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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common is also what makes them weird because when you think about that kind of movie, you think of it as something way outdated and not a popular draw.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 5: Cold War Homefront

LISTEN TO EPISODE FIVE HERE

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.

BREAK

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. 

BREAK

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

LISTEN TO EPISODE FOUR HERE

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. 

BREAK

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. 

So…

Break

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. 

Break

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

LISTEN TO EPISODE THREE HERE

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.

BREAK

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. 

Break

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?

LISTEN TO EPISODE TWO HERE

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.

BREAK

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.

BREAK

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!

LISTEN TO EPISODE ONE HERE!

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. 

3:15-4:30

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. 

 Break

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.

BREAK

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

EPISODE EIGHT PODCAST

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.

Recaps

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.

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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. 

Workers of the World Unite!

EPISODE SEVEN PODCAST

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. 

Last episode we talked about social revolution, a different thing altogether from the sort of violent political upheaval bringing about regime change or throwing off the yoke of western imperialism. Women’s suffrage and the slower, incremental struggle for equal rights is no less revolutionary, but it’s what some might call a permanent revolution. In this episode we stick with social revolution, but the focus is on labor. There’s a lot of violence associated with workers’ rights, at least at the beginning of the century, and like women’s rights – it is a work in progress. If anything, we’ve probably taken steps backwards since our featured films were made.

Our three films were produced within a decade of each other, 1979 to 1987, when labor faced immense struggles in the face of the Reagan Revolution.  Not only did Reagan fracture the normally reliable Democratic coalition of voters, peeling off many blue collar workers, his administration slashed and burned decades of meaningful worker protections in basically every industry. We start with John Sayles’ Matewan (1987), a film about the infamous 1920 coal miners strike in West Virginia. Next is Norma Rae (1979), Martin Ritt’s film starring Sally Field and based on a true story of a North Carolina textile worker who pushes for unionization. And then a darker story, Silkwood (1983), about Karen Silkwood, the nuclear power whistle blower and union activist who died under mysterious circumstances in 1979.

So, what are our lies agreed upon in this episode? Well, the first is that history is a story of progress. A lot of it just, well, isn’t. And workers’ rights in America is a case in point. Unions are weaker today than they were when these movies were made. And they were made in response to an active campaign to reduce workers’ rights and vilify unions during the 1980s. 

Our second lie is tied directly to the first but gets a bit more specific. It’s that dangerous conditions for workers are a thing of the past, relegated to Dickens’ novels and the sweat shops of the turn of the last century. Students are assigned Upton Sinclair’s  The Jungle (about meat processing plants in Chicago circa 1900) or taught about the Triangle Factory Fire (when almost 150 women were killed in a sweatshop fire in New York in 1911) largely so that we can congratulate ourselves that we no longer subject workers to those conditions.  

The historical truth is that efforts to protect workers from exploitation have never been adequate. And that employers are always favored over labor by the lawmakers who should be protecting them. These statements sound political. But if we simply look at the historical record, we see quite clearly that they are statements of fact. The politics can come into the philosophical discussions of whether and what we should do about it. But the history is starkly clear. 

Recaps

Matewan is a brilliant writing and directorial effort by independent filmmaker John Sayles. It stars Chris Cooper as Joe Kenehan, the union organizer who comes to town amid increased tensions between coal miners and the all-powerful Stone Mountain Coal Company. James Earl Jones, and boy its great to see him in the flesh acting, is “Few Clothes” Johnson.  All of us Mary McDonnell fans will be happy to see her as Elma Radnor, who runs a boarding house and is mother to Danny, an aspiring preacher and young coal miner who actually is providing the voice over from a perspective decades removed from the 1920 event. Danny is played by singer-songwriter Will Oldham, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie in some circles. Another one of our favorites, David Straitharn is the pro-union police chief Sid Hatfield (as in the Hatfields and the McCoys), who is caught in the middle of the impending violence.

The film begins with Joe, a United Mine Workers representative, arriving to town to organize angry miners facing wage cuts. The company imports Black and Italian workers to break a strike, setting up major conflicts within the town over who deserves to be unionized and who doesn’t. We see just how powerful Stone Mountain is – controlling every aspect of Matewan, even if Chief Hatfield is itching for a fight with their hired goons. Stone Mountain plants a mole in the union, played by perpetual villain character actor Bob Gunton (he’s the warden in Shawshank Redemption and we just saw him as Woodrow Wilson in Iron Jawed Angels), who turns people against Joe and urges the miners to get violent. This would justify using force and crushing their efforts. 

All of this drama and intrigue comes to a head when a private army of union busters arrives and the inevitable confrontation turns into an all out gun battle in the center of town. The Matewan massacre, of which Joe is a victim, is the precursor to the most violent episode of the Great Coalfield War that started in 1912. A year after Matewan, the Battle of Blair Mountain pitted 10,000 miners against 3,000 armed lawmen and mercenaries, resulting in 100 dead. It was the largest armed uprising in the US since the Civil War. Have you ever heard of it?

Every film this week dramatizes both the conflicts between labor and management as well as internal divides over race, gender, and even age. A lot of these union efforts happen in the Jim Crow South and workers often had to overcome their learned prejudice to see the bigger picture. When James Earl Jones walks into a union meeting hoping to join his workers with the miners, Joe has to do some convincing. Let’s listen to him start to bridge this divide.

Norma Rae is a 1979 film, directed by Martin Ritt and written by the married writing team of Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch from a 1975 book, Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, by NYTimes reporter, Henry Leiferman. It won Field an Oscar and a Cannes award for Best Actress, and was nominated for Best Picture. Despite the movie poster image of Field making the film look like it was a rom-com, Norma Rae is probably best remembered for the iconic image of Sally Field standing on a workbench on the factory floor holding up a huge sign reading “UNION”. It also starred Ron Liebman as union organizer,  and Beau Bridges, as Norma Rae’s husband. The always great character actors Pat Hingle and Gail Strickland, round out the cast. 

Boiled down, Norma Rae is the story of a young woman with not much education taking on the ownership of a textile factory in rural North Carolina. Working conditions are poor and the health of her friends and family suffer because of it. Her growing anger at the situation coincides with the arrival of Rueben, Rob Liebman’s character, a New Yorker from the national union tasked with organizing a chapter way down South. 

Unlike the overt brutality and danger in Matewan,  here we see how anti-union action has become more sophisticated and passive aggressive in the decades since the 1920s. It takes us through the very real, nitty gritty details of unionization efforts, including the pettiness, the intimidation, and the exploitation of racism and misogyny by the owners to undermine the pro-union efforts. And it’s not just the owners. Officers come from the national office to try and sideline Norma Rae once they hear rumors that she’s – in the parlance of the time – a whore. More on that later, when we talk to our first guest on this podcast. 

Norma Rae is not as explicitly grounded in the language of class warfare and socialism as Sayles’ Matewan, as you might expect, but it is effective in showing how high the stakes are, how much poor people are conditioned to accept their fate, and how hard it is to get a diverse group of people to join together in common interest. Here’s a scene with Ron Liebman urging the textiles workers, some Black, some young, some old, to tell their stories about premature deaths, illnesses, and the indignities of working under bad circumstances. 

When watching this scene, you can almost see the revelation on people’s faces as recounting their own miseries makes them realize just how poorly they’re being treated.

Silkwood should be a more remembered film than it is. Released in 1983, it stars Meryl Streep, Cher, and Kurt Russell. Based on the 1981 book, Who Killed Karen Silkwood? by Howard Kohn, the screenplay was written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlin, and the film was directed by Mike Nichols. The pedigree is incredible. Both Streep and Cher were nominated for Oscars, and Cher won (deservedly) the Golden Globe. Quite frankly, her performance in this reminds me of just how fantastic she was as an actress and what a shame it is that she chose to get huge amounts of face-freezing plastic surgery and focus on her concert show instead of continuing to give us incredible performances like she did here, and in Mask, and in Moonstruck. 

Silkwood is different from our other two films because it takes on what was seen then as a relatively new industry. Coal mines, textile mills – these are where the modern proletariat came into existence. And yet, the plight of workers in unsafe conditions pales in comparison to the accidental death of millions should things go wrong at a nuclear power plant. Silkwood is as much about whistle-blowing and the perils of deregulation as it is about the eternal struggle between labor and capital. The Kerr-McGee Fuel Fabrication Site, which operated in rural Oklahoma between 1965 and 1975, seems to be filled with sick people. Workers are regularly “cooked” by radiation and scrubbed raw in showers as if that helps. The implications go beyond their safety, but the newness of the industry means the classic measures of unsafe conditions don’t even really apply.

Like Norma Rae, unions get involved and in this case don’t have the workers’ interests at heart, seeing the impending disaster at Kerr-McGee as a publicity opportunity. Given Karen’s access to documents and X-rays proving the plant was working too fast and sloppy, shipping faulty fuel rods, the union uses her to gather documentation and expose the company in the press. The film ends with Karen driving to meet a reporter, but she sees headlights bearing down on her. Officially, Karen was killed in a one-car accident, but the film (and the book it is based on) implies she was “silenced” for being a whistleblower.

After visiting Washington with other union reps to testify before the Atomic Energy Commission, some union sponsored doctors show up in Texas and scare the Hell out of the workers, finally telling them the truth about their prolonged exposure to plutonium. After that bomb drops, Craig T. Nelson confronts Ron Silver, the union rep, and lays bare a common theme in our films – is it better to have fair and safe jobs or no jobs at all? Let’s play that clip:

Honestly, he has a point when he asks Ron Silver, where were you years ago? Why now? Unions, at least the management or national offices, are not always cast as heroes in these films.

