the Persians the cultured civilization.  

Alexander is muddled and wavers between preaching a clash of civilization thesis versus coexistence and mutual respect. I think this might be the most accurate description of American foreign policy in the Middle East. Muddled, improvised, swallowed up by the East, like all who came before it. 

It is painfully clear by now that that September 17, 2001 Bush speech ushered in an era of endless war, something our three movies also address. The Crusades, Alexander’s conquest, and nearly a century of Greece vs. Persia followed rapidly by Greece vs. Greece. 

What have we learned from the endless wars, both real and imagined?  First, the fundamentalists are the most violent, and often Christian or representing the West. The Spartans are the blood thirsty death cultists and Alexander’s Macedonians wander the known world for no discernible reason.

Second, if you think you will be greeted as liberators, think again. The Crusaders learned this hard way, as did the Persians, and later the Spartans for that matter. Alexander’s enlightened idea of blending civilizations was less popular with the Greeks than the people he conquered.

Finally, the wars pit the disciplined and heroic West versus the chaotic hordes of the East. In 300, the Persians are literally monstrous. If defeat comes at the hands of the East, and it does in each film, it is only because of their vast numbers, indifference to death, and slave mentality. 

In episode two we ask, how did we get here?

Episode 8: Shaken and Stirred


Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. The podcast about Hollywood and history. 

I’m Lia Paradis

And I’m Brian Crim

How could we do a season on the Cold War without talking about Bond . . . James Bond? He was there from the beginning, at least in print, and has of course survived into the post-Cold War era. So many films, so many Bonds. We’ve talked about nuclear warfare, espionage and intrigue, evil deep state corporations and corrupt national security institutions, and human stories of love and loss behind the Iron Curtain. Bond’s been through it all! 

James Bond is of course the child of Ian Fleming, a writer with essentially the same sort of background as Bond’s. He came from a wealthy family. His father was a free wheeling industrialist who died a heroic death on the Western Front in 1917. Ian was “born for Empire” to quote Connie Sachs from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – educated at Eton and Sandurst. He spent time as a student in Munich and Geneva before serving in the Naval Intelligence Division during World War II. His 30th Assault Force was a so-called T-Force (Technical Force) that worked behind enemy lines to find German scientists and wonder weapons. So, you can see where Bond is an extension of himself.

Fleming did a lot of freelance journalism before writing the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, in 1952. Fleming wrote 11 novels and several short stories before dying at the young age of 56 in 1964. Unfortunately, like the real Bond, he was a heavy drinker and smoker, but unlike Bond, it caught up to him. Obviously the Bond franchise survived him and several authors picked up where he left off, but Bond the international mega star (and commodity) only took off when he walked onto the silver screen. That’s where we come in.

But where do we start? There are 27 Bond films, but we wanted to focus on the Cold War and then discuss a film where Bond is operating outside of the bipolar world entirely to see how he changed. We decided on three films, but also, as it happens, three different Bonds. We have From Russia with Love (1963), the second Bond film starring Sean Connery. From the Roger Moore era, For Your Eyes Only (1981). Between 1989 and 1995 there was a deadzone where I guess Bond was figuring out where he stood in the world, but we pick up with the first post-Cold War Bond film, Goldeneye (1995), starring Pierce Brosnan. There’s a lot more continuity than change despite the leading men in the Bond universe, that is until the Daniel Craig era. What’s the difference there? 9/11. [Brian is writing about that topic now]

What are our lies agreed upon when it comes to James Bond? So many directions to go here, trust us. There is an entire cottage industry of academics dissecting every aspect of Bond – his colonialism, his misogyny, his fragility, his late-stage capitalism. My favorite essay was entitled simply, “James Bond’s Penis.” It was a history of his dick, and that’s not inconsequential. We probably won’t go there. Our first lie is that James Bond is the quintessential Cold Warrior, a veritable super hero battling the evil empire. But, if you really pay attention, that’s not the case. Bond rises above the Cold War to take on a variety of independent actors. And when the Soviets enter into the plots, they are not the real villains. They’re part of the landscape, and the rivalry is real, but they aren’t evil. There are rules in the Cold War and both sides follow them. More often than not, the villains are rogue agents, and they’re not all Soviets gone bad. 

That’s right. John le Carre, it might not surprise you, loathed James Bond and Ian Fleming especially. As a relative newcomer, le Carre had to shout from the rooftops that his novels don’t belong in the same discussion as Flemings’. In a 1965 interview, le Carre accurately complained that Fleming “during the heat of the Cold War, failed to offer any serious comment about the Cold War.” We agree with that. 

The second lie concerns the place of Bond’s beloved England. Ian Fleming created Bond in the early 50s in part to perpetuate a comforting lie that Britain was still a great mover of world events. Bond, the Etonian, this avatar for a heroic England from a bygone era is setting the world right. He’s a throwback to the first spy novels written at the turn of the 20th century, all by British authors. Bond helps his vast reading and viewing public forget that Britain is very much on the sidelines of a bipolar world. When Americans do show up in Bond’s universe, it’s to facilitate his missions with money (what else is the US good for) and “stuff.” Remember in Casino Royale, Bond goes bust at the card table and Felix Leiter is like, “here’s 10 million dollars.” 

Our third lie takes us deeper into the Bond universe and allows us to speak about other films beyond these three. That’s that Bond changes with the times. The writers and directors are in tune with geopolitics and Bond reflects that. We kind of disagree. Yes, Daniel Craig is more vulnerable, his body (especially his penis) takes abuse no other Bond has, and he is a more human character than other Bonds. But in the end, he is also about restoring British national power, restoring the patriarchy that is integral to Bond from day one, and eliminating enemies that exhibit difference. Bond villains are ethnically ambiguous, sometimes sexually ambiguous, or just those who don’t belong at Eton. This doesn’t go away with the Cold War or even after 9/11. Maybe one of the reasons Bond remains so popular is because he doesn’t change with the times. We can take comfort in him perpetuating the first two lies – the Cold War was just a stage to play on, and Britain still matters on the world stage.


Recap time. It’s probably been a while since many of you have seen these particular Bond films. If you are younger than us, you may never have even heard of them. So many of the plots run together and there are loose connections linking one to the other, such as with our first film – From Russia with Love (1963). The first Bond film was Dr. No (1962) and marked the beginning of Sean Connery’s era as well as the introduction of his chief nemesis outside the Soviet Union, SPECTRE. This international cabal of criminals and opportunists feed on Cold War insecurity and are a threat to both the West and the Soviets. They literally put it in the name – Special Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.

Lovely. And they have cool octopus rings to let everyone know they’re evil. Bond prevents SPECTRE from sabotaging a US space launch in Dr. No, but he’s on their shit list and they want revenge in From Russia with Love. Terence Young directed both films and Richard Malbaum adapted Fleming’s novels to the screenplays. Aside from Connery, the film stars Robert Shaw as the Irish SPECTRE assassin Red Grant; Lotte Lenya is Rosa Klebb, a SPECTRE agent inside the KGB; Bernard Lee is M; the Mexican actor Pedro Armendariz plays the Turkish MI6 station chief in Istanbul; and the Bond girl is Daniela Bianchi, an Italian actress who plays Tatiana Romanova, a Soviet cypher clerk. 

The plot picks up with SPECTRE planning to lure Bond by using the KGB’s special cryptology machine as bait. It looks just like an ENIGMA machine from World War II. Knowing MI6 will send their best agent to get it, Rosa Klebb is tasked with making sure Bond travels to Istanbul to steal the machine. Klebb uses the beautiful Tatiana to seduce Bond, who thinks her orders come from the KGB, but Klebb is a mole inside the KGB working only for SPECTRE. The leader du jour of SPECTRE in this early iteration is Hans Blofeld, who we never see, just his pretty white cat. Here he is laying out the plan to his henchman and henchwoman. Notice Blofeld’s metaphor of the fighting fish in reference to Britain and Russia

I do like the guy’s very on point observation that the arrogant British will willingly walk into a trap just for the challenge of it. He just beat a British chess champion right before this scene doing exactly that.

The Bond film formula begins to take shape in these early films as we are treated to exciting location shots – in this case Istanbul – a trip on the Orient Express to Venice, and some pretty offensive stereotypes of local flavor. There’s a crazy gypsy camp scene where two sisters fight for the right to marry Bond as their father laughs approvingly. 

But, the plot is pretty simple and it features Bond besting Robert Shaw aboard the Orient Express, dodging some other assassins, and finally getting hold of the cryptologic device with the help of Tatiana. Just as Klebb is about to shoot Bond, Tatiana realizes she’s been duped and helps Bond kill her. SPECTRE is outraged and like any bad guy in a Scooby Doo cartoon, they shake their fist at Bond as if to say, “I’ll get you next time, Bond!”

Let’s jump into the middle of the Roger Moore era with For Your Eyes Only (1981) (only for you . . . ). Sheena Easton. One of the best Bond songs, I think. Roger Moore is a much less physically imposing Bond, but he makes up for it with increased gadgetry. It’s directed by John Glen, who did all the Bonds in the 70s and early 80s, and Roger Malbaum once again wrote the screenplay. It co-stars French actress Carole Bouquet as a Greek heiress seeking revenge for her family’s murder; Topol as a Greek smuggler and intelligence peddler; Julian Glover is the main bad guy Aristotle Kristatos; and Walter Gotell plays a frequent character in the Roger Moore Bond films, the KGB general Anatoly Gogol. He’s like the Soviet M. I also like seeing Jill Bennet as an East German ice skating coach. 

The film begins rather dramatically as a secret Royal Navy trawler is accidentally sunk by an old WWII mine. The problem here is that it had the ATAC system on board. This stands for Automatic Targeting Attack Computer, and it controls all of Britain’s Polaris submarines. The race is on as Bond and the KGB rush to Greece and try to retrieve ATAC first, but the KGB has hired a bunch of freelancers to do their dirty work on the ground. Carol Bouquet’s poor father was tasked to help the British and is killed by a Cuban assassin. She’s on the warpath and teams up with Bond to chase the conspirators across the globe. 

One of the key plot points here is that the British don’t realize that Kristatos is playing them for fools. They think he’s their operative, but really, he’s double dealing. Chaim Topol (his full name), as Colombo, is the smuggler who deals in everything from pistachios to information. He lets Bond know how their arrogance has made the British blind to how they’re being manipulated. 

The message here is that the British still think that the world is in awe of their power and seeking their approval. Topol has to tell Bond that his own agency doesn’t know what they’re doing. A little bit off message for the Bond movies up to this point. But maybe now, in the early 1980s, a bit of the reality about British power and influence is finally sneaking into the plots. We still get to follow Bond to exotic locales, though!

Yes, we have some lovely scenery all over Greece. Corfu, Cortina, and then there is an extended sequence in the Italian Alps with winter athletes preparing for the Olympics. Remember, just a year earlier, the US beat the Soviets at hockey at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid in February (the “Miracle on Ice”) and then boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow. And this is definitely going to be what audiences are reminded of with all this alpine Olympic training stuff. Bond is attacked on a ski slope, an ice rink, I think on a ski lift. You know, a triathlon of death. A teen-age American ice skater played by Lynn-Holly Johnson tries to seduce Bond and thankfully he resists because the whole thing is creepy. 

Eventually, things look bad for Bond when General Gogol shows up to take ATAC from the corrupt Karastitos, but at the last minute Bond throws it over a cliff. Oh, and there is a funny scene with Margaret and Dennis Thatcher thanking Bond in a phone call for saving the day, but they’re actually talking to a parrot. 

Our last Bond film is 1995’s Goldeneye, the first set in the post-Cold War era and the first starring Pierce Brosnan. My favorite review of the film said Brosnan looks like James Bond’s valet. It’s directed by Martin Campbell, who also directed Daniel Craig’s first Bond film, Casino Royale in 2006. We have another first, a woman M played by Judy Dench. She’ll remain in that role until 2012. Sean Bean plays a corrupt 006; Gottfried John plays the primary villain, Russian general Arkady Ourumov; Famke Jansenn continues the proud tradition of playing a villainous woman with a sexually suggestive name – Xenia Onatopp. You’ll recognize her in the X-Men films, Rounders, and Nip/Tuck. The virtuous Bond girl, a Russian computer programmer named Natalya, is played by Swedish actress Izabella Scorupco. Also, there’s an Alan Cumming sighting as a treacherous computer expert working for Ourumov. Minnie Driver is in there for a moment. Oh, and we should say the one great constant in all three Bonds we discussed is Desmond Lleweyln as Q.

Goldeneye begins in 1986 with 006 and 007 infiltrating a chemical weapons base in Archangel near the Arctic Circle. Things go south and 006 is presumably shot by then Soviet general Ourumov, but Bond escapes after destroying the base and skiing to safety. Naturally. We pick up nine years later with many of the former Soviet officials turning criminal and mercenary. Ourumov and his best woman pilot, Onatopp, now work for a SPECTRE like organization called Janus. Ourumov and Onatopp plan to seize a secret legacy Soviet asset called Goldeneye. It’s basically a space-based weapon that shoots an EMP frying everything in the target area. Extorting governments anyone?

So, we have former Soviets as the bad guys and girls, basically taking advantage of the corrupt Russia of the early 1990s to sow chaos for profit and power. Bond is dispatched to St. Petersburg to meet up with a CIA contact – a good old boy named Jack Wade. Wade is played by familiar character actor Joe Don Baker. Together they use another former Soviet agent, now mafioso, to connect with Janus and learn that one of the masterminds behind the sinister Goldeneye plot is none other than 006. Unlike Ned Stark, Sean Bean lives! We learn that 006 seeks revenge not just for what happened to him, but his whole family. 006 is descended from the Lienz Cossacks, who the Allies handed over to the Soviets after World War II for helping the Axis. 

Let’s play the dramatic reunion of the two spies:

006 has some good points. The later Bond films freely admit intelligence comes at human costs, and 006 is not the first former MI6 employee to get screwed over and come back for revenge. Javier Bardem’s character in Skyfall is another casualty of M’s shenanigans. 

The familiar cat and mouse games teams up Bond, Natalya, the sole survivor other than Alan Cumming from the first Goldeneye attack, and the blowhard Jack Wade against 006, Onatopp, and General Ourumov. It’s clear Ourumov is working against the new Russian government as much as anything else. Guess what? Bond wins and kills them off one by one in Cuba, one of the many beautiful locales. Bond and Natalya get rescued by Jack Wade and a platoon of US marines, who apparently can operate freely in Cuba after the Cold War.


Let’s revisit our lies agreed upon and reflect on how Bond appeals to British, and later more American audiences over his many decades. One of the key takeaways from Bond Studies (and such a thing exists) is that once he became a true box office commodity the filmmakers turned Bond into a distinctly American product. He appealed to Americans’ love of things British in the 60s especially. You know, Beatlemania. It’s one of the reasons he makes Britain great again – American profits to be had!

That’s our second lie, actually, so why don’t we start there. Britain seems very relevant as a geopolitical power in the Bond films when in fact, lets face it, it was an afterthought. British power was greatly diminished after World War II. Decolonization, whether initiated willingly or not, reduced Britain to a cash-strapped isle facing permanent recession. Clearly the torch had been passed to the US during World War II and it wasn’t about to be handed back. I read that the popularity of Ian Fleming’s novels spiked with the aftermath of the disastrous Suez campaign in 1956, a sure sign of British decline if there ever was one.

What happened in 1956, you ask?  Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Arab nationalist and fierce anti-imperialist who aided decolonization movements across Africa and the Middle East, nationalized the Suez Canal Company. This infuriated and threatened Israel, but it humiliated Britain and France as well. They had historic (and ill-gotten) stakes in the company running the canal since the 1850s. These three pissed off mini powers conspired to invade Egypt and take control of the canal, which they did, but they managed to block the canal to all traffic. It was such a bonehead move that the US and Soviet Union actually together condemned Britain and France and demanded they withdraw. Let’s play this news report from Nov. 1, 1956 to get some perspective. Pay attention to a very angry Dwight Eisenhower

We both know Britain and France screwed up the Middle East for a century prior to this, so why not finish the job? By overplaying his hand, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden looked foolish and weak. He resigned in disgrace and Britain retreated back into the only role it had left on the global stage – junior partner to the US.  What does this have to do with James Bond? Well, the 1950s novels depict a different sort of Britain. James Bond is a prime mover of events, the best of Britain and its imperial legacy. He doesn’t bungle the hit, so to speak, like Eden did. Americans help Bond succeed, not the other way around. 

The movies do this too. There’s hardly an American in sight. The KGB is so worried about this one MI6 agent, and other foreign governments seem consumed by what the British are up to. Look at From Russia With Love. If this cabal of international criminals are looking to stir up Cold War tensions and pit one superpower against the other, why is Bond, who represents a second-rate power, the focus of their attention? Did Hans Blofeld miss the last twenty years of world events? 

Bond is wish fulfillment from a World War II era Brit, Ian Fleming. Fleming’s own dashing exploits found purchase in his lively, if not superficial writing. His readers want to live in the past as well. Bond is handsome, cultured, physically strong, intelligent, and unbeatable. Let’s compare his image with that of George Smiley, who is the real national avatar for a Britain in decline. He’s the antithesis of James Bond. This is one of my favorite descriptions of him from the climactic moment in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – when Smiley finally unveils the mole inside MI6: “For a space, that was how Smiley stood: a fat, barefooted spy, as Ann would say, deceived in love and impotent in hate, clutching a gun in one hand, a bit of string in the other, as he waited in the darkness.” Ann is Smiley’s wife, who serially cheats on him, including with the very mole he is after.

A fat, barefooted, cuckold spy – yeah, that’s about right. The real MI6 was in shambles during the era of Bond’s great popularity, thanks in part to the Cambridge Five tarnishing the reputation of British intelligence, and Britain as a competent global power, for decades. We’ve mentioned The Cambridge Five before – university students sympathetic to communism who soon became  Soviet agents, rising through the civil service as elite Brits with the right last names often do. They passed along every meaningful bit of intelligence the country had for 30 years. The infamous Kim Philby skipped off to Moscow in 1963, the same year as From Russia With Love. John le Carre jumped at the chance to write about this world, treason and double agents, failing institutions and lost glory. Fleming went the other way. Both sold millions.

Many in our audience probably saw the 2011 version of Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy – another anti-Bond film at a time when Daniel Craig was showing off his abs and single-handedly restoring Britain to its proper place in the world. Tinker Tailor is about the real MI6 in the 70s. I found this nice little “making of” clip that features interviews with the major actors – Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, John Hurt, but the second person speaking is John le Carre himself. He talks about why he uses the Circus as a metaphor for the Secret Intelligence Service.

It’s so dusty, claustrophobic, and sad. Much like Britain in 1974?  No Oriental Express journeys and gypsy fights for these guys. No budget for exploding pens and cars with missiles. They can’t even keep the mold out of this place, and they have to beg the Whitehall flunky in charge of them for a few pounds here and there to pay off a source who happens to be an invention of the Soviets. It’s so tragi-comic.

Our second lie concerns the conventional wisdom that James Bond is a product of the Cold War, battling the Soviets across the globe. There were even think pieces about the fate of Bond now that the wall had come down. Whither Bond?  I mean, the Bond creative teams did struggle for a bit, but they really didn’t need to because Bond was never just a Cold Warrior. Before he died, Ian Fleming pivoted Bond away from jousting with the KGB and other communist villains and instead dreamed up SPECTRE.

And as we see in all the SPECTRE movies, they are equal opportunity villains when it comes to the West and the Eastern Bloc. Divide and conquer. Not only that, several Bond Studies academics like to point out that SPECTRE is the original Al-Qaeda – a loose confederation of terrorist groups that come together occasionally for a common cause, but otherwise exist out in the wild. That’s what made them so formidable. No nation state to hide behind, just dark money and underground hideouts. Ian Fleming managed to create a nemesis that made the Cold War irrelevant, thereby ensuring Bond continued box office appeal. 

SPECTRE is introduced in Dr. No, who, per usual in a Bond film, takes time to explain every aspect of his plan. It’s worth playing that interaction so you get a sense of how SPECTRE fits into the Bond universe. Notice Bond’s first assumption about Dr. No  – “With your disregard for human life you must be working for the East.”

That failed plot involved messing with US ICBMs. The plot of From Russia With Love is a SPECTRE scheme to kill Bond using Soviet technology and real KGB staff as the lure, but their own moles are pulling the strings. We see this play out in several films. In For Your Eyes Only, the villains are the intelligence peddlers with no soul, just greedy mercenaries and nihilists. Yes, the ATAC system in Soviet hands is a bad thing, but General Gogol is “part of the game” as Omar Little might say in the Wire. The vicious sub-contractor Aristotle is out there taking out civilians. The KGB will have to review its HR policies after this one. Bond sums up this late stage of Cold War detente in his face off with Gogol – “I don’t have it, you don’t have it. That’s detente, comrade.”  They acknowledge each other’s professionalism and go their separate ways until the next time.

Pierce Brosnan ushered in the post-Cold War James Bond in Goldeneye, and if you remember, all the villains had Russian accents. But, SPECTRE takes a back seat until Daniel Craig’s era, the post-9/11 James Bond where such organizations made more sense. Brosnan is sweeping up the ugly messes left behind by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Rogue satellites, rogue nukes, a resurgent North Korea. Those films weren’t particularly compelling. Our third lie gets to this issue – did Bond really change with the times? Not really. The trappings of MI6 might change – Judy Dench as M for example. She sizes up Bond for what he has historically been in her first meeting with him. Let’s play that scene from Goldeneye. Notice Bond’s take on Russia – “governments change, the lies stay the same.”  

M sees the intelligence world for what it is, which is why she has the job, but notice how Bond is always proven correct. His instincts are better, otherwise why would we watch? Like Elizabeth I, M has to assume a masculine persona in a traditional male role for anyone to take her seriously. “If you don’t think I have the balls . . . .”  There are strings attached to her breaking the glass ceiling of British government. We’ll get back to that later.

But let’s evaluate whether Bond is truly tapped into the Zeitgeist, or is he a misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War? In the first film after 9/11 – Die Another Day – Bond is released after 18 months in a North Korean prison. All he wants is revenge and to disrupt some rogue general trying to start a war on the peninsula. M has lots to consider other than Bond’s rehabilitation to service and vendettas. In the only nod to 9/11 in the film, she tells Bond “the world’s changed while you were gone.” His response, “We’ll, I haven’t”  That’s true here, and that’s when the film is pretty forgettable. It’s not tapped into the Zeitgesit whatsoever.

So if Bond didn’t change much after the Cold War, chasing shadows of the fallen empire for another decade, did he change after 9/11? We said no to that in Die Another Day, but in 2006 it’s a new Bond – Daniel Craig. Is he a Bond for the new millenium? Is he a woke Bond, or is he still all about sport screwing and casual imperial racism? Our relationship status with Bond? It’s complicated.

When Daniel Craig came on to the scene in Casino Royale, a 2006 remake of the 1967 satirical film starring David Niven as Bond, critics took notice of this Bond for the post-9/11 environment. Four years passed since Die Another Day and the war on terror totally reshaped the action/thriller/spy genre. Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne seemed to displace Bond and Daniel Craig’s era had to compete with these new players on the stage. They were grittier, darker, haunted by traumatic pasts, and their interactions with women usually ended in tragedy or betrayal. 

Starting with Casino Royale, Craig takes enormous physical abuse. His first killing as 007 is a brawl in a public bathroom. He’s shot, stabbed, has his balls bashed in more than once (remember James Bond’s penis?), and he doesn’t seem to enjoy the job the same way his predecessors did. Bond is teamed up with more substantive women than usual. When he falls for them, they either die or betray him and then die. Mrs. Moneypenny is a bad ass field agent who happens to be a woman of color. There’s some nice window dressing making Bond seem relevant for the new millennium, but I think when you open the curtains you see more continuity than change.

