As the horrific Russian invasion of Ukraine continues and anti-Russian sentiments are boiling over, Americans have found themselves hearkening back to the moral and narrative frames that defined Cold War-era cinema to make sense of this moment and our role in it. From Red Dawn to Rocky IV, Hollywood depictions of the pitched battle between the scrappy, freedom-loving West and the cold, monstrous Other in the East made for great movie watching, but it also had curious and long-lasting effects on the American psyche.
In the latest installment of Art for the End Times, Lyta speaks with writer and media critic Adam Johnson about some of their favorite ‘80s Cold War action movies, how they shaped the ways we think, how they’re problematic, and how sometimes we like them anyway. Adam Johnson is the cohost of Citations Needed, “a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit,” and author of The Column on Substack.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden
Lyta Gold: Hello, and welcome to Art for the End Times. As always, I’m your host Lyta Gold. So, a lot of things have happened since our last episode. There were pretty important news events. Russia invaded Ukraine, unexpectedly for everyone. And that’s been very awful of course. There have been some really awful reactions to it as well. On the culture front, there’s been this sudden boycott of all things Russian in the name of helping Ukraine, but it’s weird and has had weird and terrible effects. There have been so-called Russian restaurants boycotted even though a lot of them are owned by Ukrainians. And there’s been silly things like dumping vodka out or pulling Tchaikovsky from classical concerts. And what this has put me in mind of is Cold War hysteria.
But it’s turbocharged Cold War hysteria and it’s different in some respects. But it did get me thinking about Cold War era action movies. Because these giant blockbusters, especially the ’80s blockbusters, I think they really shaped the way that a lot of Americans thought about the Soviet Union at the time and the way that they still think about Russia now, because there was a survey recently that a lot of Americans still think that Russia is communist. So that’s obviously still very affected by the Cold War era propaganda. So to talk about these very interesting and very influential and often very bad but also really fun action movies, I have a very, very special guest. He is a writer, journalist, a co-host of the amazing podcast, Citations Needed, one of the czars of left culture studies. It’s Adam Johnson.
Adam Johnson: I do make a point of saying I’m not a journalist. Journalists uncover new information and wake up before noon, and I’m a podcaster and a media critic. So I do neither of those things.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. We really are in a much sillier, lazier group.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. Journalism is such a noble label. I don’t use that term, because to me journalism will call and get quotes and do new [inaudible] and meet people in parking garages in Foggy Bottom. I like saying media analyst. It sounds more high brow or less ideological in the mean spirit of the media critic.
Lyta Gold: I like that. Yeah.
Adam Johnson: Anyway, just to be clear, I’m definitely not a journalist.
Lyta Gold: I’m just imagining a scenario in which you would do a Deep Throat meeting in a garage to talk about Rambo [crosstalk] –
Adam Johnson: Well, pursuant media criticism, I have done a touch of journalism here and there. For example, we had someone who was an MSNBC producer come on our show to criticize MSNBC, and we did the voice distortion thing like the kidnappers from Ransom, you know like [imitates distortion noise]. So I’ve done a touch of that here and there, followed up and gotten quotes, but mostly no. But anyway, that’s the category error thing. It’s not really that important.
Lyta Gold: I apologize for calling you a journalist.
Adam Johnson: No, no, it’s more about I don’t want to give people the false impression that I’m a journalist, but I appreciate it though.
Lyta Gold: So to begin, I wanted to get your opinion as an expert on these kinds of action movies. Just to start off with, what do you feel is different? Do you think it’s the same or different, the sudden anti-Russia hysteria, compared to how Russian art, I guess, was regarded during the Cold War?
Adam Johnson: Cold War hysteria always had a tinge or an element of, I don’t want to say anti-Russia racism, but maybe anti-Slavic or anti-Orient orientation. That was always a large part of it, but obviously they were manifestly white, but also they were very much Asiatic in terms of how they were perceived and how they were positioned against the “West.” So there was always an element of that, but I think it was overwhelmingly ideological. This obviously doesn’t quite have that, although it does for 40-some-odd percent who somehow still think Russia is communist. And you can’t blame them when BBC and MSNBC had multiple graphics with Putin and the hammer and sickle and such. It’s maybe understandable why people would think that. Whereas this recent surge is a little bit more ethnic in orientation, but I also understand why because, again, it borrows many other cultural or economic boycotts one would see called for against South Africa.