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While Matewan was a small, independent film that didn’t get much screen time upon its release, what Norma Rae and Silkwood remind us of is that Hollywood used to make character and plot driven movies about and for grown ups. And they were both critical and commercial successes. We miss those days. I think the starpower and resources behind films like Norm Rae and Silkwood have to do with the country’s turn to the Right, culminating with the Reagan Revolution which ushered in an era of giddy, reckless deregulation and attacks on unions. Breaking the unions and deregulating almost every industry are enduring legacies of the Reagan era, I think it is safe to say. 

Look, we all know Hollywood’s reputation for liberal elitism, although what’s more corporate than the film industry this last 30 years, This was before the rise of independent films – like Matewan – when studios still had a stranglehold on production. Why did they do it then? But being openly liberal and progressive in the 1980s contradicted the Zeitgeist, and challenged the status quo. For every Rambo and Schwarzeneggar flick you have a Silkwood or a Norma Rae. There’s a market for dissenters in times of great political realignment, right? Think about how popular West Wing was in the Bush years. Some of us wanted to live in a world with a liberal academic president who easily won two terms. You know, Science Fiction.

Labor is all but broken today, but how did it get that way, and why were the 70s and 80s a turning point. Let’s dig a little deeper into that story. The formation of the AFL-CIO in 1955 might be considered a high point for the modern labor movement, stringing together a series of wins from collective bargaining. For example, manufacturing workers tripled weekly earnings between 1945 and 1970. But even, then, just a third of wage earners were unionized.  

As we see dramatized in all three of our films, however, women and minorities were not always welcome in unions. Or, at the very least, their problems were not prioritized over strictly economic gains. The AFL-CIO did push for civil rights and backed Lyndon Johnson’s push for the Civil Rights Act, seeing in it a chance to promote labor. But what changed between the 60s and 70s?

Neither of us are labor historians, so let’s cite our sources here. I’m summarizing information presented in Foster R. Dulles and Melvyn Dubofsky, Labor in America: A History. From the early 1970s onward, new competitive forces swept through the heavily unionized industries, set off by deregulation in communications and transportation. This was an era of  industrial restructuring and the beginning of cheap goods from foreign markets flooding the country. This just decimated the unions, prompted tons of closings, and led to more concession bargaining. This is when unions give back pay and other benefits in exchange for job security.  

With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, there came to power an anti-union administration the likes of which had not been seen since the Warren Harding era. Between 1975 and 1985, union membership fell by 5 million. In manufacturing, the unionized portion of the labor force dropped below 25 percent, while mining and construction, once labor’s flagship industries, were decimated. Only in the public sector did the unions hold their own. By the end of the 1980s, less than 17 percent of American workers were organized, half the proportion of the early 1950s.

Reaganomics is synonymous with the unproven but enduring trickle down argument – cut taxes for corporations and watch them invest properly and for the good of all. Still waiting for that one. It is also about deregulation, which just underwent another wave during the Trump years. Let’s listen to former Labor Secretary RObert Reich explain what we’re up against. And yes, we know Reich is a big leftie and this is overtly anti-Trump, but the information is accurate.

And to move this away from Democrats vs. Republicans, Reich’s old boss Bill Clinton was no friend of unions himself. The world changed and it probably won’t go back to those post WWII days of unions achieving incremental progress for all.

Neither Norma Rae or Silkwood mention the words Occupational Safety and Health Administration, because hey, it’s not that exciting, but it definitely is part of the story. Passed in 1970 during the Nixon administration (and for all his faults, the guy created the EPA as well), OHSA provided much needed protections for workers by creating some federal guidelines. 

The issue here is the ‘chemical revolution’ and the danger industrial chemicals posed to clean air and water, let alone workers exposed to them every day. Whether its textile mills in North Carolina or the poorly regulated nuclear power industry in places like Oklahoma, OHSA was intended to provide a modicum of protection for all of us. A film from 1979 (Norma Rae) and 1983 (Silkwood) dramatizing WHY such an agency was needed is not surprising, although it doesn’t do so explicitly. 

The Reagan era was also the period of increased Cold War tensions. Nixon signed the SALT I nuclear weapons limitation treaty in 1972, but by the 1980a, Not only Reagan, but also his buddy Margaret Thatcher, were fearful that the SALT II nuclear weapons limitation treaty that Jimmy Carter had signed with Brezhnev in 1979 was a sell-out. The duo believed that Brezhnev was ramping up weapons production because the USSR felt increasingly isolated in a world where Eastern Europe was being forcefully kept in line and China was friendly with the US.

Brian and I can certainly tell our listeners that when we were growing up, we firmly believed we wouldn’t survive to adulthood. A nuclear war was going to end it all. US-Soviet belligerence in the 1980s was at an all time high. And Hollywood responded with a series of movies that looked at nuclear warfare directly, and nuclear power as an indirect critique. The same thing happened in Britain. Movies like Testament, about a family in California in the aftermath of nuclear war, and TV movies like The Day After in the US, and Threads in Britain, covered the same story. And activists like Dr. Helen Caldicott had their voices amplified through documentaries like If You Love this Planet. Let’s listen to a bit of that here. She’s addressing a room full of very scared looking young adults as she talks about the Cold War nuclear arsenal. 

So it’s in this geo-political environment that the critique of nuclear power safety is happening with movies like Silkwood and the China Syndrome. Criticism of one was supposed to also help halt the other.

BREAK

So, how do our films address the lies agreed upon? Let’s review those. First, one of the most common myths Americans believe, especially, is that history is a story of progress. It may be incremental, but things improve and we become more enlightened, and all that.  Workers’ rights and unions are actually weaker today than they were when these movies were made. 

Second, and Robert Reich kind of got to this, is that unsafe and unhealthy worker conditions are a thing of the past. Tell that to Amazon warehouse workers peeing in bottles, or basically any worker in the meatpacking industry who, it has to be said, are completely unprotected by the law because of immigration status. They can be coerced to work 24/7 to break our supply chain problem and contract Covid at alarming rates and there’s hardly a peep out of the then Trump-run regulatory regime.

Matewan is a tragedy, a real life massacre, and John Sayles’ 1987 film is meant to remind us of just how difficult it was to achieve the most basic protections for workers. The fact that the Stone Mountain company paid you in vouchers you could only spend in their stores, mandate that you live in their houses, compelled you to rent equipment they owned to do the job, and threatened you with a private army and police force any time you got out of line is not fictional. This was the status quo in early 20th century America.

Here’s James Earl Jones and other Black miners getting the run down from a Stone Mountain boss. It’s pretty remarkable:

As for the second lie, of course coal miners died early from black lung and perished in easily preventable accidents. Matewan shows this as well. Matewan is about shining a light on this 1920 tragedy in 1987 to highlight the dangers of this industry being deregulated once again. 

Rather than discuss Norma Rae between ourselves, we thought we’d bring in an expert on the subject instead. What follows is a conversation Lia had recently with Joey Fink, an Assistant Professor of History at High Point University whose scholarship just happens to be on the real life JP Stevens unionization effort in Roanoke Rapids. 

Silkwood is not really a story about union organizing. But it is a movie about labor, this time combining the long-standing problems of management disregard for worker safety despite the existence of a union, and the fears about nuclear power and nuclear war that was central to the zeitgeist of the 1980s.  It’s main character is also a whistleblower, which is a role that seems to be more and more in the media spotlight today, which maybe should tell us something about how broken our checks against corporate, government, and military malfeasance are today.

 Her story is a tragic mystery to boot. And the union here is not cast in a positive light. The union calculates that the health and safety of workers is less important than any publicity you generate from exposing corporate malfeasance. In Silkwood, no one is on your side – the town, the company, your co-workers, the Atomic Energy Commission, or the union you look to for protection. When it comes to complicating the lies agreed upon, Silkwood gets an A+

Special thanks to our guest, Dr. Joey Fink of High Point University

Votes for Women . . . And More!

EPISODE SIX PODCAST

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. 

So far this season we’ve covered violent, political revolutions that toppled old regimes and erected new ones, sometimes with radically different ideological underpinnings. We devoted three episodes to the American Revolution and our two episodes on journalists caught in revolutionary situations included films about revolutions in Central America and Asia. Today, we want to highlight social revolutionaries who actually effectuate change (or in some cases prevent change) in their own political system. 

That’s right, they deserve their own season, too. We can draw on labor organizers and civil rights advocates, of course, but this episode concerns how Hollywood represents the evolution of the women’s rights movement in the twentieth century. Specifically, we are interested in the suffrage movements in Britain and the United States. But also, because that basic right to vote did not alter the myriad ways in which women were marginalized and disempowered socially, politically, and economically, the long overdue follow up to suffrage – we wanted to include coverage of so-called second wave feminism, which spans the early 1960s through the 1980s.

And one thing we noticed is that there are surprisingly few comprehensive treatments of both topics in film and television, at least before the 21st century. We think we’ve chosen three quality productions that take suffrage and the broader feminist movement seriously while also doing what we are really interested in highlighting in Lies Agreed Upon, giving some insight into the political and cultural context of the periods in which our two films and one miniseries were produced. 

Going chronologically, our first film is Iron Jawed Angels (2004), an HBO film focused on Alice Paul and the American suffrage movement. Next is the British production Suffragette (2015), which highlights the experiences of working class followers of Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain shortly before World War I. Finally, we have the nine episode miniseries Mrs. America, which was first shown on FX in 2020. Mrs. America covers the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment by such second wave luminaries as Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, and Gloria Steinem. But, unexpectedly, conservative women organized by Phyliss Schlafly mounted a successful campaign to stop its passage. Mrs. America really captures the complexity and divisions within both camps, something only possible with nine hours at your disposal instead of 120 minutes.