The war on terror does give Bond’s historic adversaries new relevance, specifically SPECTRE. They’re essentially terrorist financiers who ignore national boundaries and have taken to cyber terrorism, information warfare, and data theft. Many commentators note how the Craig-era Bond films endorse intelligence agencies’ expansive powers since 9/11, tacitly accepting them as necessary for British (and by default American) homeland security. The most cited example of this is M’s testimony before Parliament after a series of MI6 mishaps. She’s unapologetic here and also echoes her very real counterparts in London and Washington. She’s also testifying at the very moment Raul Silva, played by Javier Bardem, is on his way to kill all of them where they sit. Let’s listen to that.

In the shadows is an apt turn of phrase considering it was used by Dick Cheney in his now infamous interview on Meet the Press with Tim Russert just days after 9/11. We now see it as a blueprint for the war on terror, specifically its excesses. Let’s listen to Cheney in light of what you just heard from M.

NBC Meet The Press (9-16-2001)

Its not Tennyson, but M totally agrees and she defends the 00 program – basically assassins – using the same logic. In this sense, Bond is very tapped in to the Zeitgeist. The war on terror is his time to thrive.

It seems fitting to end with Skyfall because the film celebrates nostalgia and the way Bond used to be. Moreover, it puts Britain back on top by restoring Bond as its greatest representative on the world stage. Raul Silva, another former 00 betrayed by his own service, joins SPECTRE to seek revenge, but also, as he sees it, liberate the globe from imperial nation-states. Here he is throwing major shade on Bond, M, and Britain especially. 

Old ladies giving orders, a ruin, and how does Bond respond? Resurrection. Not just his own, but all the things Bardem is running down. Skyfall ends with the old lady stabbed in a church and replaced by an alpha male M – Ralph Fiennes. Moneypenny goes from field agent to sitting outside M’s office just like she used to. Bond vanquishes his gay stalker nemesis – Silva – and the final scene is Bond standing on the rooftop of Mi6 headquarters overlooking a sea of union jacks fluttering in the wind across official Britshdom. Lie 2 is back with a vengeance. 

We should note that the set designers gave the new M the same desk as the original M from the Sean Connery days. This is about restoring the patriarchy in every way. They’re not even concealing it. Kill off Mommy, put Moneypenny behind a desk, celebrate imperial nostalgia and hetero-normative values. Bond hasn’t really changed, right up to his self-sacrificial death last year in No Time to Die. Will the next Bond be a person of color? A woman even? Don’t count on it. 


So we seem to have traveled far past the Cold War era dates in our exploration of Bond. But as we’ve noted from the beginning of this season, the legacies of the Cold War continue to haunt us. Not just in the form of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or Putin’s casual evocation of nuclear conflict between West and East. But also in the global military industrial complex, now augmented by surveillance states. 

Nevertheless, there were unique characteristics of the Cold War that we don’t want to lose sight of. And many of them are the result of being the first modern iterations of all sorts of things. The bi-polar world order emerged at the same time as mass media came into its maturity. We had so many more ways to engage with what, previously, might have been the dry political, diplomatic, and military debates and considerations of national elites, with few outlets for discussion or reaction among average people. 

Late stage capitalism developed in the West and dominated the globe because of, not despite, the supposed communist alternative being offered by the totalitarian regime in Moscow, and another one in Beijing. An economic ideology got conflated with a political one. And this is something that’s never really been uncoupled since. This might be one reason why the slide into authoritarianism in the West isn’t really seen as something that is truly happening. The Cold War conditioned us to simply see capitalism as a form of democracy. As long as we’re consuming, we must be democratic. 

And probably most importantly, the Cold War was an era in which the actual and quite probable threat of the total destruction of the planet became simply the white noise of people’s lives. Today, with the increasing likelihood that climate change will bring about the end of human kind as we know it, perhaps we can see our unwillingness to fully absorb that reality as a legacy of Mutually Assured Destruction. We got very good at whistling past the graveyard. 

So, we hope that you’ve enjoyed this brief tour through the cinematic world of the Cold War era. We’ve certainly enjoyed working on it. At the end of our last season, we were certain that the next one was going to be about WWII. And then actual events intervened and changed our minds. Who knows, maybe that will happen again. 

But we’re recording this on the day that Charles III was official proclaimed King of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So perhaps that might influence where we go next. One of the ideas for a season we’ve been tossing around over the last couple of years is biopics. And maybe all those versions of Elizabeth II that we’ve seen on big screens and small over the 7 decades of her reign, deserve an episode or two. But we’re not promising anything. Except that we will be back with season 4, sometime in the new year. 

Episode 8: Shall We Play A Game?

Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. The podcast about Hollywood and history. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Think of the things we’ll be talking about today as the 1980s equivalent of the Kruschev-Nixon Kitchen debate. That was the moment in 1959 when the US made the tactical choice to fill its pavilion at the Moscow World’s Fair with consumer goods, like a perfect replica of the “modern American kitchen.” The Soviet Union had its military and industrial might on display. But average Russians were far more interested in the gadgets, labor saving devices, and gleaming amenities in the kitchen display than they were in rockets and engines. Kruschev tried to make fun of it as trivial and feminine. But the capitalist blow had been struck. Jump forward about 25 years and we’re at the next era when consumerism was overtly championed as a political component of the Cold War.  

A key player in that consumer culture was the modern teenager. On big screens and small, a pop culture machine worked hard to squeeze every last dollar out of white, middle class America by catering to their entertainment demands. In these years, a new generation of Westerners were reaching their teenage years: the children of the baby boomers. These kids had lots of freedom (baby boomers were notoriously self-involved). And the kids of middle-class baby boomers had big weekly allowances (forked over by guilty parents). So it’s no accident that media and technology targeted teenagers as consumers. 

As we said in our last episode, this was a moment in history when, for a brief moment, there was no war that any western powers were directly engaged with. And, as we discussed, this caused anxiety about whether the young were too soft to defend capitalism and democracy if the Evil Empire really did attack. 

Today, we’re also going to look at films that can be taken as cautionary tales about the dangers of teenagers (or young adults) who don’t take the Cold War seriously enough. This time, however, the focus is on the seemingly apolitical, irresponsible and anti-social nature of the modern, video game playing white, affluent American youth. Our more serious films are Wargames, from 1983, and Falcon and the Snowman, from 1985. But we’re going to throw in a little bit of The Last Starfighter and Ferris Bueller just to spice things up. They came out in 1984 and 1986, respectively. 

Along the way, we’ll be reminding our listeners about the rise of Atari and then Nintendo video games, and the arrival of the Commodore 64 home computer. We’ll also talk about the launch of MTV in 1981. This was followed by the trans-Atlantic, epic Live Aid concerts in 1985.  The same year brought the musicians’ campaign “Ain’t Gonna Play Sun City” which went along with anti-apartheid, divestment protests on university campuses . And by the end of the decade, Rock the Vote had been founded – to target young voters. And while all of our movies today star young actors who managed to steer clear of the Brat Pack label, we are going to bring in, even if it’s just briefly, a John Hughes movie. So, for listeners of a certain generation (namely ours), this episode will be a walk down memory lane.

So, what are the lies agreed upon for this episode? Well, one of the reasons for doing these episodes that are just steeped in the pop culture context of a moment is to remind our listeners that everything has a history. For many people, politics, economics, war, and diplomacy are what come to mind when we say “History”. And they are all legitimate things to focus on. But even though this podcast is about movies as historical texts, it’s still easy to fall back on thinking of culture as stuff that simply enhances our understanding of the ‘real’ history, instead of thinking of culture being important enough to study all on its own. So it’s not really a lie we want to refute, simply a mindset that we are always trying to shift. 

The 2nd lie, which really is a lie, is that the political youth of the 60s had given way to the Me Generation of the 70s and 80s. And there certainly were examples of that message on TV and in movies. Most memorably, from 1982 to 89, Alex P. Keaton – rabid Reagan Republican (played by Michael J Fox) – and his sister Mallory – clueless and materialistic (played by Justine Bateman) were the despair of their ex-hippy, crunchy granola parents on Family Ties. And on the big screen, in Risky Business, Joel Goodson, a rich boy and member of the Future Enterprisers of America, decides to run a brothel in his house to fund repairing the damage he’s done to his dad’s Porsche. But it’s all in good fun! And it really was – I loved that movie!

But throughout the last decade of the Cold War, there were also ways that youth in the West took up more altruistic political positions. And on a massive scale. We’ve already talked about the rise of anti-nuclear efforts. One of our movies today deals with that explicitly. But added to that were causes showing a growing awareness of global inequities, including the famine in Ethiopa and other parts of East Africa, and the apartheid regime in South Africa.  

Finally, we’ve talked in previous seasons about all the movies that came out in the 80s that critiqued American anti-democratic efforts undertaken in the name of democracy. The invasion of Grenada in 1981, and then the ongoing struggle between the Republican president and the Democratic Congress about CIA funding for the Contras in Nicaragua were the context for public interest in those films. And young people were part of that. 


So, let’s provide some cultural history context before we talk about our films. 

On August 1, 1981, MTV first aired – one of these new-fangled ‘cable’ networks that ran 24 hours a day. 

It began with an explicitly Cold War opening, tying rock and roll to America, democracy, and the West. Viewers saw a countdown of the launch of the Apollo moon mission and, after lift off, showed Armstrong and Aldren planting a flag on the moon – but it was a flag that said MTV. What followed was The Buggles “Video Killed the Radio Star”, Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run”, and then the Veejays explaining what MTV was all about. Treating teenaged interests – latest music releases and concert dates – like news. 

So why are we talking about this? Well, our movies today are all about the frivolity and  self-absorption of teenagers. The apolitical cluelessness of selfish and entitled young men (and the occasional woman), who see nothing wrong with breaking the law if they decide their own moral compass will allow it. And this was very much a common characterization of the MTV generation. Too busy playing video games to go outside and do something healthy in the fresh air! Too obsessed with their own comforts to understand the sacrifice of earlier generations! And, almost most importantly, the implication that these young people were too shallow to take seriously the existential threat of the Cold War and the ‘evil empire’. 

Reagan felt the need to remind the youth of America in 1983 that the youth of an earlier era understood this threat.

But at the same time, as we saw with the use of the moon landing to launch MTV, consumerism was being sold (excuse the pun) as the highest form of patriotic behavior that Americans could engage in. And the quintessential object of Cold War consumption was the personal computer, including the home video game console. Why? Because the personal computer was the perfect example of something that had developed as a Cold War technology, a military technology, that had now become a consumable good. 

In the 1950s, the USSR didn’t understand the model kitchen at the Moscow world’s fair was a weapon. And now, in the 1980s, the Commodore 64, the Atari and Nintendo consoles, were a similar stark reminder of the technological advances of the West, and the openness of Western society. 

So, in that context, lets look at our films.

War Games (1983) was directed by John Badham whose filmography definitely tells us that the Cold War commentary part of this movie was probably not its intent. After his breakout film, Saturday Night Fever, Badham directed light and fluffy 80s popcorn movies we associate with that decade, such as Short Circuit, and Stakeout. I’d like to give a recommendation here for Badham’s very first film – The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, starring Richard Pryor, Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones, and produced by Barry Gordie of Motown fame. A totally crazy and funny movie. 

Anyway, back to War Games. It stars Matthew Broderick as David Lightman, a video game nerd. It also stars another of the brat pack – Ally Sheedy – as Broderick’s plucky girlfriend. 

David Lightman thinks he’s breaking into a video game company’s computer system to get early access to the latest video games before their official release. So, in essence, committing intellectual theft. But it’s Matthew Broderick! So we still think he’s a great kid and we’re rooting for him. 

The thing is, he’s actually accessed the W.O.P.R, War Operations Plan Response, a war games simulator used by the military. He accidentally sets in motion “Global Thermonuclear War” – a war game simulation. 

Dabney Coleman and John Wood are the adults: Coleman as the hawkish intelligence agency leader, McKittrick, who refuses to believe US high tech weaponry could be manipulated so easily by a kid. And John Wood as, Falken, the reclusive creator of the simulation. After the authorities realize Lightman is the source of the break in, they assume he’s a Soviet operative and they bring him to the NORAD bunker in Colorado. He can’t convince them he’s just a video game fan, and he also can’t convince them of what he’s figured out – that the simulation is still running and could trigger WWIII. So he escapes in order to find the game’s author, Professor Falken.

He and Jennifer (Ally Sheedy) find Falken and convince him what’s going on and that he must help. Notice that the message isn’t that young people need to be convinced how serious the Cold War is. It’s that young people need to convince the adults that the old Cold War calculus is immoral. 

Falken alerts NORAD, and they’re rushed back there. Falken convinces Barry Corbin, who’s at his cigar chomping, Texas cowboy best as the general who doesn’t like computers and thinks we should just be flying by the seat of our pants, NOT to respond to the simulation – to trust that it is, indeed just a simulation. “Mr Mckittrick, after careful consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that your new WOPR system sucks . . . “ Best line.

We’ve talked about Able Archer in previous episodes, and here we get that scenario playing out in reverse. With Able Archer, thankfully the USSR decided it just didn’t make sense that the West was launching a full-scale nuclear attack. Here, the logic is presented to the Americans by Falken. 

In the end, the game has to be shown the futility of the arms race. An endless number of games of Tic Tac Toe, finally prompts the computer to say, the only way to win the game is not to play. This same message is replicated in another film about accidental nuclear war – Crimson Tide. Denzel Washington as the younger sub captain debates Gene Hackman, the old school Cold Warrior. Denzel says in the nuclear age the true enemy is war itself.

But it all starts with a home computer. And that is a decidedly Cold War development. As are video games. So let’s take a little detour and remind our listeners about the Commodore 64, Atari, and Nintendo. 

The Commodore 64 was the first really reasonably priced home computer, intended for general use, not for experts. It was released in 1982 and dominated  30-40% of the PC market between 1983 and 1986. It was sold in retail stores, not just computer stores. And you could play games on it. 

But the birth of the video game happened much earlier, in the 50s, technically. But it was the Atari arcade game, Pong, that captured kids imaginations in 1972. By the early 80s, video games weren’t just in the arcade, they had found their way into people’s homes, but not on the computer. The games were cartridges, and Atari, Coleco and Mattel all had machines for home use. But the quality was so much worse than the arcade games that sales of the consoles had plummeted. 

But one of the things you could do with the Commodore 64 was play games, without a separate console. Here’s an early ad, and we can hear that children are specifically being targeted. I can imagine this ad playing on Saturday morning tv. 

So David Lightman’s willingness to do anything to get a hold of these new games is the result of both these things, the poor quality of console games in the early 80s, and the ability to play games on the new, reasonably priced, consumer grade home computers. In the Soviet Union, in the same period, only about ⅓ of large industry and utilities  were even networked to a computer, and the ministry in charge of developing computer technology didn’t think that computers in peoples’ homes was technology to prioritize. 

In 1984, the ban in the West on selling personal computers to the USSR was lifted, but only elites could afford them. So the lack of any home grown PC technology, as well as the realization in the West that home computers were a hugely effective cultural symbol of 1. free access to information, 2. the availability of technology intended for civilian and not military use, and 3. the affordability of that technology for Western families, must be understood as political subtext for all of the conspicuous consumption of 80s culture. David Lightman even has a computer in his bedroom – suggesting the family might have more than one. 

But Lightman also sees Global Thermonuclear War as a cool subject for a video game. Something to be taken lightly, totally disconnected from real life, and certainly not anything he has to worry about. Until he does. 

Here, the young people transform from apolitical entitled suburbanites into the saviors of the entire planet because they are smart, resourceful and ernest. All of the adults, from David’s parents to John Corbin’s good ol’boy general to Dabney Coleman’s weasely technocrat, to John Wood’s grieving but also self-indulgent Professor Falcon, are either stupid or jaded or so stuck in their ways they don’t see disaster staring them in the face. But David and Jennifer think anything is possible and try (and succeed) in saving the world. 


On the other hand, we also have the 2 young men in The Falcon and the Snowman, starring Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn. Paired again, after Taps, here they are a bit older, and definitely less likable. Based on a true story from the 1970s, the film was directed by John Schlesinger, whose film Midnight Cowboy, won him a Best Director Oscar and won Best Picture. He also directed, Billy Liar, Darling, and Marathon Man. 

Hutton plays Christopher Boyce, an aimless and wealthy young man from Orange County, CA. His father, a former FBI official played by the always great Pat Hingle, uses his connections to get Christopher a job with a defense contractor who receives and transmits secret communiqués for their clients, who include the CIA. 

In his high security clearance job, Boyce becomes disillusioned with America and its actions in the name of Cold War security. The catalyst is a communique that spells out how the CIA has manipulated the political scene in Australia to ensure the failure of the democratically elected government of the democratic socialist party there. 

Despite the fact that he’s signed a security agreement, Boyce asks his childhood friend, Daulton, to approach the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City, and offer to sell them whatever useful information Boyce comes upon as he receives and transmits. A small hitch is that Daulton, played brilliantly by Sean Penn, is a drug dealer and addict. 

Initially, he doesn’t want to do it, saying he might be a drug dealer but he’s a patriot. But after he’s arrested, he decides that jumping bail and fleeing to Mexico is a good idea, and that selling secrets will provide him with an income. 

Over time, Boyce passes material to Daulton, who delivers it to Alex, a Soviet operative at the Embassy, played by David Suchet. But Boyce gets discouraged, feeling that the Soviet agent and the government he represents is as dishonorable as the US and their operatives. And Daulton gets careless because of his worsening heroin addictions. He wants to expand the opportunity to make money from secrets to drugs. Boyce wants out, but Daulton wants more. Meanwhile, Alex is getting impatient with both of them. 

Eventually, Daulton is arrested by the Mexican police and they try to frame him for a murder. He refuses to admit to the murder and eventually he’s give the choice of extradition to the US or to the USSR. As soon as he crosses the border back into the US, he’s picked up by marshalls. Boyce, who’s been increasingly feeling like he’s being watched, is also finally arrested. 

Under interrogation, Boyce describes what motivated him to betray his country. Let’s listen to that: 

Both men are convicted. Boyce is sentences to 40 years and Daulton to life.

Film critic Roger Ebert said the movie “succeeds, in an admirably matter-of-fact way, in showing us exactly how these two young men got in way over their heads. This is a movie about spies, but it is not a thriller in any routine sense of the word. It’s just the meticulously observant record of how naiveté, inexperience, misplaced idealism and greed led to one of the most peculiar cases of treason in American history.”

And that’s part of the point in including this movie here. One of the key components of this movie is how casually the men think about their loyalty to their country, and how they sell secrets with no thought to the damage it might do. Daulton is looking at espionage as simply another illegal way to get money, a side hustle to his drug business or, maybe, the drugs become the side hustle to the espionage. It doesn’t really matter. 

And although Boyce eloquently sets out his disillusionment for his FBI interrogators, as Hutton plays him, the motivation is as much petulance as anything else. Boyce is angry that he can’t find something to give his life meaning. He left the seminary because that didn’t do it for him. He got the high security job because he thought that would make him special, but it ends up being a glorified boondoggle – he and his coworkers in “the vault” spend their days goofing off, drinking, and being bored. 

So in this instance, the 80s commentary on unmotivated, weak youths who can’t be trusted to defend the nation against the communist threat, seems to be right on track. This might be a real story from the 70s, but the casual drug use and the entitlement seem to be a pretty good companion to other movies and books from the 80s, most notably Jay McInerney’s book, Bright Lights, Big City, that was made into a movie starring Michael J. Fox, Alex P. Keaton himself. 


But here’s a counter-narrative of the era. Remember our 2nd lie –  that all the teen and and young adult culture of the 70s and 80s was selfish and shallow. The Falcon and the Snowman certainly reinforces that, and so does War Games, at least in who these kids are when the movie starts. But when called upon to act, they do. 

We opened with the first minutes of MTV in 1981. But by 1985, MTV was broadcasting the Live Aid concerts in Wembley, London, and in Philadelphia. The project was spearheaded by, of all things, a rock and roll artist. Bob Geldof’s his initial effort was to record a Christmas single and donate all the profits to famine relief in Ethiopia. It was so successful that it became something much bigger. On July 13th, 16 hours of musical performances took place in the 2 locations, simultaneously. Sure, it was a telethon, but Jerry Lewis was nowhere to be found. Instead, it was an incredibly ambitious undertaking. And Phil Collins even performed at Wembley and then got on the Concorde and arrived in Philadelphia in time to perform there, as well. The glitches, which inevitably occurred, just served to remind everyone that this was going down live!

Depending on how its measured, Live Aid raised between 125 and 175 million dollars for African famine relief.

And that idea of a new generation of politically aware and active musicians and music lovers was expanded on by the creation of Artists against Apartheid by Steven Van Zandt, of E Street Band fame, and fellow musician Art Baker, and the release of the song, Sun City, calling for a cultural boycott of South Africa. This helped to mainstream the anti-apartheid movement around the world.

The regime in South Africa had been consistently supported by Western powers as part of the Cold War calculus. The African National Congress was seen as a socialist organization and, therefore, in typical Cold War fashion, more of a danger than apartheid was. But as a result of the success of Live Aid, the actions of Artists United Against Apartheid, and the support of MTV in publicizing all of these things, universities around the US were successfully pressured into divesting of South African holdings. And other anti-apartheid boycotts took hold. 

Finally, not to leave MTV too quickly, by 1990, they had thrown their might behind electoral politics in the US by partnering with Rock the Vote, a new organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout among young people. Here’s a couple of early ads, with Chris Cornell, and Lenny Kravitz.

And before we finally stop talking about MTV, it’s worth revisiting our first lie, which is basically just a reminder that what we’re always about here at Lies Agreed Upon is emphasizing that everything, including pop culture, has a history. And that culture is a driver of history just as much as diplomacy, or economics.


So why did we say at the top that we were including The Last Starfigher and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the mix here? Well, The Last Starfighter might actually be the most direct critique of the 80s spoiled, affluent teen trope of any film of the era. It came out in 1984, starring Lance Guest and the late, great Robert Preston. And, as maybe the best piece of trivia I’ve come upon yet in doing this podcast, I discovered that the guy who directed The Last Starfighter, Nicholas Charles Castle, played Michael Myers in the Halloween films. 

Anyway, back to Starfighter. It’s about a very poor young man who lives in a trailer park and plays the one arcade game available to him with such devotion that he achieves the high point score. Note that there’s no Commodore 64 for him. He’s too poor. His life, and the cartoon tone of the whole movie, goes totally against the grain of most of the earnest 80s teen movies. What he didn’t realize is that the arcade game he got so good at was actually an inter-galactic recruiting tool, intended to identify possible new fighters for a stellar war against a totalitarian force. Sound like it might be an allegory for something? 

You’re right! So our young man, seemingly just a lazy kid who spends too much time playing video games, is actually the savior of the galaxy precisely BECAUSE he plays video games. So the message of the film seems to be, Watch out, Evil Empire! The youth of America can still kick your butt. 

And why Ferris Bueller? Well, why not? No, seriously, we wanted to give a nod to Matthew Broderick’s other teen movie – quite possibly a masterpiece and certainly a classic – for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a John Hughes film and we couldn’t go through these two episodes about teen movies of the 1980s without including one of his. And also because if you look at it a certain way, other than the fancy car that gets destroyed (what is it with these expensive cars?), Ferris Bueller can actually be read as a repudiation of the very unrealistic affluence represented in much of 80s culture. What Ferris does on his Day Off  is enjoy human interaction, art, a baseball game, and his friendships. He’s very decidedly NOT in front of a computer or a video game. He is still pretty good with a computer though, changing his absences the same way David changed grades in Wargames.