Obviously the context is totally different. The implementation has been totally different. Turns out BDS can work if you have the full support of all Western corporations, the CIA, the DOD, the entirety of NATO, and the pulpit of the WTO, and other such organizations. Turns out all you need for boycotts to work is to have a lot of power and target an economy smaller than Italy’s, although it is of course a major petroleum and natural gas producer. So it’s different in that sense. It also takes the form of a social media pile on, for want of a better term. I think someone made some comment about how Russia was the first country to be canceled. And people dunked on it, I think rightfully, but a part of me was also like, I see what he was getting at. It has a similar kind of –
Lyta Gold: It is like complete ostracism.
Adam Johnson: It has a vibe that it is unprecedented. I think there was a half-assed attempt in 2018 to “cancel Saudi Arabia” after they bone sawed Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist, but then everyone quickly realized that there was way too much Saudi integration to the think tank world and the policy world and the Cohen Group, Albright Stonebridge Democratic consultant laundromat, bipartisan consultant laundromat world, that that wasn’t really possible in terms of Saudi investments in Uber and other big Silicon Valley companies through their sovereign wealth fund. And of course they vest heavily in VICE. That just blew over because it’s much harder to disintegrate Saudi money from much of the media and consulting world.
Lyta Gold: I just saw an article about how sad MBS is over the Khashoggi thing. He’s got a lot of feelings.
Adam Johnson: I believe he said it hurt his feelings personally. And it’s like, well, sorry that we upset you by just slapping you on the wrist for bone sawing a columnist of The Washington Post. But this is different because there’s obviously also an element of… I mean the invasion itself is objectively horrific by any objective measure. So it’s like it’s not as if this is something that’s been invented. It is an unconscionable act of aggression that was completely unjustified, and Putin himself is using a pre revolutionary imperial justification. He’s saying, oh, I’m restoring the borders of czarist Russia. And it’s like, oh, okay. So it’s hard to even have any sympathy in that regard. And then you combine it with, I think, the mass psychology of the fact that we have basically half the population that believes Putin installed Trump and beat Hilary Clinton in 2016.
So there’s this kind of, I don’t want to put pathologize it, but there’s a kind of processing of trauma with respect to that and desire for having revenge around that. Again, I think maybe even somewhat justifiably so. So it’s this kind of perfect storm. And then you mix all this together with the broader fact that the absolute worst lanyard NATO people on earth had, this is their big moment, where they’re paranoid and weapons contractor-funded worldview becomes vindicated. So it’s this perfect shit storm of a lot of bad actors. And of course, Ukrainians are the ones that are stuck in the middle suffering from all this. And so it’s a little bit of a different dimension, but I think, culturally speaking, the enemies have changed a little bit, but the interchangeable Slavic bad guy never really went away.
I mean, you heard the Russian mobsters were a very popular bad guy in the 2000s because you want to have a ethnic bad guy, but if it’s not a white person it gets a little dicey. And so movies like routinely John Wick and such, Russian mob’s a good go-to. I think maybe occasionally they’d throw in a Serbian mobster or whatever. But as long as it was vaguely Oriental but also white, then it fell into this sweet spot. So I think that never really left us. So looking at the ’80s war movies, it definitely seems more ideological and less about Russians per se.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. That’s something I found when I was looking back at some of these Cold War movies is they… Actually a place I really see it, I don’t know if you watched the third season of Stranger Things.
Adam Johnson: I never watched Stranger Things.
Lyta Gold: The first season I think is actually fun, but so the idea of Stranger Things is in the ’80s. It’s in the spirit of –
Adam Johnson: Oh, pastiche, right?
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s a pastiche. It’s in the spirit of… And the first season I think is actually a good story in its own right and then it gets increasingly pastichey. And by the third season, the Russians come in as villains and they are cartoon villains. They’re actually quite different than they appear in ’80s movies. And I think it’s actually interesting to look back at ’80s movies and the creation of the enemy because… Well, so, I guess when we’re talking about ideological portrayals and the portrayal of ideology as the enemy, I look at these movies and I see, okay, it seems like they portray the Soviets as very mechanistic, as brainwashed, but ultimately good people if they can get past it. Do you see that? What else do you see in that?