The first of our lies agreed upon in this episode is that America has always been at the forefront of social and sexual progress. The reality was that suffragists in the United States learned from and borrowed tactics from the British suffragettes. 

The second lie is a classic tactic of power – that any division or variation within a social justice movement invalidates the cause. There is always a temptation for Hollywood to whitewash internal struggles and disagreements in order to assert the virtue and deservedness of the participants.

And the third lie is tied to the second.  By focusing on the women’s suffrage struggle, textbooks and popular culture could claim that victory had already been achieved. The reality – that equality for women is still unrealized – went unacknowledged and unaddressed. 

Recaps

Let’s recap our productions

Iron Jawed Angels was directed by German filmmaker Katja von Garnier, who had a rather slim filmography before this feature and much of her work since is meant for the European market. Four screenwriters produced this script, which actually makes sense because at times the film can’t decide what it wants to be. The cast combines some good young talent from the early 2000s with an icon like Angelica Huston, who appears briefly as Carrie Chapman Catt, the president of the National Woman’s Suffrage Movement, Lois Smith as another elder stateswoman in the movement, Dr. Anna Howard Shaw, and Julia Ormond as the tragically underused labor lawyer Inez Milholland. We also have a glimpse of the great Margo Martindale as Harriet Eaton Stanton, daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Luckily she is much more prominent in Mrs. America, as Bela Abzug.

 But this is a young person’s film about the younger and therefore more radical women behind the final push for suffrage in the 19teens, specifically Alice Paul, played by Hillary Swank, and Lucy Burns, played by Frances O’Conner. Molly Parker plays a fictional wife of a fictional senator and Vera Farmiga plays the Polish-American suffrage and labor organizer, Ruza Wenclwaska. Lia and I both agree she is wasted here. I guess we should mention McDreamy, aka Patrick Dempsey, who plays a Washington Post cartoonist and ostensibly a love interest Alice Paul. He is, unsurprisingly, not a real person and conjured up here to sexualize Alice Paul and capitalize on his Greys Anatomy fame. 

The film begins in 1913 when Alice Paul and Lucy Burns return from England having participated in the more radical suffragette movement organized by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, Sylvia and Cristabel. The two lobby the National American Woman’s Suffrage Association to go directly to Congress and the recently elected Woodrow Wilson and lobby for suffrage. This sets up a clear generational divide that plays out the rest of the film. For now, Paul and Burns organize the Woman Suffrage Procession at Wilson’s inauguration, which leads to some violence and involves forcing African-American women to march behind white women to appease southern delegations. 

Frustrated over money issues and tactics, Paul and Burns break off and form the National Woman’s Party. They really get into trouble by picketing outside the White House in the famous Silent Sentinels action, provoking the police and federal government to respond with force, especially after World War I begins. This gives the government a license to act with force. The most harrowing scenes in the film take place in the Occoquan Workhouse where the arrested women are subjected to forced feeding after deciding on a hunger strike, not unlike their British counterparts.

It’s not surprising the women who undertake this extreme form of protest are accused of being mentally ill. In this clip Alice Paul explains precisely why she is doing this, and actually wins over the doctor assigned to evaluate her. Let’s listen:  

When word leaks out about this brutal treatment, the pressure on Wilson grows and he uses the occasion of the war’s conclusion to support the 19th amendment, which passes a few years after his speech. The film ends with great optimism and unity of purpose, showing a long scroll of nations that followed suit and granted women suffrage, and some still yet to do so.  

Suffragette takes us across the pond and it shows because this is a thoroughly British production. It is directed by Sarah Gavron, who is very intentional in her career about producing films about women, especially given the scarcity of female directors in the UK (or anywhere else for that matter). The script is written by Abi Morgan, who has some impressive credits to her name, like The Iron Lady, the biopic about Margaret Thatcher, Shame, The Hour, a drama about a news show in the 1950s UK, and Brick Lane, also directed by Gavron.

The cast is impressive and replete with some of your favorite Brits, and Meryl Streep just for kicks as Emmeline Pankhurst. This is a film about working class women primarily, so the big historical figures are not as prominent as in Iron Jawed Angels. We have Carey Mulligan as Maud Watts, the laundress slowly drawn into the suffragette movement, as our chief protagonist. Helena Bonham Carter is Ellyn, a fictional character representing real figures in the movement, Natalie Press as Emily Davison, the suffragette killed at the 1913 Derby race, and another recognizable British actress Romola Garai as Alice Haughton, the wife of an MP who enlists Maud into the cause. Brendan Gleeson deserves a mention as the Special Branch detective out to take down Pankhurst and her followers.

The film begins by really inserting us into the misery of working class women’s lives, specifically the laundresses who die young, are paid nothing, and suffer nonstop sexual harassment if not assault at the hands of male bosses. Maud is 24, a mother and wife with no political inclination until she witnesses a suffragette action during a delivery. Frustrated by her working conditions, Maud agrees to testify before David Lloyd George’s Parliamentary committee on the suffrage issue. It’s worth playing some of that because you begin to see Maud’s growing commitment to change.

What you get from this is how linked economic exploitation is to the issue of suffrage. Of course, the hearings result in nothing as women’s suffrage is tabled by Parliament indefinitely.

Maud’s involvement comes at a cost – her employer turns on her, her husband becomes cruel and vindictive, even taking her son away from her before ultimately relinquishing custody altogether. Maud is powerless to do anything about it, which is the point of her growing radicalization. Maud throws herself into the movement, which is based on direct action – vandalism, disruption, etc . . . . Brendan Gleeson hunts Maud down and tries to turn her, but she refuses. The suffragettes are subjected to brutal treatment in prison, including forced feeding. 

Let’s listen to Gleeson interrogating Maud and her forceful condemnation of everything he represents. It is interesting to compare with Alice Paul’s comment we just played.

The film concludes with the fateful events at Derby Day when Emily Davidson is killed either accidentally or by suicide (we aren’t sure) by King George V’s horse. Her funeral is an international event and brings greater attention to the issue of suffrage, which as the ending scroll informs us, was finally granted to women over 30 in 1918.Women gained rights over their own children in 1925 and equal voting rights to men in 1928.  

Mrs. America, the FX series from 2020, was created and co-written by Dahvi Waller, a Canadian screenwriter who won several awards for her work on Mad Men. I like looking over the producer list and seeing almost all women at the helm, and that goes for the many directors who worked on the nine episodes. The cast is uniformly excellent as the actors totally embody their real-life characters without resorting to obvious impressions.

 This starts with Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, someone I reviled but Blanchett humanizes her. On the other side, Rose Byrne is Gloria Steinem; Uzo Aduba is Congressperson and first female presidential candidate Shirley Chisolm; Margo Martindale is second wave feminist pioneer Bella Abzug; Tracey Ullman is perfectly cast as Betty Friedan; Elizabeth Banks is a Republican feminist, Jill Ruckelshaus. And Sarah Poulson plays a fictional composite character named Alice Maccray, a close friend of Schlafly who becomes disillusioned with her Eagle Forum movement. And because we love John Slattery on this podcast, he is a very good Fred Schlafly, the not always supportive husband of Phyllis.

We can hardly break down each episode and do it justice, but the premise of Mrs. America is a detailed look at the fight to pass the ERA, or in the case of Phyllis Schlafly’s grass roots movement, Stop ERA, between 1972 and 1980. The last episode concerns how each side adjusts to Ronald Reagan’s election. The series begins when the women’s movement is at the height of its political power as older activists like Friedan and Abzug contend with younger, media savvy activists like Gloria Steinem.

And while the second wave feminists flex their muscle and lobby Democrats and Republicans alike to pass the ERA, seeing it as a fait accompli, we get a fascinating look into the life and career of Phyllis Schlafly. I had no idea she was basically Henry Kissinger, a Harvard educated expert on nuclear warfare and national security, but her gender prevented anyone taking her seriously, which we see several times in the series. She had political aspirations as well, so when her friend Alice suggests they organize against the ERA because it supposedly threatens the “homemaker” and counters family values, Schalfly runs with the issue in part to satisfy her own ambitions.

Here is the first time Schlafly rolls out her new platform in a speech to other conservative women. I like it because you can tell she’d rather talk about what the meeting was originally about, anti-missile shields.

You can tell she’s a gifted orator, writer, and would have been a formidable politician.

Each episode covers a crucial moment in the ERA fight in the 70s and always begins with the count of the number of states that ratified the amendment. The real stories are the fascinating internal dynamics within the feminist movement primarily, but also in Schlafly’s Eagle Forum which housed everyone from disaffected housewives to raging racist KKK members and John Birch Society devotees. She was willing to embrace them all while others, like Alice (played by Sarah Poulson) were horrified.

But the feminist movement had its own divisions, and not just generational. Were African-American women supported? Maybe a little better than what we saw in Iron Jawed Angels, but we see this is a movement led, still, by privileged white women. And Betty Friedan famously warned against the “lavender menace” posed by lesbians in the National Organization of Women. While she came around later, Mrs. America delves into this divide as well. And then there are personality clashes. Was Bella Abzug the best face of the movement given her cantankerous nature? And was Steinem too young, famous, and beautiful to be taken seriously? Elizabeth Banks’ character shows that many moderate GOP women wanted a say as well. 