And what he seems to be most famous for (even if his sister hates him for it) is his appreciation of other people and his desire to make other people happy. And unlike in Risky Business, capitalism doesn’t offer an answer in this movie for the destroyed car. Ferris and his friends don’t open a brothel to try and pay for it. But what we do see, particularly in the iconic parade sequence, is a glorification of the power of popular culture in two forms – a parade and the Beatles – to bring people together. Neither of which could be enjoyed by the average Russian. 

So that’s it for teenagers of the 80s. We hope you enjoyed reminiscing with us. Our next and final episode of the season will span many decades and 3 films. But only one man: Bond, James Bond. We hope you join us.

Episode 7: Wolverines!


Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. The podcast about Hollywood and History. 

I’m Lia Paradis

And I’m Brian Crim. 

We’ve been talking about some pretty heavy stuff for the past few episodes. So today, instead of returning once again to the Cold War realities of twisted politics, threats of Mutually Assured Destruction, trauma on the home front, or McCarthyism, we’re going to focus on teenagers. This episode and the next are going to look at a number of films that came out in the 1980s, a decade when Hollywood seemed to cater to teenage audiences like never before. So it makes sense that the geo-political structure that shaped and influenced so much of global political action – the Cold War – would show up in movies targeting teen audiences. 

As we’ve discussed elsewhere this season the Cold War was getting pretty hot in the 80s. Popular culture was preoccupied with the fear of increased belligerence between the US and the USSR, still smarting from the embarrassment of the Iran hostage crisis, and increasingly concerned (again) about nuclear war. So what would happen if Reagan’s rhetoric proved to be true? What if the Evil Empire really was an existential threat and America had to defend itself. 

Well, this is where the teenagers come in. In the broader media landscape, the question was being asked: Could these post-Vietnam teenagers hack the reality of conflict like their dads and granddads had to? So, today we’ll be looking at two films about teenagers as soldiers – Taps, released in 1981, and Red Dawn, released in 1984. In both cases, what we see is a conversation about American military culture, whether it can still be counted on when times get tough. And if it can’t, if America’s youth reject it, is that a good thing or a bad thing? 

The first lie is that the US in the 1980s had put the shame and disappointment of Vietnam, Watergate, the oil embargo, a recession, etc, etc. behind them and Americans were brimming with confidence and arrogance. Basically, what we want to stress is that events have a long half-life. Their legacies live on much longer than we might think. 

The second lie is that an era – any era – is defined by a single dominant cultural framework: the zeitgeist is militaristic or it’s anti-war, the people are either self-sacrificing or conspicuously consuming. There are so many books about Hollywood’s muscular masculinity in the 80s, Reganism on steroids evidenced by Stallone, Schwarzeneggar, the usual suspects. It wasn’t that simple. We hope that through the movies we choose, we’re showing our listeners how popular culture is precisely where conflicting and opposing camps hash out competing ideas about what a society should value.

Let’s provide some high politics context for the teen culture movies we’re going to be focused on for these episodes. In the early 1980s, the USSR was hemorrhaging money on the ill-fated war in Afghanistan. The Solidarity movement in Poland was (embarrassingly) pitting union workers against a regime that was supposedly all about the welfare of the proletariat. Shortages across eastern Europe were common knowledge. Things were not looking good for the USSR.

In the West, on the other hand, the severe economic downturn of the 1970s – when the term ‘stagflation’ was coined – was coming to an end, but it took time. In the summer of 1980, inflation in the US was at 14.5 percent, and unemployment was at 7.5 percent. The combined inflation and stagnation numbers came to be known as the ‘misery index’ and it was at its highest point – 20.5 – in 1980. But in the 1980 presidential campaign Ronald Reagan promised he could turn all that around. It took years to get inflation under control, and the US fell into another steep recession in 1980-81. But Reagan implemented a combination of radical tax cuts and increased government spending in his first term. So Americans felt that the crisis was lifting even though the new found sense of affluence was really just being paid for by adding to the deficit. 

Reagan also had the good fortune to benefit from the intentional timing of the release of the US Embassy hostages in Tehran on the first day of his first term. So there was a sense that a dark era of crisis and failure was now ending. And the US was safe, strong, and affluent, once again. And self-righteous. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the US and allies boycotted the Olympics in Moscow in 1980. After the obvious international crime of storming and occupying the US embassy in Tehran, the US and allies made the new Islamic Republic of Iran a global pariah. Similarly, the Falklands War, in 1982, was sold by Margaret Thatcher as a clear cut case of unprovoked invasion by an anti-democratic junta which warranted a morally justified response by the still great British navy. All of which could be covered on the newly created 24-hour news channel, CNN.

All in all, the first half of the 1980s was an era of big rhetoric and righteous indignation in the West, amplified by the new reach of cable tv. But the sabre-rattling of Reagan and Thatcher was also criticized, as we’ve discussed at length. So were teenagers supposed to be ra-ra Amuricans, ready to go to war like their fathers and grandfathers did? Were we supposed to be worried that the youth these days were just too soft? And wouldn’t be able to defend the nation if called upon to do it? OR, were we supposed to be continuing the 60s anti-war movement’s rejection of the trappings and traditions of militarism? And continuing our questioning of morally questionable actions taken in the name of security? The Cold War was alive and well, and in its 4th decade. So what should the next generation of almost-adults be taught was their rightful role as citizen? Today we’re going to talk about 2 movies that answer that last question very differently.


It’s recap time. Taps, released in 1981, starred Timothy Hutton as the young Master Cadet Moreland, and George C. Scott as General Bache, the headmaster of Bunker Hill Academy, a private military academy steeped in the rituals and traditions of Christian military idealism. It also stars Sean Penn ( in his first movie role) as Moreland’s best friend, Alex Dwyer, who’s intellectual curiosity makes him less suited to the unquestioning idealism and obedience of the Bunker Hill culture. It also featured Ronnie Cox, Tom Cruise, Giancarlo Esposito and Evan Handler.The film was directed by Howard Becker, who directed The Onion Field in 1979 and later directed Malice, Sea of Love, and even a couple of Madonna videos. How very 1980s!

The story is based on a 1979 novel by Devery Freeman. An interesting character, Freeman was a minor screenwriter but was instrumental in the formation of the Writers’ Guild of America; he actively and successfully engaged in union work in defiance of HUAC and the 1950s red scare.

So we can gather from Freeman’s background that the movie was intended as a critique of mindless obedience, and militaristic masculinity. But for the first hour or so, the viewer is not quite sure how to feel about the bombastic but beloved General Bache, who leads a community of boys and men, ranging from the age of about 12 to 18. The plot is simple. General Bache is told by the trustees of the academy that it will be sold in one year and the land turned into a condominium development. This already has the cadets in crisis mode, particularly the totally devoted new Master Cadet (the highest rank below the general), played by Hutton. But then an altercation with a bunch of townies ends in tragedy as the general accidentally shoots one of them. At that point, it’s decided the academy will close immediately. 

Moreland, Dwyer, and the even more gung ho Cadet Captain Shawn, played by Cruise, and other leader cadets played by Esposito and Handler, decide to refuse, take over the academy, and appropriate the massive arsenal that’s been stored there for years, apparently, in the name of civil defense. General Bache has had a massive heart attack and is in critical condition. But Moreland imagines that the general would be proud and supportive of the military operation he sets in motion, with children on sentry duty carrying loaded rifles and snipers on the roof keeping first the police and then the state national guard in their sights. 

The rhetoric that Moreland is guided by is unequivocal. The general made it very clear that these boys were soldiers, and that the fight to keep the academy open was an honorable one.

Eventually, Ronny Cox arrives with the national guard and surrounds the academy campus. When a meeting between Moreland and some parents, including his own military father, fails to get results, the National Guard begins a psychological campaign, broadcasting parents voices pleading with their sons to give up. This continues through the night and, eventually, one of the young boys on guard duty decides he wants out. But he trips and falls running towards the gate, and his rifle accidentally discharges. The national guard open fire and another young boy is killed.

Moreland and Shawn (Hutton and Cruise) remain dedicated to the cause – Moreland because of his twisted notion of honor and duty at any cost, and Shawn because he’s a gun crazy psychopath – and the movie increasingly is suggesting those are 2 sides of the same coin. Dwyer (Sean Penn) and others,though, are starting to doubt. Pressured by Cox to give permission to the boys to leave if they want to, half the students step forward and leave. This, and his best friend’s criticism, along with news that the general has died, finally shakes Moreland’s certainty. This is further challenged by Ronny Cox, who makes it very clear that the General’s world view is not shared by him. 

 Moreland finally agrees to surrender and is leading the other boys to the front gates, when Shawn (the gun crazy psychopath) opens fire from an upper window.  He and Moreland are killed as the national guard open fire. The final scene has Dwyer crying over the bloody bodies of both young men. 

The commentary is clear – it is no longer right and good to mindlessly follow a code that devalues life in the name of honor. Taps is a clear rejection of that but also of the trappings that suck people into that. A lot of time is spent in this movie on prayers and quasi-religious ceremonies, and the fetish of uniforms, decorations, parades, salutes, tassels, berets, shiny boots and even shinier guns. The message is clear that these things have, for centuries, lured idealistic boys into a love of militarism but, like the candy cigarettes that were outlawed around this time because they acculturated children to smoking, boys should no longer be indoctrinated into the culture of Christian militarism to make them more willing adult cannon fodder. 

In this moment, in 1981, America’s attention had also just been riveted, for 444 days, to another version of radicalized youth, fired by religious fervor, taking possession of a compound, certain that their cause is righteous – The Iran Hostage Crisis. The Muslim Students’ Following of the Imam’s Line (that was their official name) was the radical student group who stormed the US Embassy in Tehran on November 1979. The hostages would only be released on January 20th, 1981, Reagan’s first day in office. 

Here’s an excerpt from a British Thames Television special on the crisis, filmed in its early days, when the focus was very much on the students. After the turmoil of the 60s and early 70s, the West were used to students being radically progressive. Here were students radically conservative and that paradox (it was certainly seen as a paradox in the West) stymied the West’s ability to grasp what was going on.

As the reporter says, the media was obsessed with trying to figure out who these students were and what motivated them. And so in Taps, which would have been optioned and filmed while the crisis was going on, when Timothy Hutton is confronted first by parents and then by the head of the National Guard to prove that none of the students are being held hostage, that they are all there of their own free will and shared his zealotry, we can image that movie goers would have drawn the parallel with Tehran pretty easily. 


Our next film is Red Dawn. It has a very different message. And the US is a very different place in 1984 than it was in 1981. The shame of the hostage crisis, the national malaise that Carter truthfully named in the late 70s had been replaced by this point with Reagan’s morning in America. The effects of those tax cuts and deficit spending had taken hold. Let’s listen to that ad, and we’ll include it on the website, because it’s important to note that the America depicted in this ad is the same America we find ourselves in in Red Dawn. Other than in the first couple of shots, it’s a suburban and rural America. And other than a brief glimpse of a couple of kids, it’s a very white America. 

Why would we want to return to where we were four years ago? This isn’t just a question about inflation or interest rates. The implication is also that we’d be returning to a feeling of failure and of vulnerability. 

Red Dawn takes that question of threat, and the question of whether America’s youth had gotten soft in an era with no war, head on. It was directed and co-written by John Milius, who has the craziest resume: he was nominated for writing Apocalypse Now, and wrote one of my favorite movies of the era, starring Candice Bergen and Sean Connery, The Wind and the Lion. But then he really shifted gears and made not only Red Dawn, but another film that can be read as an interesting Reagan Cold War text – Conan the Barbarian. Milius’s production company is called Valkyrie Films – obviously a harkening back to his Apocalypse Now cred. He claimed he was blacklisted by Hollywood for being right-wing. And another interesting fact, Red Dawn was the first PG 13 movie. 

The cast is almost the entire roster of the teen stars of the day.  Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, and Jennifer Grey. The few grown ups include Harry Dean Stanton and Powers Boothe. We’re going to talk at greater length in the next episode about what was unofficially called the Brat Pack, the cohort of young actors who starred in the veritable tsunami of movies catering to teens that came out during the 80s. So we won’t get into it much here, except to point out that both Taps and Red Dawn are perfect examples of the darker, earlier, teen ensemble movies that include Outsiders, Rumble Fish, and Foxes. They were later replaced by something much more affluent, bubbly and shiny, even when they were ostensibly serious. 

Red Dawn is set up with opening screen cards that provide a dire scenario that is completely implausible but would most definitely have seemed totally reasonable in the paranoid fever dreams of 80s hawks: 

NATO disbands. The Green Party takes over in West Germany and demands all nukes be removed. Cuba and Nicaragua have 1 million soldiers activated. There’s a communist revolution in Mexico. “America Stands Alone.”

The invasion is supposedly plausible because it’s the Commies from Cuba, Nicaragua, and Mexico who have invaded, not the Russians. And the resistance that emerges is supposedly plausible because this is Calumet, Colorado, where young men play football and were taught how to shoot guns and go camping in the winter by their dads. 

Once again, the plot is fairly simple. One day, out the window of their high school class room, students and their teacher see Soviet paratroopers landing in a field. They open fire, indiscriminately killing people. From that point, the occupation of the town by a combination of Nicaraguan, Mexican, Cuban and Russian forces happens pretty quick. In a great nod to the NRA crowd, we see a bumper sticker that reads “You can have my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands.” Just then, a Russian paratrooper does just that from the pick up truck owner’s corpse. A small group of boys grab supplies and head for the hills in their pick up truck, led by brothers Jed (Patrick Swayze) and Matt (Charlie Sheen), and including C. Thomas Howell who had recently starred in Coppola’s The Outsiders. In that, Howell was Swayze’s younger brother. 

Jed and Matt were raised severely by their father, Harry Dean Stanton, so they know survival and hunting skills. But the crew includes boys who don’t. They had all been football players (the Wolverines – which is what they now call their unit), but not soldiers. And it’s also a mix of boys who immediately accept that they must now become soldiers, and those who can’t quite grasp the reality of the situation. But as time goes on, and civilians are put into re-education camps, the boys find out that people are being executed for resisting, including some of their own parents, and they realize they all must become guerilla fighters. They’re also asked to bring two teenage girls to join them, grandaughters of the gun shop owner who has been supplying them with weapons. 

Lea Thompson, who had just made All the Right Moves with Tom Cruise the year earlier, is one of the girls and she becomes a hardened soldier traumatized by the death of her family. She has one of the greatest stupid lines in the movie after listening to “Radio Free America” mimic BBC radio during World War II, sending out coded messages to the resistance. “Things are different now.” You think? The other girl is played by Jennifer Grey, who will go on to star with Swayze in Dirty Dancing a few years later. 

An air force pilot, Tanner, played by Powers Booth, is shot down and rescued by the Wolverines. He fills them in on what is going on out in the world. DC has been destroyed by nukes, which have also fallen on China. The film is Reaganites’ paranoid fantasy. Just the way the invasion happened is a racist, almost Turner Diaries scenario. Let’s listen to Powers Boothe describe it:

Illegals, Mexican border, weak Europeans. I guess the wild card is China on our side, but that’s Nixon-era thinking vindicated. Remember, China was opening up in the 80s to some capitalist thinking.

Under Tanner’s leadership, they get even better at making life difficult for the occupying forces. There’s disagreement among the Russian and Latin American leadership, with the Soviet general advocating for a brutal suppression of the insurgency, and the Latin American general advocating that they try to ‘win hearts and minds’ like the Americans did in Vietnam. The Russian general laconically points out that the Americans lost that war. 

By the end of the film, there is no resolution of the conflict. The ‘victory’ is simply that 2 of the kids make it to the Free America frontier. Swayze, Sheen, Grey, Howell, and Powers Booth have all died for the cause. 

In 1984, I can tell you that, at least in Canada, to love this film was a guilty pleasure, or something that had to be done ‘ironically’ because it was seen as quintessentially ra-ra Reaganite Amurica. So I think I’ve only ever watched it once before watching it for this podcast.

There’s actually a fairly high body count in this movie on the US side. Not just the usual token couple of deaths. And the desperation is also really interesting. The film starts out pretty light weight. The viewer is lulled into thinking this is going to be another Brat Pack movie of teenaged angst but it gets more and more serious as it goes on. 

What’s interesting is that the script started out as a small art-house film, intended to be a taut allegory about the tenacity of indigenous fighters against an invading force, and about war corrodes the psyche of young people, and leaves no one in a community untraumatized. But Reagan’s ex-secretary of State, Alexander Haig, who was a hawk to say the least, was on the board at MGM when this script was optioned. He had been a general prior to his short stint in Reagan’s White House; in fact, he’d led NATO. He also famously claimed that he was in charge after Reagan was shot, and suggested that a “nuclear warning shot” in Europe might be useful to deter the Russians. 

And so it can’t be too surprising that Haig saw a different potential in the script and insisted that a new director, Milius, be brought on. Haig also insisted that Milius work with the Hudson Institute to find a ‘plausible’ scenario for an invasion of the US. That’s the Hudson Institute founded by Herman Kahn, who we talked about in our MAD, MAD World episode. In the end, the anti-war allegory turned into a big budget film that Milius claimed was an anti-war film, but no one else seems to have had that in mind. 

The National Review ranks it as the 15th best Conservative movie ever (whatever that’s supposed to mean). And the New York Times review stated that, “To any sniveling lily-livers who suppose that John Milius … has already reached the pinnacle of movie-making machismo, a warning: Mr. Milius’s Red Dawn is more rip-roaring than anything he has done before. Here is Mr. Milius at his most alarming, delivering a rootin’-tootin’ scenario for World War III.” This is a testament to the box office power of Conan a year earlier, and the Dirty Harry movies that Milius helped write in the 1970s. Because on average, Milius didn’t have a particularly reactionary or bellicose filmography.

We said at the beginning that the basic premise was laughable. But why didn’t it seem so to all those people eating it up in the theater? One reason was the cast and the other reason was that the threat from communist central America was a theme Reagan had been focused on. He even called a special session of Congress in 1983 – the year before Red Dawn came out –  to give a speech about it. Here’s how he got Americans to seriously fear commies from the South.

So I guess Managua was also as close to Calumet, Colorado as it was to Washington, DC. And Cuban paratroopers could land in the school yard. It could happen…


So let’s return to our 2 lies for this episode. The first was that the optimism and arrogance of the 80s started right at the beginning of the decade. And that a curtain was firmly drawn on all of the trauma and pessimism of the previous 15 years or so. In Taps, we see the tragedy of young boys who are sold a bill of goods, not only by the general they revered but also by the parents who sent them to a military academy to begin with. It’s a commentary on the past and a warning about the future. But there’s a sense that little is offered as an alternative ideal to believe in. After all, the school isn’t being closed so that it can become a cultural center, or a Motessori. It’s going to be condos. 

And Red Dawn may be arrogant and bellicose but it sure isn’t optimistic. It’s every fever dream Steve Bannon and Alex Jones have ever had. And I’m sure preppers everywhere have the DVD nearby for regular viewing (not streaming – they’re off the grid.)

We should probably talk about the significance of the Wolverines. After all, we titled our episode Wolverines! Why? Because Red Dawn is strangely relevant today because of the invasion of Ukraine. Days after it began and Russian armor was being destroyed at a dizzying rate, news casts started showing burned out tanks with Wolverines graffiti scrawled all over them. Facebook started selling Wolverines t-shirts in blue and gold, and Western volunteer units fighting in Ukraine called themselves Wolverines. This film has a long after life, obviously.

And our second lie was that an era is all one thing or another. These two films show us that the early 80s was an era where questions about militarism and what we want our youth to know, value and be able to do, was totally up for debate. If the popularity of the movies is anything to go by, attitudes were fairly evenly split in the country. Taps did 36 million in domestic box office; Red Dawn did 38 million. Virtually a wash. 

We’ll see in our next episode a variety of ways that Hollywood tried to insert itself into the debate about irresponsible teenagers above and beyond the question of military readiness. We’ll take a walk down memory lane with MTV and video games. So dig out your leg warmers and your Atari cartridges. 

Episode Six: The Two Russias


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. 

Episode 5: Cold War Homefront


Welcome to Season 3 of Lies Agreed Upon, a podcast about Hollywood and history. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

It’s kind of a cliche to say we all lived through the Cold War. Sure, we lived with the specter of nuclear annihilation hanging over our heads, but truth be told it seemed pretty remote to most Americans and probably Russians too. I don’t know about you, but I feel a lot more stressed out post-9/11, post Trump, post-accelerated end of world climate change than I did about some Strangelove scenario. The movies we covered so far address the big issues we associate with the Cold War – nuclear war, McCarthyism, vast military industrial complexes, and shadow governments. But the Cold War wasn’t remote or academic; it filtered down to every corner of life and every corner of America. 

We both know our Cold War history pretty well and can tick off all the major events and dates. We know all the proxy wars that bled both sides dry and wreaked havoc across the globe. I mean, Cold War for who? Not in Central America, Afghanistan, and most of all, Vietnam. We could do a whole season or three on Vietnam war films for Lies Agreed Upon, but in this one episode we chose three films that get to a very specific point about the Cold War’s omnipresence in daily life. You wouldn’t associate any of these films with how Vietnam figured into the Cold War dynamic, or even about the war in Vietnam proper.  These are about the homefront and a reminder, or is it a revelation, that the Vietnam War deeply wounded American society from top to bottom. 

Ok, so that’s not a profound comment, but we forget the whole 15 year folly was a Cold War decision, a containment era fait accompli that the best and the brightest didn’t really bother to deliberate. If you embrace the domino theory, then what choice do you have? We aren’t here to revisit Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers. The point this week is to address how Hollywood dramatized what the war did to us at home, not just to the soldiers in country. Our first film is Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978), an epic taking us from the Allegheny mountains in PA to Vietnam and back again. Hal Ashby’s Coming Home also came out in 1978 and dares to represent the plight of severely wounded veterans and their caretakers, mostly women, whose experiences are largely dismissed by Hollywood. The third film is the first to reflect on the experience of Black soldiers. Spike Lee’s Da Five Bloods came out in 2020, a time when Vietnam seemed like ancient history. But, it’s really not.

So what are the lies agreed upon for this episode? I think the first is what we just said – the Cold War was a distant, persistent threat to our existence but it didn’t influence our daily lives at the ground level. Our fascination with Vietnam films stems in part from our desire to know what it was really like. And of course it influenced the lives of the half a million sent over there and millions more drafted into the effort. But, what did it to us at home? Was there any corner of life unaffected by the war? These films tell us, No.

The second lie concerns how we tend to treat Vietnam, at least in pop culture, as a separate event from other sweeping socio-cultural changes happening at the same time. So many of our favorite films on the subject are about the soldiers facing all the physical and psychological traumas thousands of miles from home. Think Platoon, or Full Metal Jacket, or the mythic Apocalypse Now, which of course isn’t even trying to comment on reality. Coming Home and Da Five Bloods in particular show how Vietnam fundamentally altered society, such as Jane Fonda’s character turning from status quo conservatism to feminism after being exposed to the misery of returning veterans, or the the five bloods framing their struggles as black men in America through the lens of the their Vietnam experience. Spike Lee even manages to link the legacy of Vietnam to Trump. The point is no part of society was untouched by Vietnam. There was nowhere to hide.


