Review | In 1980s politics and movies, a longing for lost innocence – The Washington Post

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Rebecca Prime is the associate editor of Film Quarterly and the author of “Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture.”
During a meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in September 1987, President Ronald Reagan stunned the room by speculating: “If suddenly the Earth’s civilizations are threatened by other worlds, the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union will unite. Isn’t that so?” Reagan returned to his theme less than a week later in a speech at the United Nations, in which he imagined “how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”
For film critic and historian J. Hoberman, the president’s apparent fascination with space invaders reflects the degree to which he lived his life not only in but through the movies — in this instance, the 1951 sci-fi drama “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” In his new book, “Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan,” Hoberman explores Reagan’s movie-steeped worldview along with the dramatic cultural shifts reflected in the films of the era. Vice President George H.W. Bush promoted the president’s impact when he “boastfully told a conclave of Texas police officers that the Reagan administration changed the nation’s movie preference from ‘Easy Rider’ to ‘Dirty Harry,’ ” Hoberman writes.
Reagan represents what Hoberman calls the “Dream Life,” a concept the author borrows from Norman Mailer to describe the commingling of politics and entertainment and the rise of celebrity culture in American public life. As America’s “entertainer-in-chief,” Reagan sought to move the country past the disillusionment wrought by Vietnam and Watergate. “His mandate,” Hoberman explains, “wasn’t simply to restore America’s economy and sense of military superiority but also, even more crucially, its innocence.”
In “Make My Day,” Hoberman argues that this longing for lost innocence explains the regressive turn of many of Hollywood’s greatest hits of the 1980s. Whether evincing nostalgia for the “Nifty Fifties,” as in “Back to the Future” and “Peggy Sue Got Married,” or fulfilling childhood fantasies of action and adventure, as in the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises, these films bypassed the cultural disruption and failed political revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. In doing so, they were in sync with Reagan’s retrograde vision, perhaps best encapsulated in his 1984 reelection campaign film, “A New Beginning,” with its amber-hued evocation of small-town America. “Reaganland,” in Hoberman’s telling, was a place where “America’s lost illusions were found, dusted off, and deployed one last time.” ( “Found Illusions” is Hoberman’s title for his trilogy of books on Cold War American film and politics, of which “Make My Day” is the final volume.)
Notwithstanding the book’s subtitle, Reagan makes only fleeting appearances in the first two chapters, which cover the period from Watergate to the Iran hostage crisis. In terms of film history, these years marked the rise of the summer blockbuster, like “Jaws,” whose wide release was buoyed by saturation advertising, and “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial,” which had licensing deals for products from lunchboxes to underwear. While noting these trends, Hoberman’s interest lies elsewhere. He delves into Robert Altman’s sprawling, multilinear “Nashville” and sees in the film’s portrayal of a presidential campaign the “inevitable growth of spectacular politics.” Assessing Sylvester Stallone’s surprise hit “Rocky,” Hoberman believes that the film is a “full-fledged symptom” of America’s desire to feel good about itself again after the cynicism and paranoia reflected in “Network,” “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View.”
“Make My Day” shifts into sharper focus after Reagan’s election. Citing fellow critic David Denby, Hoberman notes that three of the biggest-budget films of the early 1980s — “Heaven’s Gate,” “Ragtime” and “Reds” — were “overtly leftist.” By 1983 and 1984, however, films like “War Games” and “Red Dawn” centered on the pervasive Cold War tensions and nuclear anxiety of the times. “War Games” was a particular favorite of Reagan’s; he screened it at Camp David and proceeded to discuss the movie’s plot at length in a meeting with a bipartisan group of congressional leaders who had supported his intercontinental ballistic missile plan. Perhaps inevitably, Hoberman offers up “Ghostbusters” as a quintessential ’80s film, with the battle against the paranormal standing in for the fear of foreign invasion. The film “embodied the 1984 zeitgeist” through its mocking disregard for academic research, disdain for the Environmental Protection Agency and celebration of the free market.
Hoberman describes “Make My Day” as a “chronicle in which political events and Hollywood movies are folded into each other.” While the distinction is accurate, the result is a narrative that can feel fragmented and superficial, as Hoberman crosscuts between such disparate material as unemployment figures and the release of “Conan the Barbarian,” or the Chernobyl disaster and the production of “Top Gun.” Too often juxtaposition and implication substitute for analysis.
Hoberman’s longer case studies make his points more effectively, as in his discussion of the confluence between “The Right Stuff” and astronaut John Glenn’s 1984 presidential bid. “Make My Day” also would have benefited from tighter editing to reduce repetition and limit Hoberman’s lengthy excerpts from his 1980s Village Voice columns, allowing the author’s pithy summations of a film’s cultural significance to shine more brightly.
By Hoberman’s own assessment, the films discussed in “Make My Day” are not the best of the era but those that provide the “richest political allegories.” His focus on only two genres — action and science fiction — results in a highly selective reading of the zeitgeist, akin to judging the 1940s and 1950s solely through the lens of film noir. Nevertheless, in ways Hoberman didn’t expect when he began his book, the Trump presidency gives a new urgency to revisiting the Reagan years. As Hoberman attempts to grapple with the meaning of that earlier era, it’s impossible not to be reminded of today’s president and “master self-promoter.” “Donald Trump may be a product of Reaganism,” Hoberman writes, “but he is not simply Reagan redux.” Viewed through today’s lens, Reagan’s mastery of public relations — and at times loose relationship with the facts — redefined the presidency in ways that presaged Trump, but his faith in the magic of the movies now seems quaint.
By J. Hoberman
The New Press. 396 pp. $28.99

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