One great episode revolving around Shirley Chisolm takes on the significance of her presidential run, which while important symbolically, was barely supported by people like Abzug who wanted a safe, reliable George McGovern to push the ERA over the finish line. Chisholm refused to back down and gives this great speech at the DNC in 1972. Let’s listen to Uzo Adaba as Shirely Chisolm

What’s worse is that McGovern betrays all his promises to the movement to secure his nomination. 

Well, we know the ERA does not pass and Schafly certainly had a lot to do with it, but her efforts were not rewarded in the end. The series ends with Schlafly expecting a phone call from President-elect Ronald Reagan inviting her into the cabinet as UN ambassador, a thank you for her powerful donor list. Instead, Reagan tells her he has a “woman problem” thanks to Stop ERA and he fills her slot with Jeanne Kirpatrick, another national security expert who, get this, was pro-ERA. 

BREAK

So, what contemporary events influenced our three productions? Let’s start with 2004 and Iron Jawed Angels. Although the film seems like a straightforward biopic about Alice Paul and a younger generation of suffrage activists pressuring a president and Congress to act, the weight of Iraq and the growing opposition to the Bush administration’s handling of both the war and the increasingly oppressive domestic political environment are all over this film. 

The Sentinel Action was deemed a provocation once the US entered World War I because all of a sudden Woodrow Wilson was a wartime president. The Espionage Act of 1917 gave the government all sorts of power to arrest and imprison anyone considered disrupting the war effort, showing disloyalty, or “inciting insubordination.” What was once lawful political protest was criminalized and Alice Paul and the other sentinels found themselves in the Occoquan Workhouse as a result.

The Patriot Act of October 2001 was another expansive piece of legislation erecting a permanent surveillance state and increased federal power to target domestic “enemies” and criminalize some speech. But beyond this, especially after Iraq, any sort of protest was deemed “unpatriotic” by both the Bush administration and a cowed press that still felt torn between holding politicians accountable or waving the flag (sometimes literally on screen 24/7).  

But there is one episode that comes to mind that reminds me of Iron Jawed Angels, although I think the film came out right before this controversy heated up and captivated the nation. It is the dignified, albeit relentless antiwar protest of Cindy Sheehan after the death of her son, Army Specialist Casey Sheehan. Sheehan camped out in front of George Bush’s  Texas ranch for a good bit of the summer of 2005, drawing the ire of Fox News and others. But she did not relent, continuing her protest over years, including during the Obama years through Trump.

You can find pictures of Sheehan outside the iron gates of the White House, occupying the same space as the Sentinels. In the film the suffrage activists seek an audience with Wilson, but they were turned away despite making themselves omnipresent. Sheehan did the same with Bush. Let’s listen to an interview with Cindy Sheehan on Keith Olbermann’s old show from 2005.

The public pressure on her to be quiet and support the war was great, but she used her influence well. Bush was clearly uncomfortable for most of that year because he didn’t know how to handle the peaceful, but disruptive protest. Wilson felt the same.

The British production of Suffragette was announced in 2011 and finally released in 2015. Interestingly, it is the first feature film to be shot in the Houses of Parliament. A film like this about a century removed from the 1913 Suffragette Derby, really the climax of the film, is supposed to invite reflection on “how far we’ve come” and often, “how much further do we have to go?” The promotional campaign included the cast in t-shirts with Emmeline Pankhurst’s slogan – “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”  You can imagine how that went over. It’s always interesting when the rhetoric of one social movement a century ago clashes with the contemporary age. 

We see a lot of white women in our three productions. It makes sense for the suffrage films, especially in the UK. Iron Jawed Angels felt obligated to invent a scene with Ida B. Wells, a founder of the NAACP and suffrage activist, demanding representation at the 1912 inaugural march, even if it made the southern white women uncomfortable. But that was the last you heard from people of color in either film. As our lies agreed upon note – we often focus on suffrage and forget the century of work to achieve equal rights. Suffrage is a white woman’s battle, according to our mediated universe, but part of the ongoing struggle for equal rights is the value of all women’s active participation, and the culpability of white women in perpetuating racist institutions in the name of challenging misogynist ones.

Mrs. America does show this side of the story with Shirley Chisolm, who had no patience for sacrificing her historic candidacy to placate the largely white leadership of the women’s movement. It’s heartbreaking to watch the thwarted ambition of Chisholm, really effectively expressed by Aduba, who won an Emmy for her work. Here she is talking to her husband. 

Beyond that, other Black women (and lesbians for that matter) broke away from the Friedans, Abzugs, and even Steinems to create parallel organizations that valued their voices. What I like about Mrs. America is that it does not shy away from highlighting these internal divisions, disputes, and sometimes just outright failures to do the right thing. No movement is pure and unified, so why represent it that way for the screen. 

Mrs America is very recent, 2019, and naturally it is colored by the Trump years, #Metoo, and the continued discussions around intersectionality. This is simply the idea that some people are disadvantaged by multiple sources of oppression: race, gender, class, gender identity, sexual orientation, etc . . . Addressing one at the expense of others is incomplete. We see this throughout the series on both sides of the argument. Black women in the movement feel their white counterparts don’t care or understand their experience; Lesbians were excluded openly by Betty Friedan, at least early on in the movement; Phyllis Schlafly has all the ambitions of her sisters on the other side of the hill and endures some of the same sexism, but actively works to perpetuate it because she sees it as the only avenue to power – but power as defined and circumscribed by men.  

It’s really interesting to hear Cate Blanchett, who was a producer for the series, comment here about just assuming the ERA was in the Constitution. She can be forgiven for thinking this as an Australian. This clip from ET Canada features first, creator Dahvil Waller, then Blanchett, and producer Stacy Sher.

The shadow of Trump and the current iteration of the GOP looms over the series as Schafly helps mobilize the coalition that has ruled the party since Reagan, more or less. We watch her smite her moderate foes and we can’t help but roll our eyes as the Elizabeth Banks character says with confidence – “The Reagan Revolution will never succeed.”  In the postscript, we learn that the last book Schlafly wrote before her death in 2016 was The Conservative Case for Trump. She had no problem reaping what she sowed.

BREAK

Let’s round out our discussion by revisiting the lies agreed upon. 

The first lie is that the Anglo-American world was always at the forefront of social and sexual progress. The triumphalist narratives in our two suffrage films do little to disrupt this narrative. Sure, this progress comes at a great cost, but the imprisonments, physical assaults, and even deaths ultimately have meaning and achieve results. Iron Jawed Angels in particular makes suffrage seems a pretty easy journey from point a to point b. Mrs. America, made in 2019, is a bit more cynical as you might expect, but make no mistake – the US is the center of the world here and the world is watching the ERA intently. Never mind that much of Western Europe took such laws for granted, like Cate Blanchett indicated.

The second lie is about power in social movements. We are conditioned to assume there is always unity of cause and broad representation and any divisions within the movement only harms it. I think all three do a good job with this, even IRon Jawed Angels, although they simplify the disagreements as one of young vs. old.  This 20 something upstart Alice Paul is going to bring the old biddies into the 20th century.  Suffragette does not so much examine divisions as depict the consequences of extreme action realistically. The state is violent and pushes Pankhurst’s followers towards direct action. Mrs. America is mostly about divisions – in the women’s movement, in the conservative movement, and yes, in the country. Divisions that are far more visible and destructive in 2019 than in 1975, for example. 

It is an appropriate historical irony that Mrs. America – a product, in part, of the #MeToo movement, in that it looks at the ongoing struggles that extend way beyond the simple right to vote – has a strong focus on Chisholm. Tarana Burke, a black feminist activist, coined the phrase #MeToo, as a rallying cry around the issue of domestic abuse a decade before its appropriation by white women, many from Hollywood, in response to the crimes of Harvey Weinstein and others.

And the third lie is tied to the second. By focusing on the women’s suffrage struggle, in textbooks and in popular culture,the struggle for equal rights for women went unacknowledged and unaddressed. The vote was just the beginning, of course, but first, second, and third wave feminism hasn’t had much pop culture treatment. Mrs. America is pretty remarkable for not only giving us a great deep dive into the ERA movement – Abzug, Friedan, Steinem – but it is pretty revelatory, as Blanchett says, about the other side. I didn’t know much about Phyllis Schlafly and Stop ERA. Something like Mrs. America is long overdue.

MRS. AMERICA — “Reagan” –Episode 9 (Airs May 27) Pictured: Cate Blanchett As Phyllis Schlafly. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

“Westerners do not have answers anymore”

EPISODE FIVE PODCAST

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. 

This is our second episode on a theme we call “Covering the Revolution” – a subgenre of films popular in the 80s in which the focus is Western journalists thrown into the chaos of “Third World” revolutions. These men, mostly, are unorthodox, ambitious, arrogant, but usually good-hearted professionals who want to bring truth to an ignorant audience and force some measure of accountability on indifferent governments. Last episode we covered revolutions in Central America and discussed Oliver Stone’s Salvador (1986) and a film directed by Roger Spottiswoode called Under Fire (1983).

Today we are going East and breaking down two more movies that came out in the early 1980s that feature journalists and revolution. We have Australian director Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously (1982) and the unforgettable docudrama The Killing Fields, directed by Roland Joffe, which came out in 1984. The Year of Living Dangerously is based on a novel, but it recreates Indonesia’s descent into revolution and genocide in the mid-1960s very well. And The Killing Fields centers on the real-life ordeal of Dith Pran, Cambodian journalist and interpreter for New York Times journalist Sydney Schamberg. The film shows us the horrors of the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in 1975 through 1979.