Let’s recap these films, two from 1978, a year that kicked off a decade of memorable Vietnam war films, and one with quite a bit of distance from the event made just a few years ago. Let’s start with The Deer Hunter, directed by Michael Cimino and co-written by Cimino and Derek Washburn. What can we say about Cimino? He’s what we might call “eccentric”? The Deer Hunter was his great, improbable success. He won best director, best picture, and then his next effort  – Heaven’s Gate – was one of the greatest box office bombs in history. The Deer Hunter is also blessed with one of those legendary casts from the 70s – Robert DeNiro, Meryl Streep, Jon Savage, John Cazale, and I’ve always been a fan of George Dzunda, great character actor. Walken won Best Supporting Actor and this is Streep’s first nomination of many thousands, as we know. 

The making of the film was an epic in itself, over budget, filled with crazy infighting over the script. If you’re really interested in it you can read all about it, but what is it about these big Vietnam war movies and crazy production stories? Deer Hunter had its own Heart of Darkness vibe like Apocalypse Now, but what we see on screen is just stunningly beautiful cinematography and of course memorable performances. It’s not without controversy. I think we both agree it is bigoted and simplistic about the Vietnamese themselves. Not a lot of thought went into the politics of the war or even feigning some realism about combat. 

This sprawling epic begins in the very distinctive tight-nit slavic community of Clairton, Pennsylvania in 1968. We are immersed in this working-class steel mill town populated by Russian and Ukrainian Americans shortly before a wedding and the three principal characters – Mike (DeNiro) Steven (John Savage), and Nick (Walken) are about to leave for Vietnam. Mike and Nick are super close friends who both love Linda, Meryl Streep, who suffers living with an alcoholic father. Cimino just drops us into this world and lets the camera take it all in. There is minimal dialogue. He lets us eavesdrop and we get so much from ambient noise and dialogue, visual cues. It’s really quite beautiful.

The guys have no idea what to expect in Vietnam. It’s just a duty, something expected, but they get a taste of what it is like coming home when they see a veteran at the bar where the wedding reception is held. This guy is stone cold silent and they just want to get some insight about what’s its like over there. Let’s play that clip.

Fuck it. It’s not the interaction they were expecting. Later, we see Mike return pretty much the same way.

Well, the bonding and ethnic rituals go by the wayside as we are suddenly in 1969 and the three guys find themselves prisoners of the Viet Cong.  This is the infamous Russian roulette scene with these cartoonishly evil Viet Cong torturing and killing their captives. Mike’s quick thinking leads to the three escaping, going through more hell in the process. Nick is hospitalized with trauma, but few can understand his psychological damage and the doctors treat him callously. He walks off into the middle of Saigon and discovers an underground Russian roulette tournament that just goes on and on endlessly. He’s strangely drawn to it and we’re left with the impression this is his life now.

Yes, and Mike returns home just antisocial and withdrawn, preferring to hide from his welcome home party. Steven is an invalid with no real purpose or identity. It’s like everything is torn apart. Mike and Linda grow closer together amid this despair, but Mike feels obligated to go find Nick, who deserted, after Steven shows him all this cash he regularly receives from Saigon. Mike goes back as the city is falling and discovers the roulette game, desperate to get Nick back, but he’s a heroin-addicted zombie. [This is one of the film’s criticisms. Saigon obviously fell in 1975, but this is supposed to be just a year later at the most] In one last game between the two, Nick pulls the trigger and kills himself. The film ends with Nick’s funeral and everyone singing God Bless America.

Coming Home was directed by Hal Ashby, one of the pioneer New Wave Hollywood directors responsible for a slew of great films. The Last Detail, Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Bound for Glory about Woody Guthrie, and Being There to name a few. The story is from Nancy Dowd who worked, along with Jane Fonda and Jon Voigt for years to get this film made. The heart of the film is the burgeoning relationship between Jane Fonda, a conservative housewife volunteering at a VA hospital, and Jon Voigt, a parapalegic veteran embittered by the war. Bruce Dern is Jane Fonda’s husband, a gung ho Marine, and Robert Carradine plays a veteran with psychological trauma. Penelope Milford plays Robert Carradine’s character’s sister, who volunteers with Jane Fonda at the VA. Fonda and Voigt won the Best Actor awards, unsurprisingly.

Coming Home takes place almost entirely in California in the late 1960s, the same time frame as The Deer Hunter. Remember 1968 was the year of the Tet offensive and really marked the year the US committed to a limitless war effort. Whatever illusions we had about quick victory ended that summer. We see this in Bruce Dern’s character. His bravado was apparent when he shipped out, but he comes home sullen, dejected, and suicidal. 

The film begins with a conservative Sally (Jane Fonda) slowly becoming aware of the inadequate care patients at the VA are receiving. She’s frustrated by other silent majority-type women freezing her out and takes matters into her own hands. While volunteering she befriends Luke (Jon Voigt), who was paralyzed in Vietnam and takes out his frustrations on anyone and everyone. The two fall in love and remain so after Bruce Dern returns, complicating matters. As Luke comes out of his shell and sees opportunities to be proactive about ending the war, protesting and speaking about his experience, Dern retreats.

There are other tragedies along the way, such as Robert Carradine, who only saw 2 weeks of the war, and yet commits suicide. Also, Army Intelligence grows wary of Luke and informs Bruce Dern about the affair, leading to a confrontation between the love triangle. In a memorable final scene, Luke speaks his truth to young men eager to fight about his experience while Bruce Dern strips off his uniform and wades into the ocean, drowning himself. I think it’s worth playing that scene and listening to Luke’s speech. 

It’s a long clip, but you can cut out parts where its just Dern and music:

I’m always struck by how great John Voigt and James Woods were, and honestly Voigt is still great if you are a Ray Donovan fan. Do they recognize themselves when they see films like this or Salvador and The Way We Were, which we talked about in another episode? Oh well. 

Da Five Bloods from 2020 is c0-written and directed by Spike Lee. His partner on Black KKKlansmen Kevin Wilmott is the other writer. There’s an interesting story behind this film about five veterans returning to Vietnam to honor one of their fallen friends and retrieve buried gold. It was originally intended for Oliver Stone, but when he dropped out Spike Lee was determined to make it a story about Black soldiers in Vietnam. Surprisingly, there’s never been a film focused solely on this group that served in far greater numbers than their percentage of the overall population. Thank the draft for that. But, in 2020, Spike Lee does it and received the usual mix of praise and criticism, although much more praise in this case.

The cast is great and includes some of Lee’s favorites as well as some talented Vietnamese and French actors. The five bloods, who are all named after the Temptations, are the following: Delroy Lindo as Paul, Clarke Peters as Otis, Isaiah Whitlock, Jr. as Melvin, Norm Lewis as Eddie, and Chadwick Boseman in one of his last roles is Stormin Norman. Jonathan Majors plays Paul’s son, David. You have Johnny Tri Ngyuen as their intrepid tour guide, Jean Reno as a corrupt French villain, and Melanie Thierry as a French aid worker. Da Five Bloods got plenty of awards, but I was really disappointed Delroy Lindo did not win his category. It’s a really, really impressive performance.

The film begins as Spike Lee films often do, with a montage of historical footage. In this case he edits together images of Black soldiers, important civil rights moments and figures speaking about Vietnam, and iconic moments like Kent State, the boat people, and then the sack of Saigon. Angela Davis has a really powerful and and prophetic statement for 2020 about how we should expect fascism in our future.

The action moves to Paul, Otis, Eddie, Melvin, and their squad leader Norman, the Five Bloods” in a helicopter with a mission to secure the site of a CIA airplane crash and recover its cargo, a locker of gold bars intended as payment for the Lahu people for their help in fighting the Viet Cong. This was an actual CIA tactic, arming tribes. The Bloods decide to take the gold for themselves and bury it so they can retrieve it later. It’s Norman who convinces them the gold can be used for reparations for Black people, not for personal gain. They actually learn about the assassination of Martin Luther King from Hanoi Hannah, the very real NorthVietnamese propagandist, while on the mission. Interestingly, this scene is based on her actual broadcast. Let’s play it:

This is what sparks Norman’s decision to keep the gold, but the Viet Cong attack and Norman is killed. A napalm strike destroys the site and all the identifying landmarks.

We should say here that Spike Lee chose to have his actors play themselves in both timelines, 2020 and 1970. This is why Chadwick Boseman is cast as Norman and the other bloods are much older. The point is these guys are remembering past events as older men and Norman will always be the age he was when he was killed. He also films the flashbacks in the style of 1970s films. He also references a lot of his favorite Vietnam films in his own, especially Apocalypse Now. It’s super meta, you can say. Like all auteurs, Spike Lee is very deliberate about his choices and you can find some great interviews on his process for this film. 

The bloods are reunited in present day Vietnam when they learn a landslide uncovered the crash site. Each of them has had different life trajectories, some successful, others, like Paul, struggles in every way. His son David shows up unexpectedly on the trip. They are estranged and we learn, among other things, that Paul is a Trump supporter and harbors a lot of rage against immigrants, the Vietnamese still, and basically is unhappy. His PTSD is intense mostly because he is the one who accidentally killed Norman. We’ll play a clip later with Delroy Lindo getting into how he approached playing this unique character.

The plot is pretty complicated to relate here, but basically the five bloods wander back into the jungle to retrieve the gold but others are after it too, including an opportunistic French embassy official and descendants of the Lahu people for whom the gold was originally intended. The whole modern day Vietnamese landscape is littered with remnants of the war, including land mines that claim several people, and the French presence is a reminder that it all starts with colonialism. As Vinh their guide says, “The war never really ends.” Paul is also killed but after he gets absolved for his guilt. The film ends with the survivors using the gold to better the lives of their community, whether it is a Black Lives Matter organization or Morehouse College, the HBCU Spike Lee attended. 


Let’s revisit our lies agreed upon and get into some more details about how our three films relate to them. First is the idea that the Cold War is an abstraction, something that threatens all life, dictates foreign policy, and occasionally intrudes in our culture, but is ultimately far removed from daily life. Even Vietnam, which tore the nation apart along political lines and drafted 2.2 million men, is often remembered via pop culture as a distant war that certainly traumatized front soldiers, but those who lived with those men, near them, or cared for them upon their return are kind of forgotten. Our films this week do a better job than most of tracing the legacy of this Cold War Containment conflict in daily American life.

There’s a particularly powerful and understated scene in The Deer Hunter with Sally and Mike sitting in a car together. Mike has returned from Vietnam and wanders the town, this poor little steel town filled with generations of the same people doing the same jobs, and no one knows how to act around him and vice versa. Sally grinds away at the grocery store day in and day out, mourning her life there. They both mourn Nick, although his absence means their more genuine love can grow. But the scene comes at the end of the day and they’re just staring out at the claustrophobic town. Sally says, “Did you ever think your life would turn out like this?” It’s classic Michael Cimino with the minimal dialogue. When you hear some, its usually profound. 

To me, this is kind of the point of The Deer Hunter and this episode. Even in Clairton, Pennsylvania the war has fundamentally altered their lives.

Yes, obviously the men who left for war as volunteers are altered. One is crazy, another an amputee, and Mike is a shadow of his former self. The men who stay behind, John Cazale and Georg Dzunda  for example, are still these simpletons who can’t relate or understand their blood brothers. The ones they hunt with. All that ethnic loyalty and pride and deep roots in a place are frayed by this distant war. There’s a lot Cimino gets wrong about Vietnam. I mean, he really doesn’t even try because the story is about these people at home, or what coming home looks like.

And the women, who let;s face it, are pretty nonexistent in any film about Vietnam, are fundamentally altered too. John Savage’s wife is a complete wreck, barely able to speak when Mike visits her. She is stuck with an infant and a husband in a VA hospital she barely knows. The other women in Clairton are working poor, abused by their men (partners and fathers both), and the war is about to make things even worse if and when their men return. I think there are different ways to interpret the ending when they sing God Bless America. Is it genuine patriotism, or a kind of ironic statement about the fate of Nick, someone driven to madness by a war none of them understood but felt compelled to fight?

The other two films reflect this first lie, too. In Coming Home a harsh light illuminates the magnitude of the problems that lie ahead for what will be hundreds of thousands of severely wounded veterans and those with PTSD, a new diagnosis after Vietnam. Coming Home foregrounds women caretakers and the incredible burdens they must bear in the absence of an adequate welfare state.

Da Five Bloods manages to show generational trauma and damage. Paul is a broken person, a bad father, and a dangerous citizen of his country because of what he went through. The other bloods think they left their problems behind, but returning decades later reveals they’ve been carrying the pain of being a Black veteran all along. In the quiet moments of an otherwise crazy film at times, there’s no denying their pain derived from serving a nation that despised them and broke all its promises to them, decade after decade.

Our second lie is about the symbiotic relationship between the Vietnam War and every social, cultural, and political movement at the same time. I think most educated people know this if they took a good college history course, but do we see this reflected in pop culture? Not always. The war is distant, mythical at times, but our films highlight these connections in subtle and not too subtle ways. Coming Home is an early example of acknowledging what will become known as PTSD . It also dramatizes how this epidemic affects everyone else. I found this 1982 news CBS news report discussing nurses and their own struggles and it seems appropriate here:

How did we get there? A distant war fought for abstractions like the domino theory and containment becomes in its own way another total wary. It accelerated social and political change while opening up new wounds that a film like Da Five Bloods implies never heal.

Part of the reason why those wounds haven’t healed is because of the power of film, interestingly enough. Benjamin DeCarvalho has written a really interesting article about how much the collective memory of the Vietnam War and its veterans, was shaped by the Deer Hunter and Coming Home. Both movies, he argues, stripped out the politics, turning vets into heroes by making them victims of politics. It also cemented them as being overwhelmingly white, which, of course, was not the case. 

So through the narratives of those 2 films, Americans on both sides of the political spectrum were able to replace a memory of division and domestic turmoil, and replace it with a collective memory of veterans’ sacrifices. But that cohesion came at the price of silencing and erasing black vets experiences. 

Spike Lee talked about showing his film to an audience of Black and Brown Vietnam Vets in a Netflix interview. It was emotional for all of them, as you might expect, and he talked about why he felt the need to focus on this particular group of veterans. He’s always been a film historian in the same way a Marty Scorcese, one his mentors, tries to be. Let’s listen to him:

Correcting that false narrative, or diversifying the existing ones, is vital. That’s what he does here in between some of the more ludicrous plot points in the story.

Da Five Bloods is a really interesting film because it returns to Vietnam from the perspective of 2020. It’s not just the unique and long-overdue story of Black soldiers. It’s like 45 years removed from our 1978 films. Spike Lee can use the added decades of experience to make the film relevant to present times, like what he does here with Norman’s speech about the gold. Notice the 1619 reference:

Yes, and later he gets into police abuse and other issues at the top of people’s minds in 2020. A lot of BLM related dialogue is in Da Five Bloods in both timelines, which really emphasizes continuity. 

I think the character of Paul is most interesting. He takes his rage and directs it at others – his son, immigrants, whomever. It’s why he is drawn to Trump, which the actor Delroy Lindo had a real problem with. This Rolling Stone interview he does gets into how he reconciles that fact with the character and it’s worth playing some of:

I think that’s just a great peek at how actors prepare. Paul’ arc is really the heart of the film, which at times is a mess and busy and all very Spike Lee, but the message comes through that this moment – the Vietnam War – is a giant source of pain for Black veterans and yet another betrayal. We can trace so much back to the war. Look what they brought home with them, and while Da Five Bloods ends on a note of positivity and reconciliation, it shows us these wounds are still open unless we acknowledge them continually and honestly. I give Spike Lee credit for that.

The Vietnam War film is such a popular genre. There’s always a holy trinity with Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, and people cite Platoon and The Deer Hunter gets in the mix, too, but usually not for the reasons we discussed today. Our point in this episode was to introduce, or re-introduce Vietnam War films that get to the war at home, that emphasize the pervasive influence of a Cold War conflict on daily life far removed from southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s. Even when you think the war is in our rearview mirror, a film like Da Five Bloods reminds you it is never really over, and not just for veterans.

The Cold War reached every corner of America, every segment of the population. We might not think about it that way, but the decisions made on behalf of the containment paradigm extended to more than atomic bomb drills and STEM classes in school. 2.2 million draftees, spiraling debts and social unrest, epidemics in disabilities and mental health crises, and increasingly more militant social movements are going to leave their mark. Just remember, the Vietnam War is the Cold War, and it came home with a vengeance.

Episode Four: It’s The End Of The World As We Know It


Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. The podcast about Hollywood and history. 

I’m Lia Paradis

And I’m Brian Crim. 

We thought that everyone deserved a feel good episode full of rainbows and unicorns! But instead, we’re going to talk about thermonuclear annihilation again. Because if there’s anything we’re about, it’s giving the audience what they want!

Yeah, this is going to be a rather grim hour. But at least 2 of the 3 movies we’re talking about today are really worth your attention. So even though they might be about the end of the world as we know it, we hope you stick with us. 

So far, this season, each episode has been about Cold War anxieties and how they made their way into popular culture, particularly films. We’ve looked at the Red Scare and the paranoia about enemies in our midst that we can’t identify. This began as soon as WWII was over – even before, really – and was apparent in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the Manchurian Candidate. We’ve discussed how the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, and the Church Committee’s revelations all undermined American confidence in their government. Movies of the mid-1970s capitalized on the fear of what was being done by clandestine entities in the name of American security. In the Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and even a love story like The Way We Were, Hollywood assumed moviegoers didn’t need a lot of convincing to believe that the military industrial complex had run amok. 

And in the last episode, we looked at the aptly named MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – and how 2 movies, drawing inspiration from 2 novels, could take very different approaches to portraying Americans’ fears that nuclear armageddon was quite possibly beyond our control. Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, both explored how a nuclear war might start. Today, we’re going to look at how American, British and Australian writers and filmmakers imagined how the world as we know it might end. 

We’ll be talking about On the Beach, a 1959 film directed by Stanley Kramer from a 1957 novel by Anglo-Australian author Neville Shute. And then we’ll jump forward to talk about 2 made-for-TV movies that came out within months of each other in 1983 and 84 – the ABC production The Day After, and the BBC production Threads. All three were focused on what the fallout – literally and figuratively – would be from a nuclear war. In fact, On the Beach starts long after the actual nuclear war is over. 

So, what are the lies agreed upon that we’re going to take a hard look at this week? 

Well, the first lie is that, before the serious anti-nuke movement of the 1980s, most people were rather blasé about the threat of thermonuclear annihilation. References to Duck and Cover, and the supposed magical characteristics of plywood desks to shield children from nuclear blasts, have become established lore about the nuclear obliviousness of 1950s and early 60s Western society, particularly American. The story goes that it’s only after the Cuban Missile Crisis that people started to really take the threat seriously. And that it was the anti-nuke movement of the 1980s that was effective in curbing US and Soviet nuclear ambitions. We’re going to explore how that simply isn’t the case. 

And the second lie follows from that one. We’ve all been taught that the Cuban Missile Crisis was the closest we ever came to midnight on the nuclear doomsday clock and that the anti-nuke movement drew strength from that event. But, in fact, in many ways the opposite was true. Because we DIDN’T actually go over the cliff, people got rather complacent for quite awhile.

The third lie is that we had any idea what the nuclear holocaust would look like let alone what would cause it. How can you imagine the unimaginable is a question film makers of other dour topics have to contend with. The Holocaust, for example. Slavery. For obvious reasons there are moral and ethical guidelines surrounding representing these very real tragedies. 

For imagining nuclear war there are no rules. So those who wanted to warn against nuclear weapons, and who wanted to scare the crap out of us so that we would agitate and protest against building more, ever bigger ones, made choices. Our three films take very different approaches to the aftermath of nuclear war. Some of the writers’ and directors’ choices were good faith efforts based on what was known at the time. Other choices were influenced by what they thought their viewers would find important or what was touted by scientists who wanted to either support or challenge the viability of nuclear warfare. 


All of our movies this week have a very explicit anti-nuke message. So, what is the real story about the anti-nuke movement or, to use the parlance of Katie Morosky’s pamphlets at the end of The Way We Were – Ban The Bomb! And what were the ways it showed up on our screens? Well, as we’ve mentioned in the context of other topics, the early 1980s saw a major ratcheting up of bellicose rhetoric by both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. This was after a fairly prolonged period of progress in terms of nuclear test treaties and a reduction in nuclear arms across the Cold War divide. And in response to this increasingly aggressive stance, Hollywood, academia, and many of the same people who had protested Vietnam a decade earlier found themselves protesting against nuclear weapons. 

This new-found sense of urgency on the left about the nuclear question combined with a new-found relaxing of the censorship rules governing TV programming (at least in the US – in Europe, it had always been laxer). And so, in late 1983 and early 1984, we had 2 made for TV movies, one in the US and one in Britain, that attempted to depict what the aftermath of a nuclear war would look like. Most American listeners over the age of 50 or so probably remember watching The Day After. And similarly, Threads is vividly remembered by Britons of a certain age. In both countries, these TV events took place just before the vast expansion of cable TV possibilities, so they were definitely share experiences across classes, ages, regions and political affiliations. 

But we also want to acknowledge that even before Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove were released in the mid-1960s, there was another post-nuclear film, based on the 1957 novel by Neville Shute – On the Beach. The novel was serialized in over 40 newspapers, and was a bestseller when published. The subsequent film, released in 1959, was treated as A VERY BIG DEAL. 

It wasn’t a huge commercial success. Although reviewers thought it successfully conveyed the grim reality that would result from nuclear war, it was a very expensive movie to make, and the audience was those who, in the late 1950s, wanted to think seriously about the threat that faced them.

But nevertheless, Mayor Wagner attended the New York premiere. On the same evening, the Soviet Ambassador to the UK attended the London premier and, in Japan, members of the Imperial Family attended the opening in Tokyo. And even though there was no commercial release in the USSR, Gregory Peck and his wife attended a screening on the same night as the premier elsewhere, at a workers’ club, along with 1,200 Soviet dignitaries. 

And the book was a bestseller. So it’s evident that there was already a clearly articulated and culturally resonating movement against nuclear bombs, tests, and warfare, in the 1950s. So let’s set out the plot to On The Beach.

Neville Shute’s novel was adapted for the screen by John Paxton, who had written screenplays for the film noir, Murder My Sweet, and Brando’s The Wild One. Stanley Kramer both produced and directed the film. In both roles, he spent much of his career making ‘issue’ movies, from Home of the Brave in 1949, about the persecution of a black soldier, to Judgment at Nuremberg in 1961. And, of course, he may be best known for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in 1968. His filmography, as both producer and director, is beyond impressive. 

On the Beach starred Gregory Peck as an American sub captain, Dwight Towers, who has had to bring his submarine and crew to Australia after a nuclear war has wiped out the Northern Hemisphere. Ava Gardner plays Moira, a cynical and lonely woman who is dealing with the impending arrival of the radioactive fallout in the Southern Hemisphere by self-medicating with alcohol. Fred Astaire, surprisingly, plays British scientist Julian Osborn, who had been involved in the development of nuclear weapons. Anthony Perkins play Peter Holmes, an officer in the Australian Navy, and Donna Anderson plays his wife, who has already begun to lose her sanity as she refuses to accept that her newborn baby will end up dying of radiation poisoning in a matter of months. 

Like we said, this week’s movies do not have cheerful plots.

The film opens after the war is over. And it is incredibly effective at conveying the eerie inevitability of an invisible poison making its way south on the jet stream. No destruction needs to be shown. 

In an early scene, at a cocktail party in Melbourne, Astaire’s scientist establishes the parameters of human existence all our characters are living within. And Donna Anderson, as the new mother, expresses what could be seen as the refusal of the world’s population to truly see the threat we face. 

