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25 September 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 12:54pm

How movies made Reagan’s America

The Hollywood films of the Eighties paint a portrait of a schizophrenic, semi-free society.

By Jackson Arn

The cliché about Washington, DC being Hollywood for ugly people may have originated in the 1980s, but the idea behind it is at least as old as Juvenal’s bread and circuses. Seeing that government and entertainment are somehow connected is easy. Deciding where the connection lies and which way it points – who is the tail, who is the dog and who does the wagging – is harder.

In an era when the default mode of cultural criticism is ham-fisted explication of what x “says” about race/gender/Trump, Jim “J” Hoberman is one of the few writers capable of treating the intersection of film and politics with the intelligence it demands. During his three decades as film critic for the Village Voice he perfected the art of analysing pop culture without zealotry or condescension, and found time to champion Lynch, Tarkovsky and Akerman. The subject of his latest book is a less highbrow entertainer: star of Kings Row and Bedtime for Bonzo, noted fan of Back to the Future and 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan.

Make My Day examines dozens of mainstream American film-makers, from John Carpenter and George Lucas to Joe Dante and Elaine May. Still, there is no mistaking the star. After his Hollywood acting career, which lasted from 1937 to 1964, Reagan took up politics in earnest: having switched from Democrat to Republican, becoming governor of California in 1967 and serving as president from 1981 to 1989.

After the disillusionment of the counterculture era, Hoberman writes, “the late Seventies and Eighties brought a process of re-illusionment. Its agent was Ronald Reagan. His mandate wasn’t simply to restore America’s economy and sense of military superiority but also, even more crucially, its innocence.” At the box office, the same America that twice elected the Gipper – a nickname acquired from Reagan’s role as George “The Gipper” Gipp in Knute Rockne, All American – voted for infantilising fare like ET (1982) and Top Gun (1986) that celebrated family, the military and other casualties of the cynical Seventies.

Hoberman isn’t trying to write a history of the Reagan years. Nor, by his own admission, is he going for in-depth criticism (few films get more than a couple pages of discussion). What emerges instead is a portrait of a schizophrenic, semi-free society whose two most visible sectors, the government and the film industry, are neither one and the same nor completely disconnected.

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Reagan, in his idiot savant way, understood the political power of Hollywood spectacle. America was suffering from Vietnam syndrome and the only cure, as he told a roomful of veterans in 1980, was an unlosable war. Three years later, a swarm of Marines and Navy Seals stormed the impoverished island nation of Grenada, population 91,000. The invasion was, at least from where most Americans were sitting, a big-budget action movie with a happy ending, designed to drum up support for future wars. Reagan: “Our days of weakness are over.”

Other jingoistic extravaganzas followed – Commando, Red Dawn, endless Rockys and Rambos. Like the implanted memories in Blade Runner, they evoked nostalgia for something that had never existed in the first place: an era of unambiguous good and evil, when America acted with the moral clarity of James Stewart. Hollywood occasionally mocked the status quo, but for every They Live – John Carpenter’s scabrous 1988 send-up of the Reagan-era culture industry – there were a dozen Rocky IVs. What receded from Hollywood around this time, Hoberman suggests, was its attention to the textures of working-class life, still very much a part of mainstream film-making as late as the Carter years (1977-81). In Rocky’s 1976 debut, Sylvester Stallone’s boxer was a stubbled, sweatshirted debt collector; by Reagan’s second term, he was a lubed hunk with a pet robot.

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The big question, which Make My Day never explicitly answers, is: who changed whom? Reagan, with his Hollywood background, sometimes seems to be the agent of 1980s re-illusionment, with film-makers such as John McTiernan (Predator, Die Hard) aping the macho themes of his presidency. At other times, government lags behind Hollywood – in 1984, for example, when “Democrats and Republicans realised on some level that the party that controlled Ghostbusters would win the election”.

It’s a handsome line, but, like a lot of Reagan-era cinema and too much of this book, strangely unnourishing. At times, Hoberman’s analysis verges on tautology: politics mirrors pop, which mirrors politics, even as they mirror underlying social forces that presumably mirror them both. Hoberman is right, of course, that Hollywood and DC influence each other, but he doesn’t always uncover much by putting them in conversation.

Too often, Hoberman is reduced to pointing out that two milestones, a movie and a historical event, sort of look alike. The best of these comparisons are interesting-ish. The worst are embarrassing. According to Hoberman, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost”, the tagline for Ghostbusters – the top grosser during Reagan’s 1984 re-election campaign – “includes the very spectre that, 136 years before, Marx and Engels saw haunting Europe”. Of Jimmy Carter’s smile and the Jaws poster, Hoberman writes: “It is tempting to view this ferocious grin as an inverted version of a shark’s ghastly grimace – perhaps even its negation.” Tempting for whom? This is what George Orwell (speaking of 1984) had in mind when he said some ideas were so ridiculous only intellectuals could believe them.

If Reagan is the agent of change in Make My Day, the surprise scene-stealer is his successor. Mocked in Back to the Future Part II (1989) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), Donald J Trump later embraced reality TV and Twitter, and used both to launch a presidential campaign that made Reagan’s look like a model of high-mindedness. Trump is “not simply Reagan redux”, Hoberman acknowledges in a long epilogue, but he “is a beneficiary of Reagannostalgia, which is to say, a nostalgia that is nostalgic for nostalgia itself”. Another fine phrase. But if Make My Day is any sign, we’re no closer to understanding the thin line that separates showbiz from elected office than we were on 4 November 1980. 

Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan
J Hoberman
New Press, 400pp, £24

This article appears in the 25 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace