Hollywood and the Return of the Cold War

Recently Hollywood released three major movies which all have Russians as the “bad guys” and which focus on the Cold War as their context. Meryl Streep portrays Cold Warrior Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady,” Gary Oldman roots out a dangerous Soviet mole from the British intelligence service in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and Tom Cruise works furiously to prevent a Cold War-style nuclear exchange between America and Russia in “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.”

As Jason Apuzzo, Co-Editor of “Libertas Film Magazine,” notes in his article in The Huffington Post (January 13, 2012): “These films form part of a major Hollywood trend toward reawakening memories of the Cold War – an era that is suddenly returning with a vengeance on the big screen, with long-term implications for our popular culture.”

Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” tells the story of legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s running battle against the Communist Party’s infiltration of the United States and a whole series of Blu-rays are now available of films made in 2011, a watershed year in Hollywood for portraying the struggle between America and the Soviet Union – such as “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Apollo 18,” and “The Kennedys.”

Apuzzo asks the obvious question: What’s going on here? His response: “The simplest answer may be that the old Soviet Union is gradually replacing Nazi Germany, Imperial Rome and space aliens as Hollywood’s favorite antagonists.” He points out that Hollywood is hesitant to make films about today’s war on terror and memories of the Second World War have faded. This leaves strong-armed Russian leaders as the new safe, consensus villains.

This trend began in 2008, Apuzzo notes, with “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which featured Soviet Communists as the enemy. This sent a signal to the left-of-center filmmakers that depicting Communists as villains was okay now. Soon to follow was Angelina Jolie pursuing Soviet agents in “Salt,” Ed Harris and Colin Farrell escaping a brutal Soviet gulag in “The Way Back,” and Richard Gere and Martin Sheen hunting down a Russian mole in “The Double.” With more to follow!

While the Russians are not the only villains in American films – they are sometimes replaced by the Chinese or North Koreans, as in the remake of “Red Dawn” – the Cold War revival in film signals an important shift among Hollywood filmmakers. In previous decades, filmmakers often depicted the Cold War as a struggle between two paranoid nations who had distorted images of each other. Ronald Reagan was often portrayed in this way. American militarism was to blame for the conflict with the Soviets, as is clear in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964), and American paranoia was made light of in ‘The Russians Are Coming, the Russians are Coming” (1966).

Newer, younger filmmakers seem less ideologically driven, according to Apuzzo, and they see the Cold War as fertile ground for storytelling – particularly stories about the struggle for freedom. They are assuming that they can create film plots for younger people than will attract them in the same way World War Two films drew in the older generation.

Filmmakers see a link between the Communist governments of the last century and the new repressive regimes of today. President Putin, a former KGB officer, who is now in charge of Russia and authoritarian Communist regimes in China and North Korea make easy targets in a world were popular revolutions against dictators are happening in the Middle East and northern Africa.

The trend is now moving to TV as well. Apuzzo reports that both HBO and FX are developing competing series about Soviet spies in the United States and HBO has another series in development about Cold war spies in Berlin.

As we witnessed during the height of the Cold War, the media in Russia is a mirror-image of that in the United States. Anti-American propaganda is widespread in Russia today, but the difference is that Russian TV and movies are largely controlled and funded by the Kremlin, whereas Hollywood filmmakers are independent and are not controlled by the party in power in the White House.

The power of popular culture, especially images generated by the film industries in both countries, makes the task of building constructive relations between America and Russia even more challenging. People-to-people networking through organizations like the Russian-American Institute is as important now as it was during the difficult days of the Cold War.