During many academic introductions to the Cold War, teachers present clips of Cold War-era feature films. They show these clips, with their demonic Russian villains and eminent nuclear war, alongside videos that teach schoolchildren to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack and brochures detailing the proper stockpile for a private bomb shelter. In this context, the films and their paranoid themes seem like relics of our past. They become artifacts that we use to dissect history; we watch them as symptoms of the paranoia rampant within Cold War America. Modern viewers may laugh at the dramatic nature of the films. Feeling that America has left the Cold War behind, we now tend to look back upon its cultural reflections with something verging on condescension.
Recently, skimming blog posts about this spring’s upcoming films, I came across “White House Down,” which Sony plans to release in June. The plot follows a failed Secret Service applicant (Channing Tatum), who happens to be on a tour of the White House when a paramilitary troop invades the building. Eventually, Tatum saves both the day and the president.
Sound familiar? It should. This weekend, Millennium Films released “Olympus Has Fallen,” an action flick following an ex-Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) as he navigates a terrorist infiltration of the White House. Butler somehow manages to dispel the terrorists, rescue the president and restore general order.
What can we learn from the similarities between these two films? Has Hollywood simply run out of ideas? People like movies such as “Die Hard” (1988) and “Independence Day” (1996). So why not combine them? Twice? But I think that there’s something more here.
Film provides a particularly good barometer of cultural beliefs, fears, desires, etc., for two reasons. First, film is a collaborative art form. Unlike a painter or an author, who most often creates his or her work in solitude, a director works alongside producers, actors, cinematographers, editors and at times hundreds of others to craft a product. Although one contributor may drive the vision, such collaboration often implies some sort of compromise or agreed-upon principles within the work.
Second, the studio system moderates most mainstream films. Studios look to create not only an artistic product, but also a lucrative one. Making a popular film often means reflecting popular attitudes or anxieties. Yes, some other art forms, like the modern novel, are also formed in part by the structures of industry. However, with today’s excess of film marketing, product placement and sequels, the film industry stands as an extreme in the transformation of art to commodity. Though all art can be interpreted as a reflection of society and culture, film might be the one most desperately trying to please and relate to the public.
This model illuminates Cold War films as symptomatic of Cold War culture. In “My Son John” (1952), a family discovers that its beloved son has returned home from abroad as a Communist, reflecting a fear of Communist infiltration into the peace of American family life. In “Fail Safe” (1964), the U.S. accidentally drops an atomic bomb on Moscow, leading to the possibility of retaliation. Such a plot plays on Cold War viewers’ fears of a possible nuclear holocaust.
In view of “White House Down” and “Olympus Has Fallen,” it is time to take another look at these seemingly antiquated Cold War films. Perhaps they should not be viewed as mere relics, but as relevant parallels. The portrayal of American paranoia through film has not faded, but remains strong. Not one studio, but two, believed that the story of a terrorist takeover of the White House would strike a chord with American viewers. And these are not the only two films to fit such a model. In Paramount’s “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” currently playing at the Criterion, a nuke-crazy villain impersonates the president. And general terrorist films have run rampant both before and after 9/11: “Die Hard” (1988) and “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012) are merely a couple of the most popular manifestations.
The antagonists have changed since the 1960s. In “Olympus Has Fallen” the terrorists are North Korean rather than Russian, reflecting a current fear of North Korean nuclear power; in “G.I. Joe”’s preview, the impostor expressly threatens North Korea, leaving a potential viewer wondering whether a “Fail-Safe”-like nuclear standoff awaits. Entire books, like Jack Shaheen’s “Reel Bad Arabs,” have been written on the vilification of Arabs in American films, especially after 9/11.
Today’s box office implies that Cold War films ought not to be mocked as relics of our past. Our fears have not ended, but merely transferred their target. We remain both terrified and fascinated by threats from the outside. We’ll continue watching — especially when Channing Tatum’s the one who saves us.