Adam Johnson: It really depends. It’s almost hard to generalize these movies we’ve watched, and maybe we should go movie by movie, but specifically in Red Heat, it’s a Walter Hill buddy comedy at the last throes of the Soviet Union, which came out in 1988. And internally I guess there was some conflict, he’s portrayed as a patriot. He’s a man of principle. They’re both fighting this war on drugs. So it’s this kind of thing that the Soviets and Americans can both agree on, which is we should just throw the book at drug dealers and kill them all. But at the same time, the movie’s loaded with ideological slights about how there’s no due process in the Soviet Union versus where they are in America where everything’s tied up by a bunch of goddamn ACLU lawyers.
So in a weird way, the fascistic cops look longingly at the Soviet Union. And there’s all kinds of throwaway lines about how this isn’t the Soviet Union. They have rights here. You can’t torture them. Now, ironically enough, the Jim Belushi police, the Chicago Police Department officer… But anyone who lives in Chicago and knows something about the history of the Chicago Police notice that John Burge ran a torture regime from 1972 to about 1991. He tortured over a hundred people using his midnight crew that involved everything from burning, suffocation, and electrical shock on the genitals. And so there’s this great projection where the Soviet has to come in and teach them how to torture, and meanwhile the actual police department being represented was subject of a huge federal lawsuit in the 2000s that found that the police department routinely tortured scores of suspects. So there’s a little touch of irony there, historical irony for anyone watching that movie.
And that’s always the way you play it. It’s like, oh, the Soviet Union, they just rip people’s balls off and call it a day. And that may be true to some extent, but obviously there’s a touch of projection there. Whereas I think in other films, which I’m sure we’ll go into, there’s the ideological reinforcement that has varying degrees of subtlety, but it almost feels like towards the ’87, ’88, and ’89, there’s just fatigue, people were just getting tired of it. And so we saw it coming to an end eventually, although I don’t think anyone saw it coming to an end that quickly. Because I think the psychology is that the Soviet Union is always going to be here, because it had been there for 70 years and so there was an assumption that it was going to be there forever, and then one day it wasn’t.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah, there’s a sense in a lot of these ’80s movies, even if they get very jingoistic, that there’s this kind of, oh, why can’t we all get along?
Adam Johnson: Well, it’s done in this very patronizing way, like Rocky IV does this.
Lyta Gold: Oh yeah. Let’s start there. That’s a great one.
Adam Johnson: It’s done in this patronizing, why don’t we all get along, but you guys really need to reform yourself and become more capitalist? So it’s vaguely peaceful, but it’s done in the similar way of why can’t Palestinians and Israelis get along, but Hamas needs to give up all their weapons and sign up for some nonprofit? And it’s like, well, so on our terms we’re all going to get along, which is why Reagan loved Rocky IV so much. Because Reagan would speak in the language of reconciliation very often. So it was a combination of the language of reconciliation and mutual understanding and diplomatic high-level meetings, which now are something you’re not allowed to do even though back in the ’80s, the Cold War, we did it all the time.
But at the same time, it was also clearly we’re superior, clearly our way of life’s superior. It’s just a matter of time before they come around to us. So it wasn’t cartoonish. It felt in that way of let’s understand, but understand that eventually we’re going to open McDonald’s in Moscow. And then in 2022 we’re going to take it away because the president we helped install is going to invade Ukraine.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s really remarkable that it’s, let’s all get along on our terms. Let’s all get along… We can have peace if you become just like us. The other way that this works, and Rocky IV, I think has this. The crowd cheers on Rocky. They’re very hostile to him at first, but then they’re very excited about him because he’s so tough and proves through his humanity and humanizes them. It’s kind of a mess. But it’s often portrayed as that the Americans are weaker or threatened by the Russians, like Drago. Huge.
Adam Johnson: The ultimate American pathology is faked underdogism. We always want to be the underdog. It doesn’t matter whether or not we’re completely unipolar world domination, 800 military [bases]. We always have to be the underdog, which is what made the post 9/11 film framework so interesting. You had Jack Bauer. There were these enemies that were everywhere and they were going to kill us and we were always a step behind. And you see that very much in Rocky IV when he is doing the training montage and he’s like, the Soviet has the latest technology and is in this slick training, ’80s coked out training palace. And Rocky’s pushing a log up a… That’s why Reagan loved it, because Reagan always wanted to view them as the empire and the US as the scrappy underdogs, which there’s nothing to shake a stick at.