Peck, Perkins, and Astaire are sent on a joint US/Australian scientific mission in the submarine to try and determine just how extensive the fallout has been in the north, and to find out who or what is producing a constant but nonsensical Morse Code message that has been intercepted transmitting from California. 

First, the sub captain (Peck) sails into San Francisco harbor. Through the periscope, they can see the deserted streets of the city. Not a soul anywhere – no one has survived. But after being given a chance to look through the scope because it’s his home town, one of the crew jumps overboard and swims to shore, determined to die at home, even if it means he’ll die quickly. 

Leaving him to his fate, the sub heads to San Diego where one of the crew goes ashore in protective clothing and eventually locates the source of the Morse code message – a Coke bottle, caught in the pull string of a window blind, bobbing up and down on the transmitter key as the wind blows the blind to and fro. 

This ends the last hope that somehow people have survived. There’s nothing for the crew to do but return to Australia and wait out the inevitable. Along the way, there’s a conversation about how mankind could have done this to itself. Astaire, as the scientist Osborn, sets out the blunt truth of the matter. 

Once back home, the various characters deal with their impending deaths in different ways. Everyone in Australia has been given a cyanide capsule to take once the fallout arrives. Better to die quickly than a painful death from radiation poisoning. 

Osborn takes up car racing, pushing the envelope and tempting death on the track. Dwight and Moira find love and some solace in each other’s company and in doing ordinary things, like fishing. Anthony Perkins’ character wrestles with when to give the pill to his baby and his wife, who has already had a complete mental breakdown. 

The military lose contact with bases in northern Australia and, inevitably, people start showing symptoms. Perkins kills his wife, his baby and himself. Osborn commits suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage, in his racing car. The remaining American crewmen of the sub decide they want to try and get home and Peck acquiesces and agrees to sail with them even though they’ll be lucky to get out of Australian waters. The film ends with Moira watching the sub sail out of the harbor, while the remnants of a Salvation Army Band weakly play under a sign that reads “There is still time…Brother.”

So, pretty powerful stuff for 1959. 

We have to jump forward more than 20 years before we get to our other 2 films, both released the same year – 1983. The Day After was a MAJOR TELEVISION EVENT in America in a way that doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, it was the highest rated television movie of all time. 

It was directed by Nicholas Meyer, who directed 2 of the Star Trek films among other things, and was written by Edward Hume, whose career was mainly spent writing episodes for weekly tv drama series like Barnaby Jones and The Streets of San Francisco. Frankly, it shows. 

The Day After starred Jason Robards, who famously said that he agreed to star in it because he thought it would be a more effective anti-nuke effort than marching in a thousand protests. Besides him, we have John Cullum, Jo Beth Williams, John Lithgow, Amy Madigan, Arliss Howard, William Alan Young, and that stalwart of the 80s box office, Steve Guttenberg. 

Crucially, the movie is set in the American heartland in and around Kansas City. This is a landscape of farms and grain silos, but also Minuteman missile silos. Some of the characters are the city folk: Jason Robards is a doctor, his daughter is a student at the university. John Cullum is a farmer, whose daughter is about to get married to her high school sweet heart. William Alan Young is a soldier at the air force base whose job it is to turn the key to launch the missiles. (It’s also worth mentioning that he’s the movie’s token black character.) 

Unlike On the Beach, but like Threads, which we’ll talk about next, The Day After actually depicts nuclear war. The cause of the conflict is rather simplistic. A highly unlikely scenario, the tensions begin in Germany with direct engagement between NATO and Warsaw Pact nations. We hear through car radios and tvs that geo-political tensions are ratcheting up. People seem both concerned and complacent, going about their lives but also noticing that the news seems to be getting more serious. 

There’s a conversation in a barbershop between men of different generations, classes, and political leanings. You’ll hear the young man who’s supposed to be getting married the next morning, the barber and others in the shop, including John Lithgow, ‘a science professor’  who offer up a brief lesson in geo-politics and nuclear science. 

In this part of the movie, as tensions are ratcheting up, the Cuban Missile Crisis is referenced, of course, as a reassurance that those in power will pull back from the brink, like they did the last time.

As events spiral out of control, we see some people panic – traffic jams as people try to flee (although it’s not clear what) and others try to prepare by stocking their cellars with water. When the missiles finally launch (it’s intentionally left unclear who fires first), there’s an amazing visual of the missiles and the fire of their engines shooting out of what had been, just seconds earlier, the iconic, American rural landscape. 

And more missiles are seen rising up from a field just past the college football stadium. Then, we see the arrival of the Soviets’ bombs – as nuclear missiles detonate, firestorms incinerate people and buildings. Footage of actual nuclear tests from over the decades is used for these effects, so they are extremely realistic. 

The storylines of the various characters from this point on are less important than the overarching narrative, which follows the variety of ways that individuals and families struggle to find food, water, and shelter, as people slowly (and not so slowly) succumb to radiation. Because this is set in a small city and surrounding farms, the focus is on the actions of individuals, not the structures of societies. 

There are some references to government but what is reinforced is its uselessness. During a brief radio broadcast from the president his message is juxtaposed with images of bodies lying unburied, buildings destroyed, horse drawn carts replacing cars, and the sick and dying left uncared for. At the end of this clip, we’ll hear John Lithgow and his students, including Stephen Furst (Flounder from Animal House) responding. 

Very quickly, but also very briefly, we see the breakdown of order. John Cullum’s character returns to his farm to find it taken over by squatters, who shoot him dead without qualms or hesitation. Amy Madigan’s character gives birth surrounded by people dying of radiation poisoning and laughs in despair at the world her child is being born into. But the film ends with a positive interaction, as Jason Robards, who finally manages to return to the burnt out rubble that was his home, also confronts a squatter. But instead of being met with violence, he’s offered something to eat.

Again, the film focuses on individuals and their experiences in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war. 

As listeners of this podcast know, what interests us is how movies are windows into the cultures that produce them. So it’s very interesting to juxtapose the American made for TV movie, The Day After, with its British counterpart, Threads. 

Threads was broadcast on the BBC in September 1984. Written by Barry Hines, a novelist and screenwriter who often collaborated with the great Ken Loach (a master of gritty films about the struggles of working class people) , Threads was produced and directed by Mick Jackson, who had a substantial background in documentary work, although he’s another person whose filmography will make your head spin, ranging from this to the Whitney Houston – Kevin Costner melodrama, The Bodyguard, and the HBO biopic about autistic activist Temple Granden. 

I ask my students to pay attention to the difference in the focus of these two films and to think about how they reflect differences in American and British society. Threads is presented as a docudrama, with a narrator presenting its events as if there could somehow miraculously be a future observer of these events.

The focus here is on the destruction of society: systems, governance, services, and all of the million things that we don’t think about that constitute the fabric of community. The horror of the actual nuclear event is the result of a much more complex breakdown of geopolitical tensions involving Iran and other Cold War proxies. 

The film is set in and around Sheffield, a mid-sized post-industrial city in Yorkshire. Local government officials are, supposedly, also deputized with certain emergency roles in case of nuclear war. And what Hines and Jackson want people to confront is the lie that any amount of preparation will have any chance of succeeding. 

Hines and Jackson actually shadowed such a group in their civil emergency drills to get a sense of what preparations looked like – half-hearted and half-baked, apparently. 

The plot of the movie follows one of these officials, members of his family, and others. There are no stars in this film, and many small roles are taken up by locals who responded to a casting call. And characters are summarily dropped. We start with Ruth and Jimmy, a young couple expecting their first child and buying their first flat. Separated when the blast happens, Jimmy goes out to find her, and we simply never see him again. 

The officials, in their bunker, try to go on governing and managing the post-apocalyptic world, but the film stays with this world much longer than The Day After does. So we are forced to really grasp the futility of that. And, over time, as nuclear winter sets in and even marshal law is incapable of restoring any semblance of a ‘society’  – even an authoritarian one – the viewer sees how the myriad components of modern life work together to make us who we are. 

Here’s a montage of various narrative interjections throughout the film that help track the disintegration of the fabric of society – the threads. 

Ruth dies when her daughter, called Jane in the credits but never named on screen, is about 10. She goes on to live in what resembles a primitive and almost pre-verbal world, language stripped down to the bare essentials. Raped after a fight over food, Jane gives birth to a deformed, still-born baby. And that’s where the movie ends. 



The plots of all these movies are brutal. But we’d like to spend a bit of time looking at why On the Beach, and the anti-nuke movement of the 1950s and 60s is largely forgotten; why in the early 1980s a new wave of nuclear disarmament activism emerged, and then describe how imagined after-effects of a nuclear holocaust were touted as fact and then deployed by movie-makers. 

This all starts in the Marshall Islands (an American territory until 1979), a South Pacific collection of atolls closer to Australia than any other continent. Between 1946 and 1958, 67 nuclear bombs were ‘tested’ – ie. detonated – there. The bikini is named after the Bikini Atoll, the site of dozens of these tests. This – the making light of nuclear testing by naming a bathing suit after it – combined with the notorious inadequacy of Duck and Cover instructions, to make it seem like people really weren’t taking the threat of nuclear warfare seriously in the 1950s. Let’s meet Bert the Turtle – who knows just what to do!

Neville Shute, a Brit and an engineer by training, emigrated to Australia after WWII. He wrote On the Beach in 1957, and it was serialized in over 40 magazines, in the context of the Bikini Atoll tests. And the increase in the number of nuclear powers, and their testing, during this decade. We’ve included a link to a mesmerizing video on our website that shows all the nuclear detonations from 1945 to 1998. It’s worth watching, keeping in mind what we’re talking about here. 

But it wasn’t just Australians who were acutely aware of the threat of nuclear war in the 1950s and early 1960s – before the Cuban Missile Crisis, in other words. Over the Easter weekend in 1958, the British group, Direct action committee against Nuclear War organized a march from London, England, to Aldermaston, where the British Atomic Weapons reasearch labs were located – about 52 miles away. That same year, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, first met. The CND, between 1959 and 1963, led similar marches over Easter, but in the reverse direction. At its height, hundreds of thousands of people made the march, which eventually simply became an annual event in London because the numbers were so big that the logistics of the route and permits became unworkable. 

It’s out of this movement, in fact, that we get the peace sign that we all think of as connected to the anti-war movement in the United States. In fact, that symbol, the circle with the vertical line and the inverted V represents the semaphore symbols for N and D – nuclear disarmament. 

In the same year that the first Aldermaston march took place, Linus Pauling presented a petition to the UN signed by more than 11,000 scientists, calling for an end to the testing of nuclear weapons. Pauling is the only scientist to have been awarded unshared Nobel Prizes in multiple categories and his work in molecular biology form the foundation of our understanding of DNA and the mapping of the genome. Pauling was also involved with the Baby Tooth Survey, a longitudinal study that showed conclusively that above ground testing resulted in radioactive Strontium-90 being found at unhealthy levels in baby teeth. 

Another very important development in anti-nuclear weapons activism prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis, has, like many efforts about and by women, been silenced and all but erased from historical memory in the decades since. And this story interestingly intersects with 2 things we’ve discussed already – the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and good old Katie Morosky’s Ban the Bomb efforts at the end of The Way We Were. 

In 1961, Bela Abzug and Dagmar Wilson organized the largest women’s peace protest action of the 20th Century – the Women’s Strike for Peace. Held in over 60 cities and in front of the Washington monument, women struck from work and home to participate. It was prompted by the US government’s declaration that nuclear tests would resume after a 3 year moratorium that had been largely the result of Pauling’s efforts. 

But here’s where their work crashes into the work of HUAC. And we have the great research work of historian Amy Swerdlow to thank for this bit of knowledge. In 1962, the leaders of the WSP (Women’s Strike for Peace organization) were called before the committee. Yes, it was still operating, although with less fanfare than in previous years. 

Here’s a brief video describing the events and how it was framed as an issue of concern particularly to women. 

But, From the start, as Swerdlow writes, “the surveillance establishment and the right-wing press were wary. They recognized early what the Rand Corporation described obliquely as the WSP potential “to impact on military policies.”‘ Jack Lotto, a Hearst columnist, charged that although the women described themselves as a “group of un- sophisticated wives and mothers who are loosely organized in a spontaneous movement for peace, there is nothing spontaneous about the way the pro-Reds have moved in on our mothers and are using them for their own purposes.” On the West Coast, the San Francisco Examiner claimed to have proof that “scores of well-intentioned, dedicated women … were being made dupes of by known Communists . . . operating openly in the much publicized Women Strike for Peace demonstrations.”

So you see, the women weren’t actually seen as politically savvy, autonomous subjects. They had no agency. But HUAC didn’t know what it had gotten itself into. First of all, the WSP took a different tack from everyone else who’d been its target. It went on the offensive, informing the world that its members had been subpoenaed and condemning the act, stating: “With the fate of humanity resting on a push button,the quest for peace has become the highest form of patriotism.” They changed the terms of the confrontation: it was going to be a contest over which group was more patriotic. What they asked was, What was the extent of one’s dedication to saving America’s children from nuclear extinction?

The details of the HUAC-WSP confrontation are epic, and hilarious. At one point, obviously thinking he was about to strike the deadly rhetorical blow, the lawyer for the committee confronted Ruth Meyers, who lived on Long Island, “Mrs. Meyers, it appears fro public records that a Ruth Meyers, residing at 1751 East Street, Brooklyn, New York, on July 27, 1948, signed a  Communist Party nominating petition …. Are you the Ruth Meyers who executed that petition?” Meyers shot back, “No, sir. I never lived in Brooklyn, this is not my signature and my husband could never get me to move there.” Let’s just say that the committee members had their asses handed to them, although the women testifying would never have used such undignified language. We’ve included a political cartoon commenting on these hearings on the website. 

In any event, these are just some of the many ways in which people across the globe pursued peace activism and articulated resistance to nuclear armaments in the era of On the Beach, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the subsequent decline in nuclear arms buildup that lasted until the next period of acute nuclear fear, in the early 1980s. 

We’ve spoken elsewhere, and at length, about the ratcheting up of bellicose rhetoric, led by Reagan and Thatcher, in the 1980s. So we’re not going to repeat that here except to remind listeners that the context of increased concern and anti-nuke activism in that period, including The Day After and Threads, was prompted by those developments. 

What we did want to talk about for just a minute is what we’ve identified as our Lie #3 – the certainty with which the aftermath of a nuclear war was depicted, particularly in Threads. The month after The Day After was shown on TV, what came to be called the TTAPS group (named after the scientists in it – R. P. TURCOO. B. TOONT. P. ACKERMANJ. B. POLLACKAND CARL SAGAN) published their game changing article in Science Magazine, “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions.” 

The argument was simple, and designed for the specific circumstances of the era: even a limited nuclear war would have devastating effects on the global climate, resulting in what they termed a “nuclear winter.” As a result, even the Star Wars scenario – that technology could be developed that intercepted nuclear bombs in space – or the argument that an accidental but limited detonation of nuclear weapons could be manageable, was loudly and very effectively challenged. 

Here’s Carl Sagan, introducing the American viewing public to this idea, on the panel discussion aired on ABC after The Day After. The rest of the panelists are Henry Kissinger, William F. Buckley, Jr., Elie Wiesel, Brent Skowcroft, and William MacNamara. It’s a fascinating time capsule. 

As Ted Koppel says, Sagan manages to make an already depressing evening even gloomier. And we can see how, released in September 1984, the depiction of a post-nuclear reality in Threads is very much influenced by this idea of nuclear winter. The thing is, it was a theory, not yet tested beyond the work of the TTAPS group, which, in turn, stated that they had the explicit aim of promoting nuclear disarmament. They wanted the US and USSR to stop arguing that a limited nuclear exchange could have limited damage. 

The conclusions reached over time and, most crucially, using the advanced climate modeling technology available today, suggests that low atmosphere, short range missiles would not result in that level of atmospheric disruption. But the higher you go, both in terms of altitude and numbers of bombs, the more damage is done. But, as the film critic Peter Bradshaw stated Threads, “was the most horrifying movie he has ever seen,” it raises the question whether our sense of its ‘realism’ – as opposed to what we see in The Day After, which seems a bit sanitized – is actually the result of the successful campaign by Sagan and others to turn a theory into a completely internalized fact. 


In the end, our lies for this episode were about how long, during the Cold War, did huge numbers of people across the globe stand up and shout that they didn’t want any of it done in their name. It turns out it wasn’t just right after the Cuban Missile Crisis and then during the Reagan-Thatcher Star Wars era of the late 70s and early 80s. Consistently, across decades and continents, and even when such protesting resulted in accusations of Commie sympathizing, men and women said NO!

And, whether it was Robert Oppenheimer or Linus Pauling, Carl Sagan, scientists and doctors have helped lead this movement by harnessing data and, in some cases, taking advantage of the media machine to present theories that no one wants to ever have the opportunity to test, as incontrovertible fact. Also, we didn’t have a chance to incorporate her work here, but another very famous, Australian activist, Dr. Helen Caldicott, was the subject of an academy award winning, National Film Board of Canada documentary, “If you Love This Planet”, which we’ve linked to on our website.

Well, this has been quite an odyssey today. If you’ve stuck with us through it all, you should now reward yourself with an episode of Parks and Rec, or an ice cream cone. Or both! You deserve it! 

We have some fun episodes coming up, we swear! We’ll be hanging out with the Patrick Swayze and the Red Dawn crew. And, of course, with James Bond. So come and join us!

Episode 3: A MAD, MAD World


Welcome to Season 3 of Lies Agreed Upon, a podcast about Hollywood and history. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Remember this past Spring when, just a few days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin essentially threatened the nuclear annihilation of the Western world, as if nukes followed the rules of geopolitics? It was kind of triggering for people like us who lived during the Reagan-Thatcher years when we were the ones casually threatening nuclear war. I remember seeing Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell explain to her audience of millenials what MAD stood for, the nuclear triad, and brinkmanship. It was a total timewarp.

Let’s start with a clip! We’re mixing it up today. This is Lawrence O’Donnell reviewing the history of MAD for an audience that probably never had to live under it. We decided on the Cold War theme soon after the invasion of Ukraine in part because of coverage like this. Our unofficial slogan this season is everything old is new again.

Putin’s loose threats of nuclear retaliation bring all of this back for some of us, and it’s a reminder that MAD never loses its relevance.

Yeah, and think about what it was like for our parents in the 80s to hear Reagan and Andropov trade nuclear threats having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, quite possibly the closest we ever came to an actual nuclear exchange, knowingly anyway. The Cold War superpowers came so close to destroying the world they got spooked and took several steps back, improving communication and starting a period of detente. About 18 years actually, but you know what we do here – how does the culture process this terrifying moment? What happens when everyday Americans suddenly know all this nuclear terminology? Capitalize on it, obviously!

Our movies this week represent the zenith of so-called Atomic Culture that began immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki and lasted until the late 60s, early 70s. Another wave began in the 80s, which we’ll cover in another episode. Dr. Strangelove, the wonderfully important and influential classic from Stanley Kubrick came out the same year as Failsafe, its more earnest counterpart telling virtually the same story, directed by Sidney Lumet. 1964 – you’ve got two years distance from the Cuban Missile Crisis, one year since the JFK assassination, domestic turmoil of all sorts, and here come these films about nuclear war, one darkly comedic and scary and the other just scary. But, I kind of thought it was unintentionally funny from a jaded perspective.

So what are our lies agreed upon for Doomsday!? The first lie is that MAD was inherently dangerous and flawed, likely to lead to armageddon. But, that’s a lie because it worked! We don’t like to admit it, but both movies push a lie! We’re still here, right? Ok, that sounds flip but we have to acknowledge that in a bipolar world dominated by nation-states with bureaucracies and stable leadership the systems dramatized in our films work. In a world with like a dozen nuclear powers? That remains to be seen.

Maybe a sub-lie (is that a word?) related to this relates to limited nuclear war. Failsafe actually makes a case that exchanging cities to destroy is horrifying, yes, but a plausible tactic to take if worst comes to worse. Dr. Strangelove exposes this for the absurdity that it is.

The second lie is about civilian leadership in the nuclear age. We’re conditioned to see the military as inherently, well, militaristic. Ever since Korea the military-industrial complex became a permanent entity, but what these films do is highlight the role civilians play in pushing brinkmanship. Civilians like Henry Kissinger, Herman Kahn, Edward Teller, the guys David Halberstam called the best and the brightest, these are the hawks of the Cold War. Dr. Strangelove and Failsafe skewer the military, sure, but the most dangerous characters are civilians. 

Let’s recap our films. Let’s begin with Dr. Strangelove. I think a lot of our listeners know the film and might be asking themselves, what more can these two say about it? Well, give us a chance. And we can’t assume too much prior knowledge, so we’ll break it down and get more into the origins of the film, the source material, and Kubrick’s process as a director later. 

Dr. Strangelove is of course directed by Kubrick and he co-wrote the screenplay with novelists Terry Southern and Peter George. George wrote the novel Red Alert, which Kubrick originally wanted to adapt without many changes. While the story is the same, Kubrick thought it worked better as a black comedy. The cast is great, largely because Peter Sellers, the brilliant comedic actor, plays three roles – Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley, and the titular character, Dr. Strangelove. We have George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, Sterling Hayden as General Jack D. Ripper, Slim Pickens as Major Kong, and you might recognize James Earl Jones as a B-52 crewmember. Later we’ll tell you who some of these outrageous characters are references to in real life.  

The film begins at a Strategic Air Command base when Jack D. Ripper orders his B-52 bombers to go past their failsafe points where they normally hold awaiting possible orders to proceed into Soviet airspace. He tells the personnel on the base that the US and the USSR have entered into a “shooting war”.

In the “War Room” at The Pentagon, General Turgidson briefs President  Muffley about the attack that General Ripper ordered. You’d think a nuclear attack should require Presidential authority, but Ripper used “Plan R”, an emergency war plan enabling a senior officer to launch a retaliation strike against the Soviets if everyone in the normal chain of command, including the President, has been killed during a sneak attack. Turgidson tries to convince Muffley to take advantage of the situation to eliminate the Soviets as a threat by launching a full-scale attack. 

Would it surprise you to learn there was an entire industry of people whose job it was to think in exactly those terms? That wasn’t hyperbole, which is on reason why Kubrick concluded the movie had to be an absurdist comedy. 

Mandrake, an RAF exchange officer serving as General Ripper’s executive officer, realizes that there has been no attack on the U.S. when he turns on a radio and hears pop music instead of Civil Defense alerts. When Mandrake reveals this to Ripper, he refuses to recall the wing. Mandrake tries to convince Ripper to give up the three letter code. Ripper refuses and rambles on that the Communists have a plan to “sap and impurify” the “precious bodily fluids” of the American people with fluoridated water, which was indeed a favorite crackpot conspiracy theory of the age. 

Back in the war room, we learn the Soviets have a “Doomsday Device” which will automatically destroy all human and animal life on Earth if a nuclear attack were to hit the Soviet Union. According to the Soviet ambassador, the Doomsday device was made as a low cost alternative to the bomb-race. The President now calls upon Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi and strategy expert cast as a mad scientist. Strangelove explains the principles behind the Doomsday Device and points out that since it was kept secret it has no value as a deterrent.

After attacking the SAC base and killing Ripper, the code recalling the bombers is sent, but Major Kong’s plane is the little B-52 that could and dodges all the Soviet and US efforts to destroy it and reaches its target. Back in the War Room, Dr. Strangelove lays out his crazy mine shaft plan to house the best and the brightest and repopulate the earth, of course with a ratio of “ten females to each male.” Turgidson rants that the Soviets will likely create an even better bunker than the U.S., and argues that America “must not allow a mine shaft gap”. A visibly excited Dr. Strangelove bolts out of his wheelchair, shouting “Mein Führer, I can walk!”.  And then we have the lovely montage of nuclear explosions, accompanied by Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll Meet Again”.