As we noted in episode four, Viva La Revolucion!, journalism is used as a tool by which moviemakers can bring the white, Western gaze to bear on the complex histories of revolutions in countries caught in the middle of the bipolar Cold World order. We see that in The Year of Living Dangerously, although there are scant few Americans on screen, and of course, The Killing Fields is the result of the American colossus unleashed in Southeast Asia in the 60s and 70s.

In this episode, we’ll be revisiting 2 lies we covered last time that often underpin historical narratives – that journalists are heroic idealists and that what they write can change the course of history. We’re not asserting that this is always untrue. But in films, and in history books, journalists exposing truths are usually portrayed as selfless, rather than professionally driven. And, more importantly, the impact of the revelations they sometimes provide, can be overstated. After all, history doesn’t record the 1000 times a journalist publishes and nothing changes. We only remember the rare time, like Watergate, when their investigations actually do result in some sort of action. 

The third lie is specific to these episodes and it’s more a sin of omission than of action. We talked last time about how complex stories of global geopolitics get simplified to fit into 2 hours of coherent storytelling and that curious journalists trying to make sense of it all are used as the stand in for the audience. But what also often gets lost in the simplifying process is the long-term impact of Western imperialism, centuries of it. Particularly in the case of stories about revolution or counter-revolution. 

When the story just opens with the revolution, the reasons for it are treated as forces of nature, or just black or brown people behaving emotionally and destructively. The legacies of imperial exploitation and colonial oppression – in other words, the real causes of most revolts and uprisings – are left unaddressed or, at worst, even unmentioned. 

We named our episode after a quote by Kumar, a character in The Year of Living Dangerously, who summed up this frustration with imperial attitudes ruining Indonesia. “Westerners don’t have answers anymore.” And a key reason why we’ve chosen both these films is their admirable attempts to properly imbed the root causes into the story, and the ways in which they still manage to decenter the lives and motivations of the actual revolutionaries. 

As always, let’s begin by recapping our films. And you know what? These movies are almost 40 years old so get over your spoiler alerts . . . 

Recaps

Let’s begin with a film by one of my favorite directors, The Year of Living Dangerously. Peter Weir is certainly no stranger to taking on historical topics using a critical lens. Weir was crucial to the Australian New Wave  movement and directed the epic historical drama Gallipoli a year before The Year of Living Dangerously. His other celebrated historical film is Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003). 

A less appreciated film, but critically acclaimed is The Way Back (2010). It’s based on the memoir of a Polish POW who escaped the Soviet Gulag and walked 4,000 miles home. Weir has an impressive filmography, including Witness, The Mosquito Coast, Dead Poets Society, and The Truman Show. The Year of Living Dangerously was written by Weir and David Williamson. The screenplay adapts the novel by Christopher Koch.

The cast is superb, starting with two of the most beautiful people to ever appear on screen – Sigourney Weaver as British embassy official Jill Bryant and Mel Gibson as Australian journalist Guy Hamilton. But the most impressive performance belongs to Linda Hunt as Billy Kwan, a photographer and local contact for Hamilton. Hunt won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, but we both think the role was more than supporting. 

The rest of the cast is great as well. Michael Murphy is a positively loathsome American journalist, Bembel Roco is Kumar, an Indonesian working for the Australian Broadcasting Service and a secret communist party member, and Bill Kerr is Colonel Henderson, the British military attache. 

The Year of Living Dangerously begins with the arrival of Guy Hamilton in Jakarta in June 1965 amid increasing tensions between the longtime nationalist leader of Indonesia, President Sukarno, a growing Communist opposition, and a conservative, mostly Muslim military. Guy joins a jaded and cliquish journalist community, but he’s a neophyte who needs the help of Billy Kwan, the Chinese-Australian in house expert on all things Indonesian. Kwan is also the self-appointed moral conscience of the mostly vapid and drunken group of Western journalists competing for any scrap of news or access to the regime, or its opponents. But Billy sees something in Guy and helps him get a few good breaks.

This is a great clip for revealing Billy’s perspective on journalism as something more than reporting and Guy’s rather indifferent Western mentality. 

Billy loves the people he reports on, and really knows them. Guy is trained to, as he says, “not get involved.”

Billy introduces Guy to Jill Bryant, who is clearly British intelligence, but poses as the aid to the military attache, Colonel Henderson – the most British of the British old guard colonialists. Billy is an elaborate matchmaker, guiding his two favorite people together, although Jill’s time in Indonesia is coming to an end.  Guy and Jill do hook up and its explosive, as you might expect, but Guy is still an ambitious journalist willing to do anything for a scoop.

The big break comes when Jill informs Guy that the Chinese are arming the PKI, the Communist Party of Indonesia, which is sure to spark a bloody rebellion. Jill told Guy to save his life, but he intends to break the story and ruin Jill in the process. Billy and June are both heartbroken and cut him off, leaving Guy to fall in with the worst of the worst – the American journalist Pete Curtis. Kumar, Guy’s driver and assistant sticks with him too, but to open his eyes to government oppression, starvation, and crushing poverty. 

Billy, who cares deeply about the people of Jakarta and has never been able to separate his job from his soul, suffers a breakdown when a child he cared for dies from starvation. Outraged, Billy turns on Sukarno, who he once admired as an anti-colonial figure, and hangs a sign outside Guy’s hotel room reading “Sukarno feed your people.” For this simple act, Billy is thrown off the balcony by police. Guy stumbles upon the scene and he and Jill reconcile over their shared sorrow.

Let’s play a clip of Billy confronting Pete Curtis and a British journalist moments before he takes the fatal step of openly opposing Sukarno. 

You can sense Billy’s moral outrage at his profession, the profiting off of human misery. And did you catch the reporter’s contempt for the Indonesians? 

Meanwhile, Indonesia collapses as Sukarno is ousted and the military takes over, executing thousands of suspected communists. Guy throws himself into the middle of the chaos and is badly beaten, limping off to Billy’s bungalow. Guy realizes the only thing he wants is Jill, not a story, so he has Kumar drive him to the airport before it closes. Guy is forced to make the choice – keep his recordings or board the plane with Jill. Leaving his bags at inspection, Guy barely makes it, embracing Jill on the tarmac. Tellingly, Kumar is left to live with the consequences of the bloody civil war to come. 

The Killing Fields came out a few years later (1984) and I think you agree, deserved its critical success, including seven Oscar nominations and three wins for editing, cinematography and most notably – Best Supporting Actor for Haing S. Ngor. The Killing Fields won 8 BAFTA awards, including Best Film. The film was directed by British director Roland Joffe, who also directed The Mission, The Scarlet Letter, and Fat Man and Little Boy, a film starring Paul Newman about the Manhattan Project. Bruce Robinson adapted this true story for the screen.

The cast is wonderful, especially Haing Ngor as Dith Pran, the Cambodian translator and journalist who endured nearly four years of Hell in a Khmer Rouge camp. Ngor was a doctor and this was his first acting role. He was cast because he lived this experience, too, surviving three camps by virtue of his medical expertise. Like Pran, Ngor escaped and made his way to a Red Cross refugee camp. Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer prize winning journalist for the New York Times who relies on Dith Pran for access to the stories that put his name on the front page.  While Waterston and Ngor are the focus, there is a great supporting cast. John Malkovich is photojournalist Al Rockoff, also a real person; Julian Sands plays British journalist Jon Swain; Craig T. Nelson, Coach!, plays an American military advisor to perfection; and Spalding Gray – the terrific writer, actor, just all around talent – is the US Consul in Cambodia.

The Killing Fields begins in May 1973, a few years after Richard Nixon unofficially expanded the Vietnam War into Cambodia, destabilizing the country and enabling the communist insurgent group Khmer Rouge to mount a successful campaign in the countryside. Sydney Schanberg arrives in Phnom Penh and immediately demonstrates his tendency to be an impatient prima donna, snapping at his immensely talented interpreter and journalist in his own right – Dith Pran. 

Pran takes Sydney to see the bloody aftermath of a B-52 bombing in a nearby town, breaking the embargo put in place by the American military attache. We immediately see how US dissembling and indifference to the fate of Cambodia is fueling the tragedy to come. We also see that Sydney, kind of like Guy Hamilton, is driven by ego and a very jaded view of his profession. 

Pran and Sydney begin to sense the escalating danger posed by the Khmer Rouge, witnessing executions of rebels, which seems to be a constant in the four journalist-centric films we’ve covered these last two episodes. The film jumps ahead to 1975 when the Khmer Rouge are right outside the capital and embassies are evacuating. At this moment it is clear Pran and his family are in danger, and while Sydney secures safe passage for his family, Pran is devoted to both his profession and to Sydney personally. 

It has to be said Sydney seems to guilt Pran into staying as well since they are on the brink of another big headline. Soon after that decision Pran and a few Western journalists are captured by Khmer Rouge and face certain execution. Only Pran’s fast thinking saves them and everyone retreats to the French embassy, the last one still open. It’s funny, you see even the poor Soviets are manhandled by the Khmer Rouge as they join their Western colleagues.

The scenes inside the embassy compound are harrowing because everyone knows Pran is a dead man as soon as they leave. The Khmer Rouge demand all Cambodians be handed over, and the French ambassador complies. Pran’s friends try to forge a passport, but the deception fails and we see Pran disappear in the mass of Cambodians marched out of the capitol into an uncertain fate in the countryside.

We flash forward a few months where Sydney is back in New York, desperately searching for Pran and caring for his family in San Francisco. Pran is in Hell, enduring the full effect of the Khmer Rouge’s insane dystopian vision called “Year Zero.”  All intellectuals, urbanites, anyone with a hint of Westernization are executed or worked to death. Sometimes, just having insufficiently rough hands from labor results in execution. Your fate is decided by a preteen since the young are pure. 