The Soviet Union at one point had 10,000 nukes and had a very large military, but they were certainly never as remotely as close as the United States was, which is why Kennedy had to make up the missile cap thing. You always have to look like you’re behind otherwise you can’t justify the constant defense spending. It’s one of the great gimmicks of American “foreign policy writing” is that no matter what, we’re always behind. ISIS is beating us on Twitter, the Russians are beating us on Facebook. And it’s like, well –
Lyta Gold: China’s beating us economically.
Adam Johnson: China’s beating us economically. You always have to constantly have neurosis because that’s how you justify keeping the funding going. And one of the things that a lot of these movies do very well, especially the completely absurd John Milius movie Red Dawn, is that we are the scrappy underdogs, we’re the freedom fighters, and the Soviets are the occupiers.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Let’s talk about Red Dawn.
Adam Johnson: In most contexts, of course, the US was funding the colonialists and the Soviets were funding the revolutionaries, but that doesn’t work for us. So we had to messy it up. We’re funding a bunch of mercenary fighters in Nicaragua and so forth. You always have to be projecting. Alex Jones is constantly projecting this paranoid vision of the future where jack-booted thugs come in and do to white people what he already wants them to do to immigrants and Black people. The constant projection is a huge feature of these movies because you don’t want to be the overdog, nobody [crosstalk] for Goliath.
Lyta Gold: Right. And in Rocky IV, it’s explicitly said it’s a battle of David versus Goliath.
Adam Johnson: Which is ridiculous.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah. And they cast the actors in this way. It’s a shorter Sylvester Stallone and gigantic Dolph Lundgren.
Adam Johnson: Yeah, which is funny because the original Rocky was this similar dynamic with white reactionary race grievance politics where you had this very, very thinly veiled Muhammad Ali who was uppity and loud. And it was 1975, 1976, when the movie came out and the white athlete had been marginalized and sidelined, and Rocky was going to punch him in the mouth and show him that we still had it in us. And you had this white working class perception that “the Black radicals had taken over, that everybody had gotten too uppity. What happened to the white baseball player? What happened to the white basketball player?” And this was a manifestation of that and one of the frameworks of the original movie. They tried to rectify it later by making Apollo Creed more nuanced and making him a friend and stuff, and having homoerotic montages of him running on the beach in Rocky III. But that was obviously the political orientation of the first film. And a similar dynamic plays out in part four because you need your main guy to be an underdog.
So one of the difficult things with sequels, especially sports sequels, is having them win the championship but then recast them as the underdog in the next sequel. So it’s just the same with the US. Reagan would always talk about how we’re the underdog, and of course it flies in the face of any basic understanding of power.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah. Apollo is killed in the fourth one. Drago kills him, so [crosstalk] and it’s this revenge plot line.
Adam Johnson: If he dies, he dies.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, [crosstalk].
Adam Johnson: Which he did.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. There’s some iconic lines in the movie. I mean, these movies are fun. Rocky IV is insane, but it’s like there’s a weird robot. There’s a lot of weird stuff.
Adam Johnson: I think the robot’s in III, if I’m not mistaken.
Lyta Gold: Maybe also in III, but it’s definitely in IV.
Adam Johnson: Is it also in IV?
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s definitely in IV.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. I think Sylvester Stallone apologized for the robot.
Lyta Gold: It would make sense, because it’s very bizarre.
Adam Johnson: Sylvester Stallone released a director’s cut of Rocky IV.
Lyta Gold: Of IV?
Adam Johnson: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: I didn’t know that.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. During COVID he got bored I think and re edited it. So [crosstalk]. It has 45 more minutes of plot
Lyta Gold: Is it more montage? Because there’s so much montage.
Adam Johnson: I don’t know. I didn’t see it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an additional montage.
Lyta Gold: That’s incredible. Yeah. I mean, and that’s the thing. These movies were blockbusters, they were popular, they were fun. But you’re right. The necessity of portraying as the underdog because nobody likes to root for Goliath. And then Red Dawn, which came out in ’84, I believe. And critics panned it, but it was very popular. People really enjoyed it. And that is a pretty classic invasion fantasy. It’s funny I didn’t think of comparing it to Jack Bauer, but I can really see some parallels, the almost eroticized vulnerability of the heartland.