Fail Safe has a very similar plot and came out the same year, but it is not a satire. It’s directed by Sidney Lumet, who is an excellent director with some amazing credits to his name. The Pawnbroker came out a year later, and you have 12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and The Verdict. Like Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe is based on a novel. This one is also called Fail Safe and was written by two political scientists. It stars Henry Fonda as the President of the United States, Walter Mathau as the nuclear war strategist Professor Groeteschele. And yeah, I think that’s meant to sound grotesque. Larry Hagman is the president’s interpreter. There’s some other great character actors – Dan O’Herily, Frank Overton, Fritz Weaver. And you’re not imagining it if you think you see Dom Deluise is in a small role. One of the strange things about Fail Safe is casting comedic actors in serious roles. Mathau, Larry Hagman, and Dom Deluise will make names in comedy, but they’re totally straight men here.

The primary difference in the plot between Strangelove and Fail Safe is that in Fail Safe the nuclear crisis is purely accidental, not the act of a mad general. During a conference hosted by Professor Groteschele a computer error causes a group of bombers to go on alert and receive false orders to nuke Moscow. The president attempts to recall the bombers or shoot them down, but Groeteschele is called on to advise the President. Though the military warns that the Soviets will retaliate with everything they have, Groeteschele insists that the Soviets will surrender when the bombers reach  Moscow. 

Here’s Groeteschele doing his best Dr. Strangelove/Buck Turgidson impression, explaining the value of the first strike.

Again, this is kind of real thinking in places like the Rand Corporation during the 1960s through the 80s.

The president orders U.S. fighters scramble to shoot down the bombers  and when that fails, help the Soviets do it. Divisions within the national security elites on hand are revealed as some, urged on by Groeteschele, want to fight and win a nuclear war as others remain loyal. The president is forced to consider an unthinkable contingency – destroy New York City in exchange for Moscow to avoid all out annihilation. Guess what, that’s what happens. The last moments of the film show images of people in New York going about their daily lives, unaware of the coming disaster, followed by freeze-frames of their faces as the nuclear bomb explodes. Incidentally, his wife was in New York too, so, you know, not as funny as Dr. Strangelove.


Let’s revisit our lies agreed upon and see how each films deals with living under the cloud of nuclear destruction. The first lie concerns MAD – mutually assured destruction. It’s easy for us to look back on that era in 2022 and say, “hey, you know what, that worked.” As absurd as it is on paper, or on screen, MAD functions in a bipolar world with stable nation-states. There’s some alarming evidence of mishaps we know about after the fact – Able Archer in 1983, when the Soviet Union was absolutely convinced this NATO exercise was the prelude to a first strike. We have various radar mishaps, human error on both sides. Things like that. But all in all, the assumption proved sound. 

But in 1964, why would anyone think this was doable? Stanley Kubrick certainly had a dark view of human nature. Every film basically underscores this premise, so his absurdist satire seems like a natural reaction to a planned nuclear standoff. The film doesn’t have to fictionalize everything that could go wrong because it accurately portrays all the scenarios perfectly. I assign my students an article by Eric Schlosser in The New Yorker aptly titled, “Almost Everything in Dr. Strangelove Was True.” Schlosser broke down the science, the policies, the close calls, all that in a book called Command and Control. It really just proves how diligent Kubrick was as a researcher.

I love that the Pentagon was apoplectic about the movie because it was right. The 2013 documentary Command and Control is really worth your while, too. 

And what about Fail Safe? Here it is not a crazy general but a technical malfunction that throws things off, but MAD is still relevant here. In a bizarre way Fail Safe is telling us the system works because these two leaders – Henry Fonda, the most trustworthy man in America – calmly deliberates with an equally rational Soviet premier. Their solution? Sacrifice two cities and move on, do a lessons learned, maybe open up another landline. You know, tinker with MAD.

But what happens in a multipolar world with about a dozen nuclear powers, or whatever it is now? MAD is out the window. These movies are relics of a much more stable era, sadly. Do you feel better with North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, maybe Saudi Arabia in the future, all having the bomb? Can you see leaders on the hotline talking things through if some Pakistani F-16 with a tactical nuke gets too close to Kashmir, or whatever it is? Or, hey, Donald Trump is not Henry Fonda. Similarly, Vladimir Putin isn’t tired, old boring Brezhnev, is he? Dr. Strangelove gets to the human factor in a way Fail Safe never does. Even Dr. Groeteschele is kind of portrayed as a quirky, but reasonable guy.

That brings us to the second lie about civilians and the nuclear age. The hawks are not all wearing uniforms, chomping cigars, riding nuclear missiles like a cowboy at a rodeo. They have advanced degrees in the hard sciences or international relations. They are eggheads with little or no exposure to actual war. Both our films feature civilians playing the most frightening roles, scary because they reflect reality in the 1960s. I think the best way to introduce some of these figures is to map some of the characters in these films, especially Dr. Strangelove, to their real life equivalents.

We’ve established that Stanley Kubrick is a meticulous researcher and he immersed himself in the perverse world of nuclear strategy. Let’s start with General Buck Turgidson. He’s based on Air Force general Curtis Lemay, the cigar chomping hawk who pushed Kennedy to bomb Cuba. You put George C. Scott next to Lemay at that time and they’re indistinguishable.During World War II he trumpeted carpet bombing and applied the same mindset to the nuclear age. And if you want more evidence of just what a swell guy Lemay was, he was George Wallace’s running mate in 1968. 

President Merkin Muffley, played by an egg headed Peter Sellers, is a pretty obvious analog to perennial democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson ran a few times and was certainly a well-respected, intellectual type who had his moment as UN ambassador during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Sellers plays him perfectly as the mild-mannered guy trying to calm down the Soviet premier like a patient wife with an excitable husband. 

Muffley is obviously not a hawk, but you can see how a president can fail to avert disaster even when they’re ostensibly sane and rational.

And what about the man himself, the Dr. Merkwurdiglieb – Strangelove. He’s a composite of several well-known figures. Let’s start with his Nazi background, a clear reference to household names like Wernher von Braun. He built the V-2 and by 1964 was in charge of the space race. Von Braun was the most well-known of the Nazi scientists we brought over through Operation Paperclip, and Strangelove is obviously one of those. Among his proposed inventions was an actual death star, a satellite that could rain nuclear weapons anywhere on the globe. That sounds a lot like Strangelove. 

Brian can vamp on Paperclip and the visibility of German scientists in the US, so Strangeloves were everywhere. Here’s von Braun doing Disney’s Man in Space series, which was the most watched TV show in 1955. Even the Soviet Union requested copies of it. Pay attention to his accent, his bearing, his expertise – its no accident Peter Sellers plays Strangelove in a similar manner.

Another person Strangelove represents is father of the hydrogen bomb, and a Hungarian immigrant, Edward Teller. He first escaped the Nazis and then the Soviets and worked closely with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, but he never thought twice about what they produced. Here’s a clip from a documentary on Teller called “The Real-Life Dr. Strangelove”

Herman Kahn was another figure Kubrick mentioned in connection to the film. He was founder of the Hudson Institute, a kind of right wing think tank, and worked for the Rand Corporation. Kahn casually planned for nuclear war and advocated applying game theory to nuclear strategy. Sindey Lumet modeled Professor Groeteschele on Kahn, so you have both films working off this example. Also, you can throw in Henry Kissinger as an influence since he wrote his dissertation on fighting a nuclear war and certainly fits the bill as a hawk. He’s also German, of course.

Maybe we should hear a little from Strangelove. Here is his first appearance discussing the doomsday device. You can find the real Herman Kahn basically saying the same thing on some longer youtube interviews:

You have to love Turgidson, “I wish we had one of those doomsday machines.” The actual Doomsday device was called Dead Hand and the Soviets completed it in 1985.

Fail Safe has these moments too that shouldn’t be funny, but really are. Professor Groeteschele runs down how many people would die in a 20 megaton blast over New York, but his concern is preserving corporate records. It’s totally serious! 

It’s so eerie. The economy depends on this. Don’t waste time excavating government documents or the dead, save the corporate records. And this isn’t the satire? 

You can see how our films challenge the view that it is always the military pushing for war, being hyper aggressive. Well, what about these civilians? Von Braun, Kahn, Teller, and Kissinger. You can see versions of them in these 1964 films.

We should probably say something about the Soviets in these films. They definitely match their American counterparts. In Dr. Strangelove the Soviet ambassador is just as invested in the stupid Cold War binary thinking as everyone else in the “war room.” Remember that scene when they are minutes from nuclear annihilation and the guy is snapping photos of the “big board” like it means anything? Dimitri is childlike on the phone with Muffley, like they are both not quite up for the reality of it all.

In Fail Safe the Soviet Premier matches the president in his eminent reasonableness about sacrificing his capital city for New York. It’s so clinical and cold. But you also learn the Soviets have their own problems with hawks trying to disrupt the agreed upon limited exchange. That throws some cold water on the idea MAD is effective or these kinds of screw ups can be corrected. If both sides have crazies waiting in the wings, how stable could it be?

I found it really instructive to watch these back to back. One is ostensibly a satire, and is obviously quite funny, and the other is meant to be serious and frightening. I admire Sidney Lumet so much, but Kubrick’s perspective that MAD is best depicted as a dark comedy is the correct choice. 

We’ve spent a lot of time today focusing on, and appreciating, the absurdist humor of Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. But we also want to point out that with the distance of time, it’s quite possibly Fail Safe that seems most absurd and unrealistic to audiences. 

Certainly my students, who watch both movies in the same week, consistently express that they find the high minded, selfless, and resolute politicians of Fail Safe to be totally unrealistic. Perhaps that’s a depressing commentary on today – that students raised in this political era can’t imagine a high-minded or selfless politician. 

As we described, the finale of Fail Safe has total thermonuclear annihilation avoided because the US president and the Soviet premier agree to sacrifice millions in Moscow and New York, including their own friends and families, to set an example. They deny the insane calculus of mutually assured destruction. 

And so even though the last sound is the shriek of cables melting in the blast, Fail Safe is still, oddly, a very optimistic movie. Henry Fonda tells us we can avoid this future. And he and the Russian premier show us that even if we can’t get rid of all of them, limiting nuclear warfare is also possible. 

Let’s play that scene. You’ll hear Larry Hagman’s voice as the translator, speaking the words of the Russian premier and then, near the end, the voice of the American ambassador in Moscow. 

[Clip not available online]

Now that you’ve listened to that, we’d like you to remember the equivalent moment at the end of Strangelove, when despite every effort the bombs still fly. It isn’t a limited war, it’s Doomsday. And it isn’t witnessed by sober, responsible men. Instead, we get Slim Pickens, in a cowboy hat, straddling a nuclear bomb as it heads towards its target, triggering total annihilation. 


So let’s review our lies for today. We just had two. The first was not so much a lie as the problematic nature of MAD. We hate to admit it, but it worked. We’ve managed to get this far without killing everyone on the planet. And yet the general consensus is that it wasn’t so much that it worked, it’s that we all just got really, really lucky. Whether it’s the Cuban Missile Crisis, or Abel Archer, or a dozen other instances the public doesn’t even know about, we’ve spent decades dancing on the edge of the abyss. 

And because these near misses have almost triggered responses that had nothing to do with the reality on the ground, the notion that there could be a strategic, calculated limited nuclear war that didn’t get out of control is just as absurd. So oddly, we concur with our students: in many ways, Fail Safe is the more absurd plot. 

And the second lie is that it’s always the military who are trigger happy. Sure, you’ve got the Curtis Lemays of the world. But in actual fact, whether it’s Groeteschele or Strangelove, Herman Kahn or Edward Teller, civilian experts have often been the ones most willing to flirt with disaster. As we see in both movies, there ARE military hawks. But the reality is that it was, and is, the advisors, the fellows at all the think tanks, the smooth talkers with access to the politicians and the ability to sound eminently reasonable, who pose the greatest danger. 

We have links to a lot of interesting stuff on our website for this week’s episode. Make sure you check that out. And we look forward to the rest of the episodes in this season, so we hope you’ll join us. 

Episode 2: Who Can You Trust?


Welcome to Season 3 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast about Hollywood and history.

I’m Lia Paradis.  

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Lia, try this thought experiment on for size. I know it’s hard, but can you imagine living in a society that is ostensibly a democracy but secret forces are working behind the scenes to manipulate events? What if, and hear me out, our intelligence agencies are off the hook and basically do what they like with little or no oversight? What if the president is a criminal and would do anything to stay in power? What if politicians are assasinated not by lone, crazed gunmen but by political enemies or corporate interests? It’s really hard to fathom, right???

I detect a bit of sarcasm, and rightfully so! Anyone living in America the last few decades will basically accept this scenario as a matter of course. What else is new? But there was a time when revelations of government misdeeds, and horror of horrors, a dishonest president was deeply disturbing. By the early 1970s I think most Americans were pretty cynical and conditioned to believe we’d been lied to about Vietnam. We explored the legacy of the war in another episode, but Watergate and stunning exposes into CIA misdeeds since the beginning of the Cold War took things to a whole new level. And, like we’ve done all season – Hollywood took notice and reflected this anxiety and outrage in a bunch of political thrillers.

That’s definitely true, and I love this era of Hollywood in general, but I’m drawn to the films we’re talking about today. We had a lot to choose from, but we decided on, in chronological order,  The Parallax View, directed by Alan J. Pakula, Three Days of the Condor, directed by Sydney Pollack (who also directed Redford in The Way We Were), and finally, the classic docudrama very much based on real events, All the Presidents Men, also directed by Pakula. These films were all released between 1974 and 1976 and it is clear our two directors are capitalizing on the zeitgeist, and that includes leaving audiences without much hope in the end. Our nice white guy protagonists, if they survive, or win Pulitzers, probably can’t change anything. How very 1970s.

The films take direct aim at our institutions and find them wanting, or more accurately, the entire infrastructure of society – corporations, presidents, the CIA, you name it. And it goes back to the unfettered growth of executive power and the national security state going back to where we started the season – Containment, the National Security Act of 1947, NSC-68. Everything we built to fight the Cold War went off and did its own thing. This expansive Cold War bureaucracy serves itself.

We’ve been talking about certain foundational documents or spectacles like you just mentioned, and the ones that matter most for this batch of films include the Watergate Hearings and the so-called Church committee, named for Senator Frank Church, Democrat from Idaho. It was formerly known as the United States Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities. 1975 was called the “Year of Intelligence” because this committee along with the Pike  Committee in the House and the Rockefeller Commission unearthed decades of abuse by the CIA, FBI, NSA, and the IRS. These public hearings are why we have the permanent select committees in Congress today.

So, how do we characterize lies agreed upon about films that are themselves about lies and liars working in the shadows? Are the lies what our filmmakers expose, or do these mostly fictional plots contribute to a false consciousness? It’s a little of both. 

Our first lie agreed upon is exactly what you just said, the Cold War Leviathan has undermined our democracy, essentially turning politics into a shadow play in which the winners and losers are predetermined. These three films make it seem like you shouldn’t even bother trying. 

The second lie applies to each film, but especially The Parallax View and All The Presidents Men. That’s the power of journalism, something we covered in our first season. Intrepid journalists can break through the matrix so to speak and see the inner workings of the big lies, the deception. Can they though? And, at least in today’s environment, how do you tell the difference between a journalist and a political operative?

Before we tackle the lies, let’s do some recaps of some films you probably saw way back when, but you could use a refresher.

Alan Pakula’s 1974 film The Parallax View is based on the novel by Loren Singer and stars Warren Beatty as journalist Joe Frady and a bunch of great character actors you might recognize, including Paula Prentiss. She did Where The Boys Are and Catch 22; William Daniels, whom we had the pleasure of discussing last season as John Adams in 1776; and Hume Cronyn, who was already a pretty old actor with a ton of credits before this. He was married to Jessica Tandy and starred with her in Cocoon, if you remember. But, this is a Warren Beatty vehicle, teamed up with a great director, which has always been his key to success. We know he’s a pretty good director himself. Alan Pakula directed To Kill A Mockingbird in 1962 and went on to two more classics,  All The Presidents Men in 1976 and Sophie’s Choice in 1982. He won best adapted screenplay for that. 

The story begins with a memorable assassination scene atop the Space Needle in Seattle. TV journalist Lee Carter witnesses presidential candidate Charles Carrol gunned down by a waiter who then falls to his death. A second waiter leaves the scene unnoticed.  A committee (I assume Congress) decides the killing was the work of a lone assassin. Three years later, Carter visits her ex-boyfriend, a kind of rakish small time Oregon newspaper reporter named Joe Frady. She claims others must have been behind the Carrol assassination because six of the witnesses to the killing died and she fears she will be next. Frady does not take her seriously, however, Carter is soon found dead of a drug overdose. 

Guilty about Lee’s death, Joe pursues the investigation and discovers a connection to the mysterious Parallax Corporation. Lots of good journalistic detective work here, but suffice to say, Joe learns they recruit and train assassins. Joe tries to convince his skeptical newspaper editor Bill Rintels he is on to a big story, connecting the dots of witnesses of assassinations who have died, but Rintels refuses to support him. Bill winds up dead, too. Frady seeks out a local psychology professor who assesses the Parallax Corporation’s personality test and says it is a profiling exam to identify psychopaths.

Of course, Joe takes the test and gets himself recruited by Parallax. The scene where he watches a montage of images to determine if he’d be a good killer gives Clockwork Orange a run for its money. Its really well done. It’s very visual of course, but listen to the eerie instructions given to Joe. It’s very Hal 2001.

Yes, who wouldn’t want to work for “The Parallax Division of Human Engineering”? It has a nice ring to it. What follows – accompanied by the saccarine music you heard, is a very disturbing montage of sex, violence, weird patriotic imagery, etc . . . 

Joe is undercover now, pretending he’s been successfully trained/brainwashed as an assassin. But really, he tries to stop the assasination of a senator, but he gets scapegoated as the real killer. Joe is shot by Parallax agents pretending to be secret service. This is how they cover their tracks – the Parallax assassins kill the man about to expose the whole thing. The film comes full circle as the same  committee that began the film meets and names Joe as yet another lone gunmen motivated by leftist politics.

Not to be outdone in the paranoia department, or dashing leading men of the 70s for that matter, is Syndey Pollack’s 1975 film Three Days of the Condor, based on the James Grady novel Six Days of the Condor. It’s a brilliant and absorbing political thriller set in New York and Washington DC about a CIA analyst whose entire section is murdered to cover up a nefarious plot. Pollack pairs up with his muse, Robert Redford. These two worked on seven movies together. The Way We Were, Out of Africa, and All the President’s Men, for example. The film also stars Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson, and Max von Sydow. 

Joe Turner is a bookish CIA analyst, code named “Condor”. He works at the American Literary Historical Society in New York City, which is actually a clandestine CIA office that examines books, newspapers, and magazines from around the world. Turner files a report to CIA headquarters on a thriller novel with strange plot elements. One day he leaves through a back door to get lunch. Armed men led by the menacing Max von Sydow enter the office and murder the other six staffers. Turner returns to find his coworkers dead; frightened, he grabs a gun and suddenly becomes a field agent with no one to trust.

Turner reaches out to his superiors and begins to suspect there is a CIA within the CIA that has all the real power. After another attempt on his life, Turner forces Kathy Hale (Faye Dunaway), a random beautiful bystander, to hide him from the rogue agents. He gets her to trust him and together they figure out more layers of the conspiracy, which involves a plan for the CIA to seize oil fields around the world. Turner’s report about the novel inadvertently shed light on the plan, so the whole unit had to go.

In this clip Turner confronts the CIA officer who thought up the oil plan.

For us today, we kind of have to chuckle at his naivete. Really? You think we don’t do that sort of thing every day? The Church committee featured far worse plots than this fictional one.

Eventually, Turner reluctantly sends Kathy away for her own safety, realizing he has to go it alone, and it probably won’t end well. The film ends with Robert Redford standing outside the New York Times building, meeting Cliff Robertson. He tells Robertson he’s given the story to the New York Times, so there’s no point in trying to silence him. Let’s listen to that exchange. 

We’re left at the end of the movie not knowing if Redford will live or die. But also not knowing if any of his efforts will end up being worth it. 

Our final film is very well known – All the President’s Men, also directed by Alan Pakula in 1976 and based on the 1974 book by the same name by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. What differentiates this film from the others is the fact it is non-fiction, but that doesn’t make the story any less disturbing to viewers who just two years earlier watched the Watergate hearings on primetime television. As we’ve mentioned in another season’s podcast, a film like All the President’s Men set the standard for portrayals of heroic journalism.

So, who’s in this amazing cast? Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffmann as Bernstein. We have Jason Robards as legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat, who we now know is FBI associate director Mark Felt. The film won a few Oscars, including Robards for best supporting actor, and some technical awards. But the film’s legacy only grew in stature over time, precisely because it captured this historic moment so well. In 2010, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

The plot is essentially what happened after June 17, 1972 when five burglars were arrested breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The next morning, The Washington Post assigns new reporter Bob Woodward to the local courthouse to cover the story, which is considered of minor importance.

Woodward learns that the five men, four of whom are Cuban-Americans from Miami, possessed electronic bugging equipment and are represented by a high-priced “country club” attorney. At the arraignment, James McCord identifies himself in court as having recently left the CIA, and the others are also revealed to have CIA ties. Woodward connects the burglars to Howard Hunt, an employee of Nixon’s White House counsel Charles Colson, another former CIA employee.

Then its off to the races when Carl Bernstein is assigned to help Woodward and the duo unfold layer after layer of connections to the Nixon White House, principally through the aptly named CREEP – Committee to Re-Elect the President.

Deep Throat reveals that White House of Chief of Staff HR Haldeman masterminded the Watergate break-in and cover-up. 

Here’s Deep Throat outlining the depth of the conspiracy to Woodward. 

You could easily put a scene like this in The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor and it would not be out of place. 

The film ends with the publication of the full story on January 20, 1973 and a montage of real footage of what follows, all the way to the inauguration of Gerald Ford 18 months later.


So, let’s revisit our lies agreed upon and dig a little deeper into this incredibly important timeframe basically encompassing Nixon’s truncated second term between 1972 and 1976. Remember, these three political thrillers were released between 1974 and 76.

The first lie is about the national security establishment as the all-knowing, all-seeing monstrosity pulling the strings behind the scenes of our democracy. Did we create this Frankenstein’s monster? Is it really so formidable? Yes and no. 

The second lie is about journalism slicing through the bullshit and exposing the Leviathan for the outraged public to see. Did journalists perform heroically in the 1970s, or should we be as cynical as Cliff Robertson to Robert Redford at the end of Three Days of the Condor? Yes and no.

Unsurprisingly, these lies are interconnected because we only learn about the abuses of power from these agencies through journalists. Seymour Hersh, Woodward and Bernstein, Ben Bradlee’s Washington Post a few years earlier than that with the Pentagon Papers. It takes whistle blowers and brave journalists, and since 9/11 I think its increasingly harder to find both. And the ones we get aren’t exactly model citizens – think Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and hell, throw in Glenn Greenwald. Not movie star idols to most of us.

Let’s go back a little and get some context on the two media events that clearly inspired our three films – The Watergate hearings and The Church committee hearings – both primetime events like the January 6 committee hearings airing right now as I write this. The media landscape is vastly different now and people can and will tune out of hearings, but not so in the 1970s. 