To get at Pran’s internal life during this period, the screenwriter has him composing letters to Sidney in his head. Here we hear him describing who he must be in order to survive. 

Pran pretends to be a simple peasant, but he knows this can’t last forever so he escapes. In a truly horrible scene, Pran stumbles across the killing fields – acres of human skeletons. This is a small fraction of the 2 million murdered in just a few years of Khmer rule.

Cut back to New York where Sydney is reaping the benefits of his and Pran’s work, winning the Pulitzer for his coverage. Sydney is clearly haunted by guilt and regret, but uses his speech to castigate American foreign policy in the region. You get a sense his moral outrage is partly fueled by intense personal guilt for pressuring Pran to stay and do the work responsible for this award. 

Al Rockoff is there to remind him they could have gotten Pran out sooner. Meanwhile, Pran is captured and sent to another camp, this time run by a man who senses he is something more than a peasant. Pran is not punished, however, because the commander is worried the coming war with Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge’s tendency to purge its own endangers his son. He hands his son over to Pran and directs him to the Thai border. The young boy is killed by a landmine, but Pran makes it to the border and  news of his escape reaches Sydney. The film ends with the two reunited in October 1979. Sydney tearfully asks Pran if he forgives him. Always beyond decent, Pran said there’s nothing to forgive. 

BREAK

So, lets revisit our lies agreed upon for this episode and review some of the historical context. 

The first lie is about the persistent, and often pernicious myth of heroic journalism. I think The Year of Living Dangerously is pretty good about exploding that myth. Guy Hamilton is never heroic as a journalist, just finally true to himself by getting on a plane with Sigourney Weaver. The rest of the press corps in the film, aside from Billy, is degenerate and worthless. The Killing Fields is honest about demystifying Sydney Schanberg, who is talented and empathetic (in his own Western way), but still vain and ambitious. Pran is pretty heroic, but not because he’s a journalist. 

The second lie is that the Western readership cares what foreign correspondents report and so the government is held accountable for their foreign policy actions. We get no sense of this in The Year of Living Dangerously. We heard Billy Kwan’s idealistic vision of what journalism can do to shine a light on poverty and corruption, but Guy wanted scoops to build a career. And Australia may have been complicit in Indonesia to a degree, but nothing Guy reports will change events on the ground. Indonesia is just another domino to fall and that’s how it gets reported.

The Killing Fields is different. Good reporting exposed not only the “secret war” in Cambodia and the criminally stupid policies that gave us Vietnam a few years before that, but obviously Watergate too. Sydney Schanberg is living through the Golden Age of journalism and while he is part of it, deservedly, we see how the sausage is made. It sometimes means leaning so hard on your local talent, like Pran, that they fall over and become casualties in the quest for relevance (and nice awards).

The third lie, or theme as we agreed to describe it, is about imperialism and revolutions, specifically in this Asian context. Here is where we have to dig deeper into the historical context. If you’re like me, I had to do a little background reading on Indonesia in the 1960s to get the full picture behind the collapse of the Sukarno regime and the bloody civil war to come. Sukarno was initially a hero to Indonesia, fighting Dutch colonialism and then Japanese occupation before emerging as the first president of Indonesia. Initially an advocate for democracy, Sukarno became increasingly autocratic and crafted a policy in 1959 called Guided Democracy to suppress instability and simmering ethnic and religious conflicts. 

Sukarno pushed Indonesia to the left, providing cover for the PKI and aligning the nation with the Soviet Union and China. Worse, as the film shows, basic needs were not being met and reactionary forces – the military and the Islamists – saw an opportunity to remove Sukarno and liquidate the PKI in one fell swoop. This is the background of the film, which culminates in the 30th September Movement when generals mounted a coup. It failed to remove Sukarno at first, but by 1967 the generals were in charge and the PKI was massacred. The new leader, Suharto, was a dictator for the right, remaining in power until 1998.  

The Killing Fields is probably more familiar, but I think most of the coverage about Cambodia concerns the US role in enabling the Khmer Rouge in a gamble to win a more favorable outcome in Vietnam. What I like about The Killing Fields is, for once, we actually get some sense of who the Khmer Rouge were, what they believed, and how horrific life was under their short but genocidal rein. It actually made me ever angrier about US foreign policy because we made it happen! They filled a void we created instituted the most total of total revolutions we can possibly imagine.

The film attempts to give us some background to what brought the Khmer Rouge to power in the first place – the US’ invasion of Cambodia along the border of South Vietnam and indiscriminate bombing of supposed Viet Cong staging points inside Cambodia. Schamberg is safely ensconced in his Manhattan apartment in 1978 watching footage on what had to be one of the first VCRs evern. He grimaces as Nixon, in what became known as the Nixon Doctrine, offers vague commitments to aid “our Asian democratic friends.” The speech is from April 30, 1970. Here Nixon announces incursions into Cambodia:

It’s also worth noting this speech sparked nationwide protests and the Kent State massacre just 5 days later.

The Killing Fields gives us this insight through Dith Pran’s ordeal. Angka, or the party, wanted to imitate China’s Great Leap Forward, which was also bloody and oppressive, but faster. Also, the Khmer Rouge wanted racial purity, which meant targeting those with Vietnamese or Chinese backgrounds. Depopulating the cities and reducing the country to an agrarian utopia is graphically portrayed on screen. The Cambodian Genocide left 2 million dead, nearly a quarter of the population. As we see in the film’s closing moments, only a Vietnamese invasion ends the Khmer Rouge and establishes a “normal” communist government.

So, both events at the center of our films this episode are linked to imperial legacies and we think the journalists populating The Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously reflect this legacy as well. Billy Kwan is adept at forcing the pool of western reporters to confront this fact, which is why he is so heartbroken when Guy doesn’t live up to his expectations. Billy saw Guy as a kindred spirit, but the lure of being the detached voyeur overcame his humanitarian impulse, at least at first.

 And Sidney does care, but he is imperious with Pran, seeing him and all Cambodians as vehicles for “the story”. 

I think we have to find out what the real Dith Pran and Sydney Schanberg thought about The Killing Fields. The film came out only 5 years after Pran’s escape and both were still working for the New York Times. Here they are speaking with Bobbie Wygant in 1984. The first clip is Schanberg acknowledging what we’ve noted already – he doesn’t come off great.

I like what he said about on screen people overwhelm events and in life events overwhelm people.

Dith Pran relates how difficult it was for his children to see the film. Remember, they were very little when evacuated.

At this point we should probably tell you that we recorded this episode in two separate sessions. Normally we don’t, but when we originally recorded in late July 2021 no one outside of the intelligence community could have anticipated how quickly the corrupt and fragile regime in Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban. 

We were treated to harrowing stories of desperate Afghanis with ties to US forces, and of course thousands of women and girls fearful for their lives and futures in a Taliban state attempting to flee the country. I’m sure many of us saw or circulated the photos comparing the last chopper in Saigon from April 1975 and the chopper in Kabul, also hovering over the US embassy. It seems things have come full circle.

As I watched this story unfold over hours, I thought about the scene in the Killing Fields with the Westerners holed up in the French embassy trying to help Dith Pran evade capture. How many Afghanis were in this position? Also, did we learn anything? Without debating the proper use of force after 2001 vs. the wholly disastrous and criminal invasion of Cambodia in 1970, the imperial conceit behind both seems clear. Propping up weak, corrupt, and unpopular regimes with foreign money and aid is a losing proposition. Our two films chronicle two separate examples of this, one in 1965 and the other in 1975.

But, what about the early 1980s, when our two films were released? The Cold War was jumpstarted by Reagan’s election, as we know, and while this was certainly the context for the politics associated with our films from episode 4 – Salvador and Under Fire – we can see this new and dangerous Cold War episode play out in The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields. 

Moreover, as we teased earlier, this period of the early 1980s is one of imperial nostalgia. Reagan and his fellow conservative partner in the UK, Margaret Thatcher, happily touted relationships with strong men and authoritarian governments willing to join them in the anti-communist crusade. Our two films are cautionary tales. They are made at the height of this period of unapologetic Cold War rhetoric, and show the terrible tragedies and injustices resulting from following this cynical policy.

We can point to a number of examples around the world in the 1980s of friendly dictators propped up by Western resources, but one close to the settings for our films this week is President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos is a lot like Suharto in Indonesia, ruling for decades with the benign consent of the West. Marcos ruled from 1965 to 1986. He embraced what he called “constitutional authoritarianism” and ruled by martial law from 1972 to 1981, and was finally deposed only after his physical decline. He waged a terrible counter-insurgency against communists, but in reality anyone opposed to him, and finally went a little too far for the West by assassinating the opposition leader Beningo Aquino in 1983. 

Reagan finally distanced himself from Marcos in 1984, but only because the optics were so bad (let’s not forget Imelda Marcos’ extravagant shoe collection!) Marcos finally left when the country mutinied in the so-called Edsa Revolution February 1986 after MArcos tried to steal the most recent election from Corazon Aquino, widow of the slain opposition leader. And even then, the Marcoses were allowed to live in the lap of luxury in Hawaii. So much for consequences.

Let’s play a report from This Week with David Brinkley about this moment, because it sure reminded me of the fast-moving events depicted at the end of The YEar of Living Dangerously. And like that scenario, what happened to Marcos was a long-time coming.