Adam Johnson: Well, John Milius, I mean, he’s pretty clear that he thought that it was a plausible scenario. He’s basically a John Bircher and he thought communists were everywhere. Obviously he went on to be a huge right-wing lunatic. But that movie is… I mean the thing with Red Dawn, it’s a good movie. It’s actually a very good movie. It’s a very good thriller. It’s very well done. There’s moments of poignancy, but it really did play out a fantasy that the most fringe elements of the emerging neoconservative consensus in this country really needed people to believe and provided a pop culture framework for that, which again is all this imperial neurosis because you have to recast yourself as the underdog in this scenario where, for the most part, whether it be Nicaragua, Guatemala, South Africa, the US was obviously not the underdog, obviously funding and arming the overdog, and that’s of course what drew Stallone to Afghanistan for Rocky III in 19… Gosh, when was that?
Lyta Gold: ’88 I believe.
Adam Johnson: Was that… Yeah, [crosstalk].
Lyta Gold: I think it’s pretty late. Yeah.
Adam Johnson: Rocky III… No, Rambo IV was ’88. No, Rambo IV was… Sorry, I’m saying Rocky IV. Sorry, we made a lot of Cold War movies.
Lyta Gold: I know. He was very busy in ’80s.
Adam Johnson: I know Red Heat was ’88. Yeah, Red Heat was ’88.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, Rambo III was ’88 and I guess Red Heat also. And then Rocky IV is ’85.
Adam Johnson: Rocky IV was ’85. Right.
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Adam Johnson: Okay. So yeah, Rambo III was probably the closest you would get to some kind of approximation of at least a symmetrical relationship with the Afghan communists and then Mujahideen.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. What I thought was funny about Red Dawn is that like Rambo III, it’s actually dedicated to the brave fighters of the Mujahideen. It’s explicitly stated.
Adam Johnson: So that screen cap is fake by the way.
Lyta Gold: I know. I know, but it’s just still funny.
Adam Johnson: So everyone knows. I know you know. I just want to be clear. It always goes viral and I’m like, this is not real. This never happened. No one could ever find evidence that it happened. It’s to the brave freedom fighters of Afghanistan, which isn’t much better, effectively. It does not say Mujahideen.
Lyta Gold: It doesn’t literally say Mujahideen.
Adam Johnson: Which has a scary Arabic flavor to it.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. But I mean, the Red Dawn it’s, interestingly, for all that it’s a paranoia movie and it’s very afraid of communists and the Nicaraguans and the Cubans have teamed up with the Russians and they’ve snuck people in [crosstalk] workers –
Adam Johnson: Oh, it’s got it all. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, it’s got all that. But at the same time, it’s very much in favor of insurgents and the idea of insurgency. And you’ve got this complicated figure, Colonel Bella, who’s a Cuban, he’s a bad guy, but he used to be an insurgent and he has complicated feelings that he doesn’t like [crosstalk] police and –
Adam Johnson: Cuba’s occupying United States, that would be indeed quite complicated. Also completely fly in the face of their entire philosophy and government. Would literally never happen. Yeah. It’s like I think when they did one of the Call of Duty games and the thinly veiled Hugo Chavez teams up with I think North Korea or something to invade the United States, and I’m like, this is not part of their ideological doctrine, to go invade California. That’s not on their to-do list.
Lyta Gold: Invade and occupy and –
Adam Johnson: Invade and occupy. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: …It’s like be the mindset of the occupiers.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. But no, Red Dawn was the ultimate right-wing fantasy for a number of reasons, not the least of which being is that it’s not a coincidence that it’s the Wolverines, it’s the most scrappy teenagers all handsomely fighting the Soviet oppressors, because you need to convince the young kids, the Alex P. Keaton crowd to be [right wing].
Lyta Gold: Yeah. They even put Jennifer Grey in it. They’re really trying to appeal to the ’80s kid.
Adam Johnson: It reminded me a lot of this fantasy, a film that came out in 1993. Did you see Toy Soldiers?
Lyta Gold: I didn’t see that one.
Adam Johnson: So it’s the ultimate teenage boy fantasy where terrorists take over their private school and the kids have to do a die hard thing.
