You know it’s been a bad couple of years for members of the U.S. intelligence community when Steve Carell signs on to play one of their ilk. As endearingly dim-witted weatherman Brick Tamlin in 2004’s “Anchorman,” Carell stole the show, letting loose bizarre weather reports (he refers to Iowa as the Middle East) and inadvertently killing a rival journalist in a confused brawl (Will Ferrell deadpans, “Brick, I think you’d better lay low for a while”). Starring for the first time in 2005’s “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” Carell played a Peter Pan-esque hero, ultimately vindicated, but not before being put through ridiculous stunts (e.g., he waxes his chest hair, and, howling in pain, escapes in the middle of the procedure, his few waxed patches forming a smiley face).
This year, Carell has been perfectly cast as Maxwell Smart in “Get Smart,” a movie version of the classic 1960s TV show parodying American and Soviet espionage. Imagine a blend of Groucho Marx and the Three Stooges. Now imagine a character like this undertaking James Bond-esque missions, talking into a “shoe phone” and boasting a “cone of silence” for secret communiques that is a literal cone (which usually malfunctions). That’s basically the idea.
Hollywood, of course, is no stranger to remakes and flashbacks. What’s interesting is what specifically “Get Smart,” through pointed, it’s-funny-because-it’s-true humor, flashes back to. It reminds us of the two defining features of Cold War America: tragically large-scale haplessness, and paranoia of not only the enemy’s government, but also our own.
“Get Smart” joins a series of recent movies that tap into this dark American era. 2004 saw a remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” a 1962 movie that discussed the politics of brainwashing and paranoia in a Cold War context. By remaking a movie like this in an election year, the producers subtly related the film’s lessons to the unusually heated political arena of the Bush-Kerry race. Last year, George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck,” detailed television journalist Edward R. Murrow’s perilous fight to thwart McCarthy’s “witch hunt” for Communists during the 1950s. And in 2003, just months after the American-led invasion of Iraq, Errol Morris’ Oscar-winning documentary “The Fog of War” gave Robert McNamara, defense secretary during the Vietnam War, a bully pulpit to confess American mistakes in adventurism. In the final scenes, he explained that in the “fog of war,” such mistakes are unavoidable. (This sad inevitability, of course, might be a reason not to go to war in the first place, unless there’s really no other choice.)
Hollywood waited a long time before making these flashback movies — a whole decade after the film version of the contemporaneous, but more classically heroic, “Mission: Impossible” franchise. And having waited this long, it has bunched them closely, between 2003 and 2006. Not that now is the first time Americans have examined the Cold War on screen — 1978’s “Coming Home,” for instance, gave voice to the pain of the Vietnam War. But in 1978, the Cold War still had a decade left on the clock. Now may be the first time that so many movies have retold the Cold War as a parable, designed to wear implicit lessons and parallels like subtitles.
The Bush Administration has done us the bitter favor of making these stories worth telling again. During the Clinton years, we saw history as linear, even complete. First, we fought Nazis, then Communists, now nobody. First, we had McCarthy, then Nixon, now a man whose only deceits concern an infamous stain on an infamous dress (during which time Clinton’s approval ratings still remained quite high). Accordingly, we got movies like “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Patriot,” less revelatory of American mistakes and less cynically resonant with the times in which they were released.
Now, we see history as circular. Bush’s penchant for illegal wiretapping brings Nixon to mind. Karl Rove’s character assassinations, from John McCain to John Kerry, remind one of the 1950s Red Scare, as do the cleverly named Patriot Act and other condemnations of dissidence as treason. In Rumsfeld’s unusually high comfort level with torture, and in intelligence cookers like George Tenet, the dubious practices of the Vietnam War rear their ugly heads. In Bush one-liners such as “You’re either with us or with the terrorists,” one hears echoes of Vietnam-era one-liners such as “Love it or leave it.” So the stories we tell, through movies, about our country — stories that reveal our deepest joys and fears for our country — reflect this grim sense, under Bush, of “Here we are again.”
With sad irony, we have eviscerated the “Never Again” principle we clutch so dearly, that in times of peace, we retell stories of horrors, so as to avoid ever repeating them. But in a true time of peace, we’d never dream we might commit such crimes, so who would bother telling the stories? Apparently not Hollywood, which — like it or not — is America’s truest cultural touchstone. Rather, we avoid these stories, because it is more pleasant to do so, and there appears to be very little cost.
Of course, there is enormous cost. Young Americans die daily in Iraq, while suit-clad bureaucrats assure us victory in a dozen years, if not a half dozen, which sounds optimistic in comparison. Civil liberties face as grave a threat. And now, only now, we retell the stories of when America used to be like this, more “Stop Now” than “Never Again,” our voices laced with the kind of panic that can only mean we should have started sooner.
Noah Lawrence is a freshman in Saybrook College.