Soon after this Reagan was welcoming Corazon Aquino to the Rose Garden like he wasn’t the guy who kept Marcos flush with US aid and tacit support. Ce la vie. 

Remember, if Vietnam was a legacy of French imperialism and then American; and Indonesia was a legacy of Dutch imperialism, although the British characters in The Year of Living Dangerously stand in quite well; the Philippines is forever tied to American imperialism in the early 20th century. We fought a vicious war of our own in the country in the early 1900s and remained there through WWII and the entire Cold War. We still play nice with obvious lunatics like the current president, Rodrigo Duterte. China is still there, right? So, game on.

I think it is appropriate to end this section with President Biden’s remarks on the day things really fell apart in Kabul. They are instructive and demonstrate that, for all his administration’s faults in executing the withdrawal – and there were many -he at least seems to be breaking a cycle. I think it takes courage to just say – “no more”

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BREAK

Last episode we started a conversation on the culture of journalism, especially in ongoing crises like revolutions. Now that we’ve seen four movies made between 1981 and 86 about journalists in “Third World” revolutions, what can we say about how Hollywood portrays the men (almost always) who are dropped into these extraordinary events?

It’s worth emphasizing that we’re focused on these representations of journalists not because we just want to shit on journalists and point out that they’re human. It’s because Western democracies hold up the free press as proof of their righteousness, but only when it suits them. But governments, politicians, and the ubiquitous ‘pundits’ are happy to abandon this ideal the second the press is actually doing its job and their coverage becomes critical or inconvenient. And institutions of power work to undermine the press whenever they can through the grinding demands of the free market. 

¡Viva La Revolucion!

EPISODE FOUR PODCAST

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. 

In our first three episodes this season on revolutions and revolutionaries we took on the big one – the American Revolution. And boy, there are a lot of lies agreed upon to choose from, right? So we settled on the inevitable revolution, the inherent purity and wisdom of the Founding Fathers who, it was told, were the primary movers of events, and finally, that the war was waged between idealistic freedom fighters and corrupt occupiers – good guys vs. bad guys, clearly defined.

Episodes four and five are about a popular genre of film in the early 1980s that combine heroic journalism with “third world” revolutions, to use the parlance of the time. When we began scrolling through films to discuss we noticed that a bunch of these journalist movies came out during Ronald Reagan’s first term. As we’ll discuss later, this is both a reflection of his aggressive, militaristic foreign policy vis a vis the Third World and America’s willingness in the early 1980s to finally look back on the Vietnam War with a critical eye. 

If you followed us in season one we did an episode about journalism and 9/11 called The Fourth Estate Under Siege.  We showed how the fourth estate needed a bit of rebranding after getting beat up for dropping the ball on Iraq, often submitting to pressure from the Bush administration. In films like Spotlight, Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Post, Hollywood icons like Steven Spielberg and George Clooney reassured us the press could be honorable watch dogs after all.

Here, moviemakers use journalism as a tool to explain complex politics in far off lands to a Western audience. Maybe audiences wouldn’t have seen them at all if these stories weren’t told through the eyes of white protagonists. But the complex histories of revolutions in countries caught in the middle of the bipolar Cold World order are both made clear and over-simplified, as a result. In this episode we’re looking at two films about revolutions in Central America. In the next episode, we’ll travel to Asia for further variations on the theme. 

Oliver Stone’s Salvador was released in 1986, the same year as Platoon if you can believe it. You may remember we talked about two less than stellar Stone films in season one – Alexander and World Trade Center – and we felt bad about that, so we thought it would be good to dive into some classic Stone. The other film is Under Fire, released in 1983 and directed by action genre specialist Roger Spottiswoode. Neither movie is spectacular, but they are both very revealing about the early 1980s zeitgeist surrounding these revolutions and romantic portraits of journalists. And they both contain strong performances by actors who have gone off the rails in the years since, or who never got their due and deserve to be noticed.

What are our lies agreed upon for this theme of “covering the revolution”? 

The first lie might be that journalists are indeed heroic, driven by a quest for the truth. 

A second lie – related to the first – is that the readership back home cares what foreign correspondents report and so the government is held accountable for their foreign policy actions. 

There is a third set of lies specific to this episode on these Central American revolutions worth mentioning because it takes us back to our first topic this season  – our very own revolution.

The United States was founded in revolution and so one of our myths about our country is that it supports the underdog around the world. After all, the United States is the leading democratic nation and, therefore, it stands to reason that it supports democratic movements over autocratic forces.

Turns out that isn’t the case…and that Oliver Stone is kinda pissed off about it. 

Recaps

Salvador is written and directed by Oliver Stone, although he shares authorship with the subject of the film – journalist Richard Boyle, whose crazy life and antics on screen seem more like just a day in the life of James Woods than a real life story, but amazingly enough, this is a true story. What do we say about James Woods? He’s kind of infamous now, a caricature, but he was always one of Stone’s favorite actors and he is … compelling to watch?  He might even be great, but I can’t tell.

Jim Belushi plays a hapless San Francisco DJ named Dr. Rock, another real person, believe it or not, who gets taken along for the ride to El Salvador. The film is at times the craziest, scariest, most bizarre road trip ever. Other notable actors include the ubiquitous Michale Murphy, who shows up a lot in 80s political dramas, John Savage from The Deer Hunter, and the great Mexican actress Elpidia Carillo. 

Salvador begins with a grainy black and white rendition of actual film footage and an explanation that the events take place between 1980 and 81. The footage is of the massacre of 50 or so demonstrators in January 1980, by the new military dictatorship that overthrew the junta that, in turn, had deposed the democratically elected, left-leaning government in 1979.

Between the editing and score, I got the sense Stone was evoking The Battle of Algiers, maybe the ultimate template for all films about about post-colonial revolutions. A note also says the characters are fictionalized. I hope for Boyle’s sake that applies to him too! We will do a more thorough job of breaking down the historical context of Salvador a little later. Right now we just want to give you the plot.

We are first introduced to a really down and out Richard Boyle, facing eviction, divorce, and few opportunities to ply his trade as a journalist specializing in wars, revolution, and genocide. He’s chaotic, insufferable, a terrible husband and father, completely irresponsible, but we get the sense he knows his business. With stints covering the IRA, Cambodia, Afghanistan, it seems El Salvador is next. Boyle grabs his sad sack buddy Dr. Rock and literally drive from San Francisco to Central America hoping to make himself relevant again.

As they get closer to San Salvador, the sense of unease and casual violence increases. Boyle had been there a year earlier, when things were much quieter. This time, though, the dynamic duo barely avoid getting arrested and shot along with the dozens of young students they see piled up along the road on their way to the capital. And when Boyle reconnects with an old flame, Maria, whose son greets Boyle with great familiarity, we find out her husband has been ‘disappeared’ by the regime. 

Boyle tries to settle in to the country and the circumstances he left the year earlier but Boyle he can’t help but dig deeper into the powder keg, which is being propped up with US money because of renewed fears of a domino effect in Central America – Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador…next stop San Diego! Boyle reconnects with photo journalist John Cassady, played by John Savage, and stumbles across grisly scenes of mass execution and burial. John sort of foretells his own fate when he tells Boyle:  “You got to get close to get the truth. You get too close you die.”  

Boyle is everywhere – speaking to human rights groups, priests and nuns, left-wing union leaders and politicians, and most instructive for him and us the audience, a group of Reaganite military and diplomatic advisers in the embassy. Spinning crazy tales about Castro pouring arms into the region and sending tanks to the US border, these guys are ignoring the Carter appointed ambassador, played by Michael Murphy.  This is Oliver Stone’s chance to document what by 1986 was common knowledge – the US funded and supported death squads in El Salvador under the guise of anti-communism. 

Boyle begins to see the unholy alliance between US support and a right-wing political candidate nicknamed Mad Max, whose party is responsible for assassinating the outspoken Archbishop Oscar Romero, who of course was a real historical figure and a purveyor of liberation theology. We see Romero in action, bitterly criticizing the government violence and US inaction in his country. 

The church really is an enemy of the corrupt military dictatorship here. As a result, nuns and missionary aid workers were also targeted and, in December 1980, 3 nuns from Western nations are brutally raped and murdered by pro-government forces. It really happened but it is depicted in a gratuitous and utterly unempathetic way. 

While the ambassador is poised to pull the plug on US aid for El Salvador after these brutal murders, the pro-Reagan faction, which is now in power because it’s 1981, turn the faucets back on big time.

As things disintegrate and Boyle is increasingly targeted as a fly in the ointment, he exchanges information for a possible exit plan for Maria and her family. Invited to meet with the rebel leader Marti, Boyle passes along some photos to the embassy guys that prove meaningless. The dialogue in this scene is Stone at his best, Boyle’s no-nonsense condemnation of US policy:

Whatever mistakes we do down here, the alternative is 10 times worse.” How many times has that been uttered behind US embassies during the Cold War?

With the Carter appointee gone, US troops, who are there in secret, and weapons come flowing in and Boyle is desperate to escape with Maria. Poor John Cassady gets his iconic shot in a battle, but is killed himself. Boyle manages to smuggle Maria and her surviving son to the US, but their bus is boarded and Maria is discovered. It’s a different experience watching this in 2021 after the misery of the Trump years, casually ejecting the most vulnerable to a terrible fate. The film ends with a note explaining Boyle is still searching for Maria, who was reportedly in a Guatemalan refugee camp. And yes, thankfully, Dr. Rock made it back safely.