Lyta Gold: That’s awesome.
Adam Johnson: And it’s actually really, it’s a banger. I rewatched it recently. And it’s a version of that. It’s like here’s this ultimate teen fantasy. A bunch of Soviets who are going to take over and a bunch of scrappy 19-year-old terrorists have to save America from the big, bad Soviets.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. What’s interesting about Red Dawn, too, is that violence isn’t presented… There’s a lot of violence, extremely violent movie for its time, especially, was usually violent, but it’s not presented –
Adam Johnson: I think it was the first PG-13 movie. Was that its claim to fame? Or one of the first?
Lyta Gold: It might have been. I did see something that it was just whatever ranking [crosstalk] violence in movies. They were like, this is crazy violence.
Adam Johnson: They didn’t want it to be R because they were trying to market to teenagers, but it was definitely not PG. So I think –
Lyta Gold: Was that what they invented it for?
Adam Johnson: Was it ’87 it came out or something? I think it was one of the first –
Lyta Gold: ’84, I think.
Adam Johnson: ’84. I think it was one of the first PG-13 movies. I could be wrong. [crosstalk] –
Lyta Gold: Interesting to hit that.
Adam Johnson: …For that reason.
Lyta Gold: But the violence is not romantic really. It’s actually tragic and terrible a lot of the time. And there’s a lot of talk about how, for the kids, having to be a child soldier is a terrible thing, and they have to give up their innocence. And it’s still right-wing fantasy about invasion and forced giving up of innocence, et cetera.
Adam Johnson: Yeah, it’s a very military academy kind of… People think fascist films glorify violence. And I think historically they don’t. They actually operate within this hell of war muddiness because… Saving Private Ryan is basically an army recruiting commercial. And it’s a wonderful movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s an army recruiting commercial, as was Band of Brothers. And people are like, oh, it actually shows the horrors of war. And I’m like, yeah, because every 17-year-old who you want to recruit to the army watching this says, I’m not going to be the guy that gets aced in the head. I’m going to be the badass who goes and kills a bunch of Nazis and goes home and gets a blonde. Because that’s the general [crosstalk] of that kind of war movie. I forget who it was.
I think it may have been Kurt Vonnegut who said, there’s no such thing as an antiwar film, for that reason, or antiwar book I think is what he said, because it’s like no matter how horrible they make it look, every adolescent or post adolescent who’s watching is going to say, oh, that looks really fucking badass. Because what [Orin] said in an ideological position is that they’re fighting for the good cause. They’re the good guys. And I think the horrors of war thing has always been a given for any post 19th, post Hays Code war movie, they’re all going to be the horrors of war. And there are some exceptions. That’s why I think one of the few actually antiwar movies is The Thin Red Line because it’s so fucking boring.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah. That’s true. It doesn’t make it fun at all.
Adam Johnson: It doesn’t look fun at all. It looks boring. It’s a lot of sitting around, it’s a lot of whispering into tree lines. Jarhead I think was similar too, a very boring war movie. And I think to an extent, the only way you can make war movies “antiwar” or “non jingoistic” is to either make the US explicitly the bad guys or make it boring. That’s why Rambo is interesting, because the first Rambo has some reactionary window dressing with respect to the whole spitting on soldiers thing, but also is mysteriously very left wing, the first one, because it first off positions cops as a bunch of asshole hotheads, and two, it has us sympathized with what was very thinly veiled Vietcong type character with a war comes home or whatever. So I would maybe even put that in the ambiguous category.
But yeah, I mean, war is hell is part of the selling point. I mean, it’s why when the DOD partners with Activision to make those video games, they’re all like, oh, this is like hell, man. But you will survive. You will not be the guy who gets the bullet through his head in the first five seconds of Saving Private Ryan. You’re going to be, I don’t know, Matt Damon or whatever.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s where the depiction versus endorsement debate I think gets more complicated sometimes than people want it to because –
Adam Johnson: Yeah, it does.
Lyta Gold: …This is something that really just bugs me in general, is there’s depiction of intense sexual violence or there’ll be a depiction of a racist character. And it’s very clear that this person is supposed to be bad or this action is supposed to be bad, but when things are portrayed in graphic and loving detail, then you start to…. Movies or works of art in general try to have it both ways with those things, because it’s still portraying this huge [crosstalk] –
Adam Johnson: Well, I think a good way to tell if something is war propaganda is if… I remember when Band of Brothers… Band of Brothers came out on Sept. 9, 2001.