I’d like to play a clip of the CIA director Richard Helms, one of the most deep statey kind of guys you could imagine, performing for the committee. Here he’s being questioned by Senator Fred Thompson, who we all know as an actor from Law and Order and a bunch of movies, but who previously had a career as a lawyer, most notably for the Watergate committee. He’s a republican, and one of the things worth noting in both sets of hearings is just how bipartisan they are.

Here Helms is grandstanding and sneering his way through Fred Thompson’s very appropriate questions about CIA links o the break-in

He’s a slippery one, and that’s why Helms enjoys the reputation he has today of being one of the more free-wheeling, cowboy CIA directors the agency ever had. The culture changed dramatically after he left.

When you listen to Richard Helms it doesn’t seem like such a stretch to imagine men like him dreaming up the oilfield operation in Three Days of the Condor, or, as would be the case with Nixon, placing loyalty to the executive branch over the actual mission of intelligence. We can be shocked by the violent beginning of Condor, Max von Sydow skulking around with his dead blue eyes killing names off a list, but the general tone of the film is actually very believable for the mid-1970s. 

What about the other hearings, the Church Committee and the others that helped make 1975 “The Year of Intelligence?” Here’ a clip from CSPAN commemorating the 40th anniversary of the hearings. The guests are two former counsels assigned to the committee, Frederick Schwartz and Eliot Maxwell. They give some good perspective evaluating the legacy of the committee:

Let’s think about that last statement from Frederick Schwartz because it’s remarkable. Every president involved in the national security establishment, from FDR to Nixon, abused their power. That’s not surprising, but it does explain the bipartisan nature of the committees, something we probably will never experience again. I have to say the January 6 committee might be an exception. I hope it lasts, but seeing someone like Fred Thompson or John Tower lay into Nixon appointees like this is one part of the 70s I’d like to get back. 

The Church committee really just exposed what had gone on for 35 years at that point, giving credibility to the lie agreed upon that this architecture we created to fight World War II and more s0 the Cold War serve themselves, and simultaneously work for a particular president or against one. The point is, there is no oversight, which fuels the paranoia we see on screen in each film. 

In The Parallax View we never really know the identity of the Parallax Corporation. It could be a CIA front, it could just be powerful private corporate interests, or maybe even a foreign government. Who knows? The point is you never will, and someone like Warren Beatty, as wily and resourceful as he is is no match for the octopus-like deep state. We dont even know why they want these politicians dead. The committees declaring each assasination acts of lone gunmen likely reference the Warren Commission and its ongoing work about the Kennedy assasination.

In Three Days of the Condor the CIA is involved, but an even more secret CIA. One of tropes of the 70s thrillers is that our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have grown so large they can’t even police themselves if they wanted to. Think about more contemporary thrillers like the Bourne films. There is always some rogue outfit the legitimate CIA isn’t aware of. 

And in All the President’s Men we have a more accurate portrayal of the deep state Leviathan. They can be very keystone cops, stupid, bumbling, and reckless. Maybe they are good at the cover up, but screw up the real operation. What Watergate showed was just how entitled these guys can be, and overconfident. Richard Helms wasn’t bothered by the break in, just that these amateurs could have ever been trained by him. Watergate was the lawlessness on full display. Is it better to have an incompentent intelligence community or a corrupt one that actually pulls the strings? My experience tells me its incompetence.

While researching the subgenre of the paranoid thriller, I came across this really interesting video essay about The Parallax View from a director named Karyn Kasuma. She has a ton of credits, including the pilot for Yellowjackets, the film Destroyer with Nicole Kidman, and she’s directed episodes of The Man in the High Castle and Billions. I think its worthwhile hearing from an actual artist to better understand why a film like The Parallax View leaves us so chilled. 

I really get the part about a film being brave enough to show “a hopeless vision of America”, and as she says, that’s why it still resonates with us. 

The second lie about heroic journalism, or the limits of what it can do to actually provide some accountability. The Parallax View is pretty clear about the impossibility of unraveling conspiracies, killing off a TV journalist first and then Warren Beatty. Something tells me the Parallax Corporation isn’t sweating reporters getting anywhere close to them, and most wouldn’t even know where to begin.

And what do we have to say about All the President’s Men? They really are heroic journalists, we know that, inspiring generations of others to reassert the power of journalism to provide oversight when others fail to do so. We talked about the good, the bad, and the ugly of journalism after 9/11 in our first season. The bottom line is we shouldn’t have to rely on reporters to oversee our sprawling nationals security state. The problem is they seem to be the only ones who seriously try.


I think we are so jaded by the last decade or so of  US politics and executive overreach we look back on something like Watergate and go, Aww, how quaint . . . We easily forget just how earth shattering events like Watergate and the revelations from the Year of Intelligence committees were for complacent Americans, even after Vietnam. These films are great time capsules in addition to being just great films. So, I really want to recommend each of them, especially The Parallax View because I think its lesser know than the other two.

Episode 1: He May Be A Communist!


Welcome to Lies Agreed Upon. I’m Lia Paradis. 

And I’m Brian Crim. It’s so great to finally be back for season 3! We’ve been very gratified to hear from listeners that they’ve missed us. And we’re very excited to be a partner on the New Books Network now. We hope that this platform will introduce our conversations about history and film to a whole new bunch of listeners. 

It is great to be back, Brian. And I’m really looking forward to what we have planned. This season, we’re going to turn our established format on its head. Instead of looking at “How Hollywood uses history to talk about today” as you’ve heard us say at the beginning of every episode so far, we’re going to start with a historical era as our organizing principle – specifically, the Cold War – and look at how the anxieties, preoccupations, prejudices and hopes of people on both sides of the Iron Curtain were represented in films over those 40+ years. We’re going to be talking about films you would expect us to include, like Dr. Strangelove, Red Dawn, and From Russia with Love, and ones that are a bit unexpected, like the first film we’ll talk about today – Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Yes, we were going to do a season on WWII, weren’t we? And then Russia invaded Ukraine and we thought, you know, maybe what we need to do is take a look at the Cold War. After all, I think everyone over the age of 50 was immediately triggered when the invasion happened – reminded of growing up in a world where we kinda assumed we weren’t going to live to a ripe old age because thermonuclear annihilation was inevitable. And, as the West pours munitions into Ukraine, we are reminded of the way proxy wars kept the Cold War hot for millions of people around the world and at the time that seemed totally normal. We might not have a bi-polar world order anymore. But Russia’s actions have definitely reminded us of an era where it seemed everyone had to take sides, whether they wanted to or not. 

So why don’t we get started with a reminder of how paranoid we all were that there were Commies everywhere and that, unlike the enemies in traditional wars, it wasn’t always easy to know who they were. A paranoid America had locked up the Japanese during WWII, but in the Cold War, you couldn’t just look around, spot the communists, and lock them up. 

In fact, people made their careers on the fact that the enemy could be anywhere. Most notably, of course, Senator Joseph McCarthy. And we’re going to talk about him. But it’s important to note that the Red Scare didn’t just start with him. And it wasn’t just something pushed by the Republicans. The Democrats were very much on board with treating average Americans as traitors for doing things that were protected rights under the Constitution. Anything in the name of national security.

So today we’re going to look at 3 different approaches to that shameful period in American history – the roughly 10 years after the end of WWII, when anti-Communist hysteria was at a fever pitch. Our first film is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), the second is The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and the third is The Way We Were (1973).

Ok, so what are the lies agreed upon we’re going to be looking at? 

Well, first is the lie that Senator McCarthy and the brief moment of his ascendancy was the full extent of the Red Scare (after all, isn’t it right there in the name – MacCarthyism?) and that it was a uniquely Republican sin. In actual fact, both parties, and the general public, were paranoid about enemies hiding in plain sight, for decades.

The second lie is that Vietnam was the first time that the American military was blamed for failing to achieve a total victory. As we’ll discuss, the fact that the Korean War ended without a clear victory brought accusations that GIs were soft and unpatriotic, and maybe, even, in service of the enemy. 

And finally, the third lie doesn’t have a lot to do with the Cold War. It has to do with our current circumstances. The lie is that progress is inevitable, that we are always on a path towards improvement, advancement, an expansion of rights, and a greater equality among people. Recording this as our rights as Americans are being taken away, we can’t help but be struck by how some of the female characters seem to live in a more feminist world than we do. 

So, to get started, let’s listen to a short public service film from 1950 called He May be a Communist! 

It was so confusing! Just a few years earlier, the public was being warned about fascists, not communists. In Don’t be a Sucker, it was the demagogue, stoking fear and promising the world to gullible chumps, that people were being warned about. 

But by the time Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1947 setting up a program to check the loyalty of federal employees, the House Un-American Activities Committee had already been looking for subversives for years. When Truman stated that government workers should have “complete and unswerving loyalty” the United States or else they were “a threat to our democratic processes,” tens of thousands of people became subject to invasive examinations of their authenticity as loyal Americans. Lists of  “totalitarian, fascist, communist, or subversive” organizations were created, the FBI investigated, and people were summarily fired if there was even a question.

Communists weren’t humans anymore. They were aliens, alien to American values and the messy, emotional wants and needs of a free market democracy. And this brings us to our first film – Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In fact, there is an entire sub-genre of sci-fi movies that can be read as commentaries on aspects of the Cold War. Later in this season, we’re going to be talking about the fear of nuclear war. And a whole series of movies, from Godzilla to The Amazing Colossal Man, harnessed viewers anxieties about the atomic bomb and then made that fear manageable by containing it in a 2 hour movie about a giant lizard, or a giant man. (For some reason, there seemed to be a general agreement in the 1950s that radiation made things bigger. Not quite sure why.) 

But back to Body Snatchers. Originally a serialized story in Colliers Magazine, by Jack Finney, it was published as a novel in 1954. The film was criticized in reviews for being unoriginal, which might have been partly because a film with a similar premise was released a year earlier. It Came from Outer Space, with a script by Ray Bradbury, told the story of aliens capable of replicating human appearance but not their personalities. 

But in that film the aliens came in peace, and left as soon as they could. In Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the alien incursion is decidedly more sinister – seed pods, sent to earth by aliens intent on domination. The movie was directed by Don Siegal, who went on to direct Clint Eastwood in 5 movies, including Dirty Harry. He also directed Escape from Alcatraz and another great COld War paranoia film we wanted to talk about  – Telefon – but it unfortunately isn’t available. 

So the movie opens with our hero, Dr. Miles Bennell, played by Kevin McCarthy, acting like a crazy person in a hospital ER, telling doctors they’ve got to believe him. The movie then flashbacks as Miles tells his story. Just a couple of days earlier, he had returned to Santa Mira, California, from a trip. Right away, a number of his patients, including an old girlfriend, Becky Driscoll, come to him complaining that their family members aren’t acting like themselves. He mentions this to his friend, a psychiatrist, who assures him it’s simply a case of mass hysteria. (There’s actually a name for this kind of psychosis – Capgras Syndrome.)

But that evening, he and Becky are called over to another friend’s house and shown a body, without any facial features, found in the basement. Very quickly, it starts to take on the physical appearance of Miles and Becky’s friend. Then another body is found in Becky’s home, looking just like her. But before they can show these replicas to anyone, the bodies disappear. 

By the next night, joined by two other friends who are also freaking out, they find replicant bodies again. They figure out that the replicas emerge when the original person is sleeping. When Miles tries to get the operator to contact the authorities to alert them, she refuses and he realizes most of the townsfolk have already been taken over. 

After a sleepless night in hiding, he and Becky are confronted by the pod versions of their former friends, including the psychiatrist. It’s revealed that the seed pods have been brought to earth by aliens. The pods are designed to replicate any life form but without any emotion or personality. Let’s listen to this explanation and the supposed benefits that the pod people extoll to Miles and Becky. 

They try to escape by acting as emotionless and personality-less as they can, but Becky cries out when she sees a dog almost get hit by a car. Her humanity is exposed – I mean, we all know being a dog-lover must be a clear sign of non-pod people behavior – and the townsfolk come after them, forcing them to hide in an abandoned mine outside town. From their vantage point, they see a giant greenhouse, filled with pods, being cared for by the pod people.

The next morning, Miles discovers that despite her best efforts, Becky fell asleep. And she’s been replaced. She alerts the others and Miles runs. On the side of a busy highway, he sees trucks going by filled with pods. He tries to stop traffic, yelling “You’re next! You’re next!” 

We find ourselves back in the hospital where the movie began and the doctors aren’t convinced by Miles’ story. They’re sure he’s psychotic. That is until the victim of a truck crash is brought in, apparently found under a pile of giant mysterious pods he’d been transporting! Finally believing him, the doctors call the FBI, who block off the roads to Santa Mira. And that’s where the movie ends. 

So, what do we make of this? Well, in 1956, the pod people could have been interpreted in 2 different ways – either as communists, or as the conformist society of 1950s America. Is Miles warning us that containment – the policy of limiting the expansion of Communist controlled nations – is insufficient? To use their metaphor, the loads of seed pods have already managed to get out. The FBI were too late to stop all of them. 

China had become a communist nation in 1949. But it wasn’t until the end of the Korean War in 1953, that the West fully grasped and accepted that now both the USSR and China were in control of huge portions of the globe and huge numbers of its people. Korea had ended in a stalemate, and anti-colonial movements in Africa and Asia were adopting socialist political platforms as they agitated for an end to imperial exploitation. 

But it’s also possible to see the pod people as the stifling conformity of mainstream white American society during the same period. This was the era of the first suburban subdivisions, like Levittown, where, famously, the houses looked so similar that husbands were known to accidentally pull into the wrong driveway at the end of their day at work. With victory in WWII, and the emergence of the US as THE other pole in the bi-polar world order of the Cold War era, American culture was fundamentally self-congratulatory in this period. 

Even Adlai Stevenson, who was a critic of the extreme anti-communist tactics of the era, campaigned for president in 1952 with the slogan, “You never had it so good!” The US had won and was powerful because they were right about democracy and capitalism and consumerism and everything. And the proof that they were right was than they had won and were powerful. It was a syllogism that left no room for dissension or divergence. American society had so obviously gotten it right that if you weren’t happy, well then, there had to be something wrong with you. 

We don’t want to overstate this conformist society. Obviously, there are always outsiders and outliers. And the folk scene of late 50s and 60s was one of the places where dissatisfaction could still be heard. Malvina Reynolds wrote the folk classic, Little Boxes, in 1962, pushing against consumerism and conformity. 

So was Body Snatchers asking the question: If we smooth out all the rough edges, and quash all the imagination and individualism in America, then wouldn’t our safety also be our downfall? 

The year Reynolds wrote Little Boxes is also the year our second film was released. It’s only a little less far-fetched than Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Interestingly, though, The Manchurian Candidate reflected a very real obsession that 1950s Americans had about brainwashing. Not metaphorically speaking, in terms of propaganda or the pressures of a conformist society. Real brainwashing. 

Based on the 1959 novel by Richard Condon, the film was released in 1962. It was adapted for the screen by George Axelrod, who also wrote The Seven Year Itch and the screen adaptation of Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. So an odd assortment of subject matter. It is arguably the greatest of John Frankenheimer’s directorial efforts, who also directed such films as The Birdman of Alcatraz and Seven Days in May. And both men produced the film. 

In some ways the plot is simple. In other ways, it’s very convoluted. And critics at the time tended to agree with both of those characterizations. Major Bennett Marco (played brilliantly by Frank Sinatra) finds out that he and another soldier in the platoon he’d led in Korea have been having the same inexplicable nightmare: they are with their platoon members waiting out a storm at a women’s gardening club meeting. The audience of the meeting, elderly ladies in hats and gloves, keeps switching into an audience of uniformed Chinese and Russian military officers. Another soldier, Sargeant Raymond Shaw (played by Lawrence Harvey) is told by one of the garden club ladies to kill members of the platoon and he calmly does so in front of everyone. 

When Marco and the other nightmare sufferer identify the same Soviet and Chinese operatives from their dreams, the US military starts to investigate. Shaw, along with the rest of the platoon, were brainwashed after being captured while on maneuvers. But Shaw was the real target. He was brainwashed into being a secret assassin, totally unaware of his programming and therefore without fear or remorse. Shaw, now a war hero for supposedly saving his platoon on the very mission where they were captured, can be triggered by the suggestion that he ‘play a game of solitaire to pass the time,’ and then by the visual cue of the queen of diamonds. 

The reason Shaw was chosen, it seems, was because his step-father is a conservative senator. And the master plan is for Senator Iselin to become the Vice Presidential candidate. Iselin is such an idiot that this is only possible because of the conniving of his brilliant wife, Shaw’s mother, played gloriously by Angela Lansbury (who, by the way, was only 3 years older than Harvey, playing her son in the movie). 

Marco comes to realize that Shaw is programmed to kill the presidential candidate at the party convention, so that Iselin can step into his shoes. And here’s where Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare come into it. 

Iselin, in the Manchurian Candidate, is a McCarthyesque character, played for laughs. He’s a buffoon, coached by his ambitious wife into being an effective demagogue. But what makes him ridiculous, in the eyes of a 1962 moviegoing audience, is precisely what struck terror into the hearts of thousands of Americans when Senator Joseph McCarthy did it, a decade earlier. 

Here, we have Senator Iselin speaking to reporters, and then to his wife, and what our listeners need to know is that, near the end of this scene, she spots a bottle of Heinz on the table. 

By 1962, what was truly scary wasn’t the hard-to-identify enemies within the state, it was that the Soviet Union and China were both communist, and allies, and that America seemed to have gotten soft and affluent, and wasn’t capable of defending itself. In fact, after the Korean War ended in a stalemate, there was substantial blowback, which few people remember, against US veterans of that war. And there was an obsession with the idea that POWs had been brainwashed and, therefore, didn’t really try to win. 

Susan Carruthers writes about how the “Fear of brainwashing by the media [at home during the 50s] was…conjoined by apprehension that the communists had decoded the arcane workings of the mind–a development likened by some (with varying degrees of literalism) to the splitting of the atom. Having cracked the brain’s codes, Reds were now believed capable of remodelling humans at will. Frankenheimer’s yoking together of these anxieties was thus reflective of 1950s American Cold War culture. First coined with reference to ‘re-educational’ practices in Red China (by journalist/CIA operative Edward Hunter in 1950), the term brainwashing quickly entered the popular lexicon, but had its most frightening usage

in the context of Korea [ 34]. Stories that America’s 3000 or so POWs–who had survived forced marches and ill-treatment–were being exposed to mysterious, ‘Oriental’ techniques, ‘exaggerated the latent feeling in the common man that he was being “got at” by all sorts of wicked manipulators from the writers of advertisements to the heads of large business enterprises and the teachers in preparatory or public schools’, wrote J.A.C. Brown in his pioneering study of propaganda.”

So in 1956, McCarthy had been removed from power and died of alcoholism soon after. But the mechanisms of the Red Scare were still in place for a few more years. Consequently, the critique of McCarthyism in 1956’s Body Snatchers, was veiled. The pod people forced conformity. Non-conformism meant the death of self. OR, if you want to take the other interpretation: 50s conformist society was being critiqued. 

But by 1962, The Manchurian Candidate was ridiculing McCarthy era paranoia but putting another fear in its place. Russian and China were in it for the long con. And their moles within the US weren’t average people who had simply taken out a Daily Worker subscription in 1932 and got caught up in the Red Scare. They were skilled professionals, backed by cutting edge science and highly trained military operatives. 

The real threat was the manipulation of people’s minds. The plot of Condon’s novel was a surprisingly accurate representation of what American intelligence believed was actually going on. And if the West was defined as valuing self-determination in contrast to the totalitarian Soviet Union and China, then what if Westerners could be robbed of that agency through brainwashing? Of course, in true Cold War logic, the US government decided it needed to figure out how to brainwash people too. 

And the experimental methods would be tried out on American and Canadian subjects, through a secret program called MK Ultra. Here’s clip from a 1984 episode of the Canadian investigative show, Fifth Estate (the equivalent of 60 Minutes), detailing revelations about the secret CIA program carried out not only in the US but also in a medical facility attached to McGill University in Montreal. 


So those reviewers who complained at the time that the film’s premise was simply too convoluted and unrealistic to be the foundation of a classic thriller were, in hindsight, naive, I guess. 

By the way, we’ve given a fairly skimpy plot summary for The Manchurian Candidate, focusing only on what was needed for our discussion. For those of you who’ve seen the movie, you’ll understand why. First of all, it’s a very convoluted film that is hard to capture in a brief synopsis, so why try? But also, the various twists and turns are so much fun to unravel that we don’t want to spoil that experience for anyone who’s coming to it for the first time. 


Instead, we’ll turn to our last movie, The Way We Were. For many listeners, particularly those who grew up in the pre-streaming era, this is a movie it was hard to avoid. It was constantly on rotation as the late-night or matinee flick on local tv stations or the lower budget cable outlets. It’s usually treated as a classic love story. It stars a gorgeous Robert Redford, from the Butch and Sundance era. And Barbara Streisand, at the height of her box office power. But if you look again, it’s actually a very strange film. Even reviewers at the time commented on how class, ethnic identity and politics were the unusual plot components underpinning the doomed love affair of our main characters. 

It was directed by Sydney Pollack, one of the great 1970s directors, the writing credit goes to Arthur Laurents (who, among other things, wrote the book for West Side Story). But there’s a huge list of uncredited writers, including Francis Ford Coppola and – ironically, given that part of the plot centers on the Hollywood blacklist – Dalton Trumbo. I have to say I was shocked when I saw the long list of writers because the movie has always felt very coherent to me, which is a tall order given that it spans multiple decades and locations. 

In any event, in addition to Redford, playing the WASPy and entitled Hubbell Gardiner, and Streisand, playing the working class Jewish Katie Morosky, we also get Bradford Dillman as Hubbell’s best friend, JJ, and Lois Chiles as JJ’s love interest. The cast also includes a very young James Woods, Viveca Lindfors, Patrick O’Neil, the great character actor Herb Edelman, and many other familiar faces of that era. 

The story opens in the late 1930s on the campus of an elite liberal arts college, where scholarship student Katie works multiple jobs, campaigns on behalf of socialist causes, including against Franco’s regime in Spain, and dreams of being a writer. Hubbell is the Big Man on campus and is also, annoyingly, a gifted writer. The two characters connect but are in such different worlds that it amounts to nothing more than a brief but lively conversation about politics, and a dance.

Years later, near the end of WWII, Katie and Hubbell cross paths again. By this time, Katie is working as a writer for a radio station in New York City, where she continues to push the envelope with the censors over political content. Dragged to a club one night, she encounters a very drunk Hubbell. She takes him home. He doesn’t remember anything in the morning, but they soon start a relationship that continues after the war. 

They move out to Hollywood, where Hubbell is hired as a screenwriter on the strength of his one published but unsuccessful novel. But they become embroiled in the Hollywood blacklist era with Katie pushing to defend those who’ve been blacklisted and pushing Hubbell to take more of a principled stand. 

Trying to rescue their marriage, they have a baby. But Hubbell has been unfaithful, and Katie has alienated all the producers who could have hired her as a writer. The marriage ends, with Katie returning to New York and Hubbell staying in Hollywood. 

The final scene of the movie jumps forward another few years. Katie ishanding out Ban the Bomb leaflets outside the Plaza Hotel when Hubbell gets out of a cab. They have a tender reunion where we find out that Katie has remarried. Her psychiatrist husband, who is also Jewish, is raising Hubbell’s daughter. Hubbell has continued in Hollywood and stuck with women who weren’t his equal and who didn’t challenge him to be more than what was comfortable – Katie meets his latest ‘girl’. As viewers, we’re left with the message that that it couldn’t have turned out any other way. 