Under Fire (1983)

Under Fire came out in 1983.  It’s directed by Roger Spottiswoode, who did a lot of popular action drama movies like 48 Hours, Shoot to Kill, and the Pierce Brosnan James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. It was written by Clayton Frohman and Ron Shelton. Shelton wrote a lot of sports movies, including the brilliant Bull Durham, as well as White Men Can’t Jump, and others. With a pedigree like that you can see that this movie is meant to be a “good story”, not a fiery political rant. Nevertheless, it is filmed much closer to the period of upheaval in Nicaragua that it depicts, and hinges on some pretty grim and cynical plot points. So the fact that it’s a first film for both Spotiswoode and Shelton, suggests that they might have been uncertain yet where their artistic voice would land. 

The cast is a great example of who’s who in the early 1980s. You have Gene Hackman as Alex Grazier, a popular TV reporter with aspirations to be an anchor, Nick Nolte as Russell Price, a photojournalist who comes across as Boyle light, and the great Joanna Cassidy as Claire – typical for the time, her character isn’t even given a last name. 

This love triangle is dropped right in the middle of Nicaragua in 1979 and a lot of the time the plot can’t decide if we are supposed to care more about their love lives or the collapse of the Somoza regime.  There are some other great actors passing through, including Ed Harris as a creepy mercenary named Oates, Richard Masur, who was everywhere in the 80s, as a slimy political consultant working for Somoza, and the great French actor, Jean-Louis Trintignant, known for his work in such classics as Bertolucci’s masterpiece, The Conformist. Trintignant’s French insouciance is put to great use here as Marcel Jazy, a spy who does Somoza’s dirty work. 

The film begins with an explanatory note about Somoza’s long and corrupt reign coming to an end, but our first action involving the trio of characters takes place in Chad. Like all the movies in our two episodes on journalism and revolution, reporters are sometimes as mercenary as crazy Ed Harris, constantly chasing action and tragedy to get the right picture, sound byte, click bait for lack of a better phrase. Alex, Russel and Claire are indifferent to where they are, its about being first.

Once they relocate to the next breaking war in Nicaragua, Claire has a great line, ““You’re going to love this war. Good guys, bad guys, and cheap shrimp.” Its the jaded worldview of Western reporters who can drop in and out of hot zones and never get too close to the misery.

As they travel across the country Russel and Claire do get a sense of the rebels, who strangely enough are never identified as Sandanistas and the mythical commander, someone named Rafael, kind of looks like Daniel Ortega but it’s not him. However, Somoza is a character in the film and is cartoonishly stupid and vain, played by Rene Enriquez, who people of a certain age will instantly recognize as Ray Calletano from Hill Street Blues. There’s a lot of violence, government killings, and you guessed it, Ed Harris killing anyone and everyone. 

The most dramatic moment involves the murder of Alex at the hands of government troops, who then immediately blame the killing on leftist rebels. This is actually based on a real incident – the murder of ABC reporter Bill Stewart and his translator Juan Espinoza by Nicaraguan National Guard troops in June  1979. Like the film, the shooting was caught on film and marked the end of the Carter administration’s relationship with Somoza, whose regime fell just a month later. 

At one point, Russel breaks his loosely held journalistic ethical codes and agrees to stage a photo of Rafael still alive in hopes of preventing further violence. He takes sides with the rebels by doing this. And so, at the end of film, Russel and Claire celebrate along with everyone else in Managua, as if they were part of the revolution. Meanwhile, Ed Harris, who shot dozens of leftists, is also enjoying the celebration, drinking a cube libre like nothing happened.

I love 80s trailers and the one for Under Fire doesn’t disappoint. Let’s play it and enjoy the deep voiced announcer.

You tell from the voiceover the film is an adventure/love story first. 

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So, let’s revisit our lies agreed upon for this episode and dig deeper into the very specific historical context of these two films. 

The first lie is about the hero-journalist, almost always a male with a drinking problem but a good soul beneath it all. Their work actually MEANS something, don’t you know.

The second lie is that the reporters’ audience, whether in print or TV, actually care and react, pressuring governments (who supposedly also care) to do the right thing because of investigative journalism. 

The third is actually two lies about the Central American revolutions depicted in Salvador and Under Fire. Specifically, the US role in both causing them and making them worse. 

The United States was founded in revolution and supports the underdog around the world

The United States is the leading democratic nation and, therefore, supports democratic movements over autocratic forces

Let’s take the last one first since the ins and outs of these revolutions are kind of confusing, even if you paid attention to them at the time. 

The Reagan Administration came to Washington determined to combat communism—especially in Latin America. Reagan and his advisers focused in particular on El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Secretary of State Alexander Haig decided to make El Salvador a “test case” of his foreign policy, basically backing the right wing military junta in its brutal suppression of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. Boyle in Salvador goes back and forth between them. Conflicts between the White House and the State Department and with the Congress, however, frustrated the Administration’s bold plans. While Haig fought for  a significant increase in military assistance to El Salvador, Congress made certification of progress on human rights a quid pro quo. The two branches of government clashed regularly over assistance and certification. You see the beginning of this dynamic in Salvador, when it was still technically Carter’s foreign policy.

The setting for Under Fire is the Nicaraguan Revolution, which actually spanned decades. The rising opposition to Somoza in the 1960s and 70s was led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which finally ousted Somoza in a civil war beginning in the countryside in 1978 and culminating in capturing the capital in 1979. The Sandinistas immediately faced rebels of their own with the US backed Contras. Tens of thousands died as both the US and Soviet Union poured money into the region until 1990, when a truce ended the conflict. Daniel Ortega is still holding on to power and it seems he’s putting off some Somoza vibes of his own. Much like Mugabe in Zimbabwe, sadly the freedom fighter becomes the dictator. 

In April of 1983, Ronald Reagan asked to speak to a joint session of Congress about Central America, specifically on El Salvador and Nicaragua, the settings for our films this week. It’s all about grand strategy here, and pay attention to his Nazi reference. Always lean on Nazis when you want to scare people into submission.

In the grand scheme of things in this global cold war, should you really care about death squads and dead leftist students or peasants or indigenous peoples? Reagan was hoping the answer was No. and you won’t here much rhetoric on safeguarding democracy in central america and there’s no scarier word in US foreign policy than “revolution.” When I listen to Reagan it’s clear Oliver Stone was used the US embassy goons in Salvador to embody these paranoid delusions at the heart of early Reagan era foreign policy.

We came across a 2011 panel discussion with Oliver Stone and James Woods revisiting Salvador at a Lincoln Center screening and that scene came up. It’s pretty interesting to get their take on it. Let’s listen

The whole program is pretty wild, as you might imagine with those two. The making of the movie was as crazy as what’s on screen. But, Stone says Salvador was when he found his voice in some ways, especially with that scene. 

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Now’s a good time to open things up and discuss what connects not just these two movies, but our films next week – The Year of Living Dangerously and The Killing Fields – and that is the culture of journalism in this late Cold War era. Richard Boyle and the gang of three in Under Fire are prototypical egotistical, difficult, single-minded reporters who take on the big, bad, corrupt US government and score moral victories. They got the story, showed some personal growth, and shed some of their angelic light on the plight of the sad foreign people usually ignored by the West. Yay journalists!

There are some great quotes in Under Fire that get to a more cynical look at this narrative. Russell Price is at one point sharing a cell with a priest, who asks him “what side are you on?” Russell insists “I don’t take sides, I take pictures.” By the end of the film that perspective is unsustainable. Alex is killed and Somoza’s goons are set loose on all reporters. When Claire breaks down after hearing about Alex’s death in a news story, a rebel nurse surrounded by dead bodies brings her down to Earth: “50,000 Nicaraguans died. And now one Yankee. Perhaps we should have killed an American journalist 50 years ago.”

One constant in these reporters-covering-revolutions films is the idea they are at heart, mercenaries. They don’t come in country caring about it. As crazy Ed Harris snipes to Russel, “I get paid the same way you do.” Even the rebels in Under Fire know what to expect from reporters and manipulate the same way Somoza does. A translator who is actually a rebel gets Alex, Claire and Russel to do the rebels’ bidding, telling them “It’s a good story. You’ll be more famous.”

When we take a hard look at lie 1 – the hero-journalist BS – it tells us a lot about what audiences believed about the fourth estate in the early 1980s. Now? I think the rose colored glasses are off and most of us would just like to have real journalism every now and then. No one needs to be heroic, just truthful. Maybe that’s where the heroism lies.

Lie 2 is harder to get at in these two films. Why does it matter? Did Richard Boyle change anything with his reporting, or John’s photograph that got him killed? What about our three lovers in Under Fire? They try to make a connection between Alex’s murder and Carter suspending aid to Somoza, and we noted the real story behind that earlier, but Reagan restored that aid times a thousand. 

The way to address Lie 2 is to put the films into their historical moment. Because then we can see how little changes between Nicaragua and El Salvador, and how little changes between El Salvador and all of the illegal interventions (or intentional lack of intervention) that have happened since, guided purely by US interest, not ideals. Our films this week cover the beginnings of things – 1979 to 81 between the two – but we know things escalated as Reagan breathed new life into covert operations after about 15 years of dormancy. From mining the Managua harbor, funding death squads in El Salvador, to the piece de resistance – the Iran-Contra Affair.

Here’s a 30 year retrospective of the Iran Contra affair with ABC journalist Jon Martin. It’s a reminder of what was at stake and the linkage between these two countries. 

What about the “locals” for lack of a better word? How do these films portray the people of El Salvador, Nicaragua? The reporter’s gaze is always white, male, privileged, and exploitative whether they mean to or not. These guys, and they are 90% guys, let’s be frank, use the locals, screw them, screw them over, and treat them like errant children.