Lyta Gold: Wow, I didn’t realize.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. So its timing for jingoism was… It was going to be –
Lyta Gold: Do you think Spielberg did 9/11?
Adam Johnson: No. I mean, the point is the timing of it meant it was going to take on a certain form whether it wanted to or not. But then the premier that previous July… Dreamworks and HBO had a bunch of partnerships with the military and did premieres at military bases. And they did some behind the scenes documentary stuff with World War II veterans and Spielberg would go on interviews and say this is a love letter to the veterans and that all sounds good, but it’s like you can’t have it both ways. Then you can’t then say, oh, well this is not a pro-war show. And it’s like, look, Band of Brothers is probably the best mini series ever made. It’s amazing. It’s just very well done. It’s very, very good. But it’s also a recruiting commercial for the army.
People get where they think that by saying something is jingoistic you can’t also say it’s good. We have this weird thing where we can’t occupy those two thoughts in our heads at once. In fact, a lot of pro-war or pro-America propaganda is very good, otherwise it wouldn’t be very effective. And people get weirdly defensive about that when they’re like, oh no, it’s not. It’s like I mean, come on, Spielberg in interviews will tell you that this is like, oh, this is for the troops or whatever and for the sacrifices they made. It’s the good war or whatever. And, I don’t know, it seems very precious to be like, I don’t know. It’s about the ambiguities. No it’s not. Come on.
Lyta Gold: Arguably it’s about all of those things. It’s ambiguous and it still has a point and still has a purpose, if that makes sense.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. I mean, that makes it look pretty badass. A bunch of dudes doing dude stuff. I mean, I forget who it was. Someone said the reason why middle aged men love mafia movies is because it’s the only time that male friends hang out together.
Lyta Gold: Oh shit.
Adam Johnson: And I was like, yeah, that’s true.
Lyta Gold: God damn it. Yeah.
Adam Johnson: Forgive me, I can’t remember who said that. But it’s similar to war movies. It’s just dudes doing dudes stuff, smoking cigarettes and busting each other’s chops and killing Nazis. I don’t know. It’s a recruiting commercial. I mean, which is something you can empirically show. The reason why I brought up the 9/11 in Band of Brothers was because you can’t show Band of Brothers led to an increase in military recruitment when it came out because obviously there is another factor there, but you can with Top Gun.
Lyta Gold: Oh interesting. I didn’t know that.
Adam Johnson: Top Gun, when it came out in 1986, David reported this for The Washington Post 10 years ago. There’s different indicators, but recruitment increased for the Navy that year by like 400%. It was huge. I mean, it was unreal. Everybody wanted to go to the Navy and be a fighter pilot. Similar to how the KKK was dormant for 50 years until Birth of a Nation came out in 1915. Whenever someone says, oh, media doesn’t really influence people, I’m like, okay. Look, I have a conflict of interest. I have a direct incentive to believe media influences people, that’s what I do for a living. So you take it with a grain of salt.
But clearly people are very susceptible to these kinds of jingoistic messages. And Top Gun is an example where I don’t even know if the Soviets are mentioned, but there’s obviously a Soviet or Soviet adjacent bad guy in the last 10 minutes, but Top Gun is very clearly a recruiting commercial for the Navy. And it was by design, it was set up that way. Because originally they had asked Oliver Stone to direct it and he was like, well, I’m going to make it this gritty nuance. And they were like, no, no, no.
Lyta Gold: [crosstalk].
Adam Johnson: First off, I don’t know why the fuck you would ask Oliver Stone to make Top Gun, because Platoon came out the same year as Top Gun, which was –
Lyta Gold: I would love to see the Oliver Stone Top Gun actually. That sounds weird.
Adam Johnson: I would as well. Yeah, because I guess he was approached to direct it, I guess it would’ve been before he directed Platoon, which was a semi autobiographical Vietnam film, because he was in Vietnam, and was after he had written Scarface, a very violent and racist movie that I think he’s since distanced himself from.