But if we step back, as a reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter did way back in 1973, the movie is quite subversive. Hubbell is not an admirable character and Katie is given far more screen time to articulate the importance of politics, and morals, and the need to take a principled stand, than Hubbell’s screenwriting career is given. 

The politics are explicit and every one of Katie’s critiques of her country – from the refusal to get involved in Spain, to the limitations of Roosevelt’s social policies, to the Hollywood blacklist era, to the military industrial complex driving the nuclear arms race – is portrayed as the correct position to have taken. And that to have had that much passion, to be that much of a non-conformist, has provided Katie with a much richer version of an American life than the conformist WASP crowd have. All of Hubbell’s people, like JJ, are wistful, regretful, and ultimately painfully mediocre. 

With the hindsight possible in 1973, the Cold War is seen as a long haul, a struggle that has resulted in both domestic and foreign casualties. Katie’s passion can’t help but bring to mind the anti-Vietnam War demonstrators, and Second Wave feminism. The Hollywood 10 plotline can’t help but be a contemporary critique of the overreach of Hoover’s FBI, and Nixon’s paranoia.


So let’s revisit our lies for this episode. The first and the second are tied together – in the focus on McCarthy as the nexus of the Red Scare, which really lets a lot of other people off the hook, from craven Hollywood executives, to Roosevelt, Truman, and many Democratic enablers. And, of course, average Americans who just don’t think it matters much because it’s not going to affect them. 

If we track the attitude towards the worst excesses of the early Cold War, then, we can see that the monster communists, undetectable and without regard for human emotion – a la Body Snatchers – were replaced a decade later with the nightmare of American weak-willed decadence being manipulated by wily and scientifically advanced Chinese and Soviet cooperation – in the Manchurian Candidate. 

And so it doesn’t end with McCarthy’s downfall, it limps along for the rest of the decade, and then finds a resurgence, in a way, in Nixon’s paranoia-fueled enemies list. 

And that’s the America that watched The Way We Were. It was released just after it was announced that a peace agreement had finally been reached in Vietnam. This was 2 years after the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which exposed just how long the US had pursued a losing strategy in a lost war. And a film in which the complacent Hubbell just shrugs at Katie’s insistence that people are their principles, was released 4 days before the Saturday Night Massacre, when Nixon’s Attorney General and Assistant AG resigned rather than follow Nixon’s order to fire the prosecutor leading the investigation into Watergate. 

So for the movie going audience, the sense of regret that permeates the film, was apt for the zeitgeist. As was Katie’s passion. And this brings us to lie #3 – that the story of history is always the story of progress – an inevitable march towards greater rights, greater justice, and greater freedom for everyone. It is particularly painful to point out that the strong-willed, uncompromising Katie Morosky hit the screen just months after Roe v. Wade became the law of the land. So we can imagine many young women watching the film with a sense of optimism, that they could be a Katie, without compromise, no longer needing to play second fiddle in a country, or to a man, for whom things always came too easily. 

Back in the USSR


Welcome to Season 2 of Lies Agreed Upon, the podcast that looks at how Hollywood uses history to talk about today. 

I’m Lia Paradis.

And I’m Brian Crim. 

Over this season we’ve traveled the world and looked at actual revolutions as well as social revolutions and failed revolts. Here, in our final episode of the season, we’re returning to one of the classics. In the spring of 1917, a revolution began in Russia with the mutiny of starving, poorly armed and poorly clothed soldiers at the front. By the fall, a moderate revolution had given way to radical revolution. It’s difficult to identify a single geo-political event since then that can’t be traced back to the Russian Revolution. 

But the meaning of the Russian Revolution, and the meaning of America’s opposition to the Soviet regime that followed, has changed many times. The bi-polar world order of the Cold War era looks pretty black and white. Starkly different political philosophies apparently underpinned that Manichaean world view. 

The reality was very different. So the lies agreed upon in this episode are about how the United States has understood, and treated, the political philosophies of socialism and communism at different points in the 100+ years since the Russian Revolution. And how America’s stance at any given time wasn’t necessarily shared with the rest of the West. 

Since the beginning of Season 1, we’ve talked about how Hollywood often reinforces historical lies by reverting to familiar narratives, oversimplifying historic events, or allowing one event to stand in for another. This week, however, we’re looking at how, in both cases, our movies push back against those kinds of lies, rather than reinforce them. 15 years apart, Dr. Zhivago and Reds ask their audiences to follow complex stories that sweep across vast territories and refuse to fall into neat categories of good and evil. 

So what are the lies that David Lean (by way of Boris Pasternak) and Warren Beatty (by way of John Reed) are refuting? 

Well, first of all that the Russian Revolution was a calamitous and unwarranted defeat of democracy and capitalism. 

Next, that the Russian revolution immediately and inevitably resulted in totalitarian dictatorship. 

And finally, following from that, that if A and B are true, then socialism offers no legitimate alternatives to capitalism, nor is it compatible with democracy. 

That seems like a tall order to cover in one episode, with 2 films. But trust us. Looking at these films, and the context within which they were made, will do most of the work for us. 

As we always do, let’s start with a recap. One is 56 years old, the other merely 40, so we won’t trouble you with spoiler alerts.


The incredibly beautiful , that is to say, visually stunning Dr. Zhivago was released in 1965 and directed by David Lean, the brilliant English director of such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, and A Passage to India. Long-time collaborator Robert Bolt wrote the screenplay, adapting the 1957 novel by Russian author Boris Pasternak. The book was very popular in the West, but, as you might expect, banned in the Soviet Union for decades. I guess the idea was to film it in the Soviet Union, but that wasn’t possible (although I was fooled). It was filmed mostly in Spain. 

The international cast is stellar, representing a who’s who in cinema during this Golden Age of Hollywood. Omar Sharif is the titular character, Yuri Zhivago and his star crossed lover, Lara Antipova, is played by Julie Christie. Geraldine Chaplin is Tonya, Zhivago’s long-suffering wife. Rod Steiger is the loathsome Victor Komarovsky; Alec Guinness is Zhivago’s long-lost half brother Comrade General Yevgraf Zhivago; Tom Courtenay is the Bolshevik purist Pasha, Lara’s husband who later morphs into a cruel general known as Strelnikov. There are other great performances by Ralph Richardson, Geraldine Chaplin, and Rita Rushingham. 

It’s surprising to read that critics weren’t sold on Dr. Zhivago when it first came out, but it is the eighth highest grossing film of all time in the US and Canada. It won 5 Oscars, but lost most of the big ones to The Sound of Music. Some critics accused it of trivializing history, which we will discuss I’m sure, but to say the film “holds up” is an understatement. Dr. Zhivago is 39th on the American Film Institute’s 100 years 100 films list and the British Film Institute voted it the 27th greatest British film of all time.

The film is mostly set against a backdrop of World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Russian Civil War, which lasted until about 1922. The first scene is a narrative framing device set in the 1950s when Yegrav Shivago, a senior Soviet official, is searching for the daughter of his deceased brother Yuri, Dr. Zhivago, and Lara. Yegrav tracks her down and begins to tell his niece her parent’s story.

We are then treated to some gorgeous flashbacks of Yuri’s life in rural Russia, his young adulthood in turn of the century Moscow, and then his experience as a doctor witnessing the horrific suffering of the Russian people during World War I. An orphan, Yuri is taken in by the Gromekos, wealthy family friends from Moscow. They educate Yuri to be a doctor and pair him off with their daughter Tonya. His life seems set, but he is a poet at heart and his well-planned life is derailed when he meets young Lara, a 17 year old dress maker who is victimized by her mother’s influential consort, Victor Komoravsky. She is also dating the idealistic Socialist activist Pasha. These complicated relationships occur amid the backdrop of growing tensions in Russia as the small, but vocal Socialist movement challenges centuries of Tsarist rule. As we know, World War I topples the already fragile Romanov dynasty, throwing Russia into chaos and revolution for years.

After Yuri is drafted as a battlefield doctor, he encounters Lara, who he admired only from a distance in Moscow. After Pasha had joined the war, she volunteered as a nurse. Yuri and Lara fall in love, but stay true to their spouses, although Pasha is feared dead. News of Lenin’s return, the czar’s abdication, the provisional governments, seem very distant at first, but that will change dramatically.

Yuri returns to revolutionary Moscow. The Gromeko mansion is now commandeered by the party and the family lives in one room. Yuri is a romantic humanist, and he is drawn to the ideals of the revolutionaries. But his proletariat neighbors and the increasingly intolerant and radical Bolshevik elite only see the family’s privilege and wealth. Yuri’s half-brother Yevgraf visits and warns Yuri  to take the family to their dascha and wait out the chaos and violence. They pack up and go on an amazing train ride punctuated by the violence of the civil war. At one point Yuri meets Pasha, now Strelnikov, who declares Lara is better off thinking he’s dead.

Let’s play the clip of Yuri meeting Strenilkov. Its gives you a sense of why Yuri’s simple humanism is suddenly dangerous during the paranoid, radical phase of the revolution. 

I think that line, “The personal life is dead in Russia. History has killed it” is important. There is always a lot of talk about history in the films this episode. 

As if by fate, Yuri and Lara reunite in the small village and begin a passionate love affair that is interrupted by the civil war. Yuri is kidnapped for two years and forced back into service as a doctor. Horrified by what he sees, he deserts and finds that his family fled to Paris. Their pasts catch up to them, however, when Victor shows up to warn them they are both in danger – Lara for being Strenilkov’s widow (Strelnikov is now on the enemy list – a clear case of the revolution eating their own) and Yuri because of his poetry, which was once deemed idealistic and populist, but is now too bourgeois and personal. They are forced to split up, but Lara is pregnant. 

The tragic story ends years later when Yuri dies of a heart attack after running to try and catch Lara when he sees her on a Moscow street. Lara perishes in a Stalinist gulag. The final scene takes us back to Yevgraf speaking with their daughter, Tanya, who may have no memory of her parents, but seems to have Yuri’s artistic spirit. 

Released 16 years later, Reds is also the story of a man and a woman who were sympathetic to the revolution but became casualties of its radical phase. Another 3.5 hour long epic drama, Reds covers the lives and careers of journalists and writers John Reed and Louise Bryant. Reed was an avowed communist activist and author of the amazing first hand account of the Russian Revolution – Ten Days That Shook the World. Reds is Warren Beatty’s baby. He co-wrote, produced, directed, and stars in the film alongside pretty much every other great actor he knew at the time. Beatty won the Academy Award for Best Director, but Reds lost the Best Film award to Chariots of Fire. A number of cast members, Beatty included, were nominated for acting awards, but only Maureen Stapleton won for her role as anarchist political philosopher and writer, Emma Goldman. 

And let’s just look in awe at this cast. We can imagine Beatty just calling up his buddies and saying, “Hey, wanna make this movie with me?” So, Beatty is John Reed, but I found that Diane Keaton’s Louise Bryant stole the film as Reed’s companion and eventually wife. The character evolved into a fiercely independent talent in her own right. We have Jack Nicholson as playwright Eugene O’Neill; Edward Hermann, Richard Gilmore (or FDR, if you prefer that reference) himself, as writer and activist Max Eastman; we mentioned Maureen Stapleton as Emma Goldman; Jerzy Kosinski, the author of Being There, which had just been adapted brilliantly for the screen by Hal Ashby a couple of years earlier, plays one of the original Bolsheviks and Lenin associate Grigory Zinoviev. There are some other noteworthy appearances by young Paul Sorvino, young M. Emmett Walsh, George Plimpton, and William Daniels, who was John Adams in 1776 if you remember, but here plays a leader of the American Communist Party. Even Gene Hackman plays a cantankerous New York publisher for about 30 seconds. Like we said, it’s a who’s who of Warren Beatty’ rolodex.

Most effective, though, are the appearances of real-life witnesses to the era, and to the lives of Reed and Bryant. Their memories of the events on screen are interspersed throughout the film and lend the story some real authenticity. Some of the witnesses include radical writer and activist Scott Nearing, suffragist Dorothy Frooks, Roger Baldwin, one of the founders of the ACLU, and writer Henry Miller. I even caught comic actor Georgie Jessel, if you can believe that. 

The point of the interviews is to highlight just how dynamic and close-knit the community of artists and activists living in Greenwich Village was in the 1910s and 20s. And also, crucially, to remind Americans that this era was not so far gone – there were still living witnesses to it. And that to be a Communist, or at least a socialist, or a labor leader, was neither rare nor outlandish. 1917 was a moment when liberal democracy was really only just getting started in many countries and was still in the future for others

Reds begins in Portland, ORegon in 1915 where we meet Louise Bryant suffocating in a bourgeois marriage. She’s an artist, writer, journalist but her ambitions are thwarted so far from the action. John Reed, a socialist journalist,  comes around to preach an antiwar message and encourages Louise to come to New York. She takes him up on this and gets dropped into the intimidating world of more accomplished figures feeding off of each other’s talent. Initially seen as just another Reed conquest, Louise fights to establish her own voice and become more of Reed’s equal than a consort. 

As Reed gets drawn further into anti-war activism and socialist party politics, Bryant has an affair with Eugene O’Neill, played memorably by Jack Nicholson in an understated performance, and gains confidence in her own work. When the US gets into the war, Louise travels to France and becomes a war correspondent. Reed comes looking for Louisa and convinces her to go with him to Moscow and report on the revolution they have all been hoping for. 

We get a great montage that illustrates the intoxication of the moment. Here we hear them reading the dispatches they are frantically writing for whatever papers will take their copy. 

Unlike the journalists we discussed in earlier episodes, Reed and Bryant see their journalism as having a very specific and necessary political agenda. 

But Reed, one of the few Americans in the country at the time, is more than just a journalist here, he becomes part of the revolution, speaking at rallies and preaching US worker solidarity with the new regime. We watch the Kerensky governments fall apart and the Bolsheviks rise. Reed hob knobs with Lenin and Trotsky, but mostly he’s about getting the Comintern to sign off on Reed’s pet project, the breakaway Communist Labor Party of America. 

At this point in the film we come to view Reed as an egotistical, self-important figure. This is his major flaw, but also what drives him. And it’s after this first trip to Russia that Reed writes the book that makes him famous – Ten Days that Shook the World.

Louise Bryant is back in the US, facing the wrath of a government pushing the post-WWI Red Scare pretty hard. Reed is already charged with sedition and Louise is suspected of it as well. Congress doesn’t understand the Bolshevik Revolution and calls Louise forward to testify, both because she was a witness, but also because they want to silence and intimidate any socialist voices. Let’s play her exchange with some Senators at a hearing:

And she’s right on a number of fronts, but about the Soviet government working. 

This is where Reed goes off the rails. He goes back to Russia to represent American communists, but winds up staying and working for the new propaganda department. Reed is also struggling with a kidney ailment that is progressively getting worse.If you want to get a sense of just how unhinged Reed has become, adopting the worst parts of the Bolshevik platform, consider this argument with his friend Emma Goldman. She also goes to Russia hoping to see a glorious revolution unfold, but the civil war empowers the violent and oppressive elements over the idealists. 

As harsh as Reed sounds there, he’s kind of right. The Bolshevik revolution is not what anyone planned for, but it happened the way it happened. It can only “work” with an enormous body count. Reds is interesting because it shows how disconnected Greenwich Village activism can be from the reality of a revolution as complex and violent as the Bolshevik takeover of a backwards, agrarian empire. I mean, what do these overeducated writers and playwrights have in common with peasants in Baku?

Reed does get a little disillusioned, mostly because he can’t be in charge of the American communists, and tries to leave Russia. He walks to Finland and is detained for over a year while Louise, always loyal to him, moves heaven and earth to save him. Released in 1920, Reed goes back to Russia, but his spotted typhus is only getting worse. By the time Louise sees him in Moscow, Reed is on his last legs. She cares for him, but Reed dies soon after their reunion. Reed is just one of three Americans buried in the Kremlin.

Some Americans today are obsessed with the apparent threat of ‘socialism’. This hysteria, ironically, has increased since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, rather than decreased. So it’s interesting to watch these two movies – both made during particularly “hot” phases of the Cold War. In fact, it’s downright disorienting. In both films, the arguments being made by critics of capitalism or critics of dynastic imperialism are, quite frankly, treated as perfectly legitimate ones. 

In other words, it’s complicated. In a common development after revolutions, and particularly after revolutions that are then attacked from without, the doctrine of communism is gradually coopted to become the cover story for authoritarianism. The goals of the revolution — an end to private property and the control of the means of production by the proletariat, are replaced by a regime that claims to act on behalf of the revolutionary ideals, but in an emergency capacity because of the threat from without. 

Meanwhile, socialism, which seeks to create a more just and equitable distribution of wealth and greater control of the means of production by the people, but through democratic processes, is on the same spectrum as classic communist ideology, but isn’t the same. And social democracy in varying forms, took firm root in the democracies of the West in the 20th C. Except the US. 

And this is what takes us back to our films – they are both the product of writers, directors, who possess a particularly common world view in most of the West: that there are complex variations in versions of socialist and communist philosophy. And, as a political and economic philosophy, it can coexist with democracy. 

Mainstream American Cold War culture wasn’t interested in parsing those details. 

So how did these movies get made and what was going on at the time? 

Well, Pasternak’s novel was published in 1957 after being banned from publication in the Soviet Union. Always up for making political statements while claiming they are apolitical, the Nobel Committee promptly bestowed the Nobel Prize for literature on Pasternak in 1958. He was forced to refuse it, and so the novel and Pasternak became cause celebres in the West, particularly the US. 

But it’s complicated. The book was published by a press run by the Italian Communist Party. Not some bastion of the New York publishing world. And Pasternak himself, given many opportunities over the decades since the revolution, had always steadfastly remained in Russia. He was not a dissident nor was his book a critique of communism in the way that it was portrayed by the West. 

In fact, he and Yuri Zhivago had a lot in common. They valued individual idealism, which put them on the wrong side of the party. But they both believed in the ideals of socialism: a more equitable society where the dignity of the individual was valued. And, considering his background and the projects he gravitated to, David Lean likely did too. 

We can look at Lean’s films today and focus on Alec Guinness in brownface playing an Indian in Passage to India and an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia. But the empathetic treatment of the female and Indian protagonists in Passage, and the respect and time given to the Pan-Arab movement that Lawrence championed, suggest he had deeper sympathies. 

The Britain of the post-WWII era took a very different path than America. Victory in the war and prosperity after it led Americans to adopt a syllogism that the nation was successful because it was righteous and the proof of its righteousness was its success. Although we know now that the post-war era was one of strong union membership and progressive taxation that funded a vibrant civic life, the bi-polar logic of the Cold War led Americans to think of their country as the negation of the USSR. 

Britain, on the other hand, responded to the destruction of the war with a commitment to a cradle to grave social welfare system. Here’s Sir William Beveridge, reading out the basic principles of his report, delivered just before the end of the war. 

And on the European continent, generally speaking, the public and their governments were also quite comfortable telling the difference between democratic socialism and totalitarian communism. So what we see in David Lean, being attracted to Pasternak’s story, is a sympathy for the ideals that drove the Russian Revolution and a fascination for the possibilities of good and evil on all sides of an incredibly complicated revolutionary era.   

Warren Beatty was never afraid to splash his political and social views on screen, and he definitely used his talents and gravitas in the service of a film most Americans would likely go out of their way to avoid if it were not for the amazing cast he put together. Reds is released months into the Reagan presidency, a true watershed moment in American politics that represented an escalation in the Cold War. A biopic about an avowed American communist buried in the Kremlin is a statement film, no doubt.

Reds was based on a book written by a pioneer in the field of film and history, Robert Rosenstone.  Rosenstone wrote John Reed: Romantic Revolutionary in 1975 and served as a historical consultant for Beatty on Reds. Using this experience, Rosenstone began to advocate that historians take the moving image as a source seriously, and that in turn, film makers take historians seriously. In 1989 he was asked to create a film section for the American Historical Review, the flagship publication for the AHA. For anyone interested in the discipline of film and history, start with Robert Rosenstone’s History on Film/Film on History where he uses Reds as a case study.  

But let’s look back to this precarious time of the early 1980s, right after Reagan’s election. Why there was no Red Scare on par with what Jack Reed and Louise Bryant experienced in the wake of World War I and the world changing Russian Revolution, the cultural shift turn to the Right was palpable in politics and even in Hollywood. After all, Hollywood is about pandering and the Reagan revolution seemed to have the upper hand. Arnold Schwarzeneggar, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris – killing commies, refighting Vietnam and winning, unrepentant nationalism, evil empire rhetoric – Hollywood didn’t care, the box office has spoken. 

On television, Family Ties was signaling that the social idealism of the Sixties was giving way. The hippy parents raising Alex P. Keaton, Young Republican. And of course President Reagan, who cooperated with McCarthy during the 2nd Red Scare in his role as the President of the ?? of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, was signaling the end to the Sixties idealism. 

Let’s refresh our memories (at least for some of us old enough like us) about the cultural zeitgeist with Reagan’s evil empire speech. 

“The focus of evil in the modern world.” Reds, as we’ve shown, gives you the whole spectrum. The idealism behind the revolution was genuine and given the regime it overthrew, warranted, but Reds also shows the brutality and oppression resulting from the civil war, mass starvation, and outside pressures. Reagan’s America had no interest in subtlety.


Let’s review our lies to refute before getting into some more topics. First, the Russian Revolution was a disaster and posed an immediate and sustained threat to democracy and capitalism. 

Next, that the Russian revolution immediately and inevitably resulted in a totalitarian dictatorship. As if Stalin was just right around the corner.

And finally, following from that, that if lies one and two are true, then socialism offers no legitimate alternatives to capitalism, nor is it compatible with democracy. 

I am always interested in the Bolshevik concept of history, which of course begins with Marx. History as a force that basically replaces God. Communism will conquer history and every temporary setback or tragedy, even monumental loss of life is forgiven if it moves history along the correct path. 

When we add Lenin we get the idea that this inevitable history can be helped and moved along through the efforts of a particularly dedicated cadre. Both our films feature discussions about prioritizing history over the private life, like Pasha abandoning Lara. When he massacres the wrong town, Pasha brushes it off as a victory for history nonetheless. Alec Guinness speaks to this when, in the very first scene of the movie, he chastises an engineer who wants to increase the capacity of the dam where Yuri and Lara’s daughter now works: “You are an impatient generation,” he tells the engineer. Meanwhile, the story he tells is all about the private life Pasha declared dead. 

In Reds, Reed conflates history with his making his own mark in said history. He will abandon Louise, and even the revolution at one point when the COmintern refuses his request to lead the American communists. He just walks off to Finland. Louise, Emma Goldman, and some other American activists know history is contingent  – which is why Louise can tell Congress Bolshevism in the American context makes no sense. But at the same time, as so many of the witnesses – those whose interviews punctuate the movie – keep making clear, it was perfectly reasonable and rational to try and find a different version of social justice for the United States. 

There is something very American about Reds, and very Russian about Dr. Zhivago. In Reds, the hero is a man who believes he can shape history, that his can-do attitude will be welcome and a valuable addition to the cause. As viewers, we are at the center of the struggle for the soul of the Bolshevik party, the course of the revolution in Russia, and the shape of Communism in America. John Reed believed he was vital to all three.

In Zhivago, history is something that randomly and destructively intersects with people’s lives. We get a sense of the vastness of the struggle precisely because it seems to keep crashing into the lives of our lovers, despite the fact that they never seek it out. The viewer experiences WWI, the Russian Revolution, the subsequent White and Red civil war, and the results of Soviet forced progress through to the 1950s. And the end of the movie shows the young woman, Yuri and Lara’s daughter, dwarfed by the monumental dam, as she walks away with a balalaika slung over her shoulder. History looms over her but she also carries a small bit with her.