Lyta Gold: Oliver Stone’s a mixed bag. I’ve seen Alexander. So still a [crosstalk] take him seriously.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. No, it’s a total mixed bag. But Top Gun would be an example of a Cold War ’80s film that’s maybe not even remotely nuanced, just a total rock out with your cock out, a [inaudible] America movie.
Lyta Gold: Right. With the enemy essentially absent. The thread [inaudible] is essential.
Adam Johnson: It’s about making being in the military fucking cool as hell. I mean really that’s what it is, which is really what you need to do.
Lyta Gold: So I was curious where you’d put War Games into this discussion, because this is another movie –
Adam Johnson: War Games is a liberal movie. And I don’t mean that as a pejorative. I mean that as a compliment.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah. It’s very much is.
Adam Johnson: It’s a liberal anti-nuclear movie, which was very much in vogue at the time.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. It’s one where the Russians are still very absent, which I find interesting.
Adam Johnson: Yeah, because it’s not a right-wing movie. It’s a movie about the objective insanity of building massive nuclear arsenals. And I think it’s a very good movie. The “left” in the United States from the mid ’70s when everyone burned out or joined a cult or went to prison, to the WTO in the mid ’90s, there was a huge gap. Basically they all did anti-nuke stuff. That and save the whales and the ozone layer were the center of the left for a good 15, 20 years. And this movie is very much in the vein of, hey, why don’t we reduce our nuclear arsenal from 20,000, to 10,000?
Lyta Gold: And it’s also, let’s not rely on AI, on technology, and take the human element out of things.
Adam Johnson: Because there were anti-Cold War movies. I would put War Games in that camp. I would put Real Genius in that camp. The politics of Real Genius are actually quite antiwar.
Lyta Gold: Tell us about Real Genius, because I think people know War Games. I’m not sure they know this one
Adam Johnson: Real Genius was, gosh, what year did that come out?
Lyta Gold: I will point out that War Games rests upon the premise that nerds are attractive, and so it is slightly outdated.
Adam Johnson: It’s very outdated. Yeah.
Lyta Gold: In that respect.
Adam Johnson: Then all the nerds became Nazis and then we…
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Adam Johnson: Real Genius came out in 1985. It’s got Val Kilmer. Basically it takes place at a thinly veiled Caltech. And they’re set up to build this weapon, this space laser Star Wars-esque weapon. And then the military-industrial complex were the bad guys and they subvert it. So it’s an anti-Cold War…
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Adam Johnson: There were quite a few of those. I mean there’s always going to be lefties in Hollywood, although I don’t think you would see that movie now.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. That’s something I think that’s changed in ways that are very interesting, that it’s hard to imagine. I’m trying to think of anything that’s remotely left wing that’s been made [crosstalk], just like Sorry to Bother You. I mean, in terms of Rick really left wing.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. Sorry to Bother You. But in terms of our relationship with the military-industrial complex, I’m trying to think… Anything I’ve seen recently. Speaking of the Cold War, I feel it’d be remiss to not talk about The Americans.
Lyta Gold: Yes. Oh, I did want to talk about that, because that’s an incredible show.
Adam Johnson: A show that I think avoids every single stupid Cold War cliche deliberately. And in fact, I think for a good arc of season two and three, the Soviets are the good guys, because it had South Africa as a major plot, where they obviously were the good guys and the US was obviously the bad guys. And what’s interesting is it’s not till the final season, which I think they filmed on or around June 2016 around the time that Russia did all the DNC hacking and such. And then it finally gets into the stupid Anne Applebaumy Cold War stuff in the last season, where it’s very head patty, the evil Soviets.
Whereas in the first five seasons, it’s like, oh yeah, they’re shitheads, we’re shitheads. They’re right sometimes, we’re right sometimes. It makes it a more interesting show. Because if they just beat over your head with the Soviets being a bunch of zombie, evil empire automatons, then it’s not very interesting. But if they’re like, oh they’re actually ideological and sometimes they fall on the right side of history, this is a far more interesting show than if they’re just a bunch of zombies.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and there’s so few stories that come from the point of view of Russian characters. You don’t see a lot of this, certainly during the Cold War, but even now. It’s not very commonly done. You see this time period represented through a non-American lens.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. Or you get the golden eye Air Force One, post Soviet, they’re kind of good now because they’re capitalists. Here’s these Leninist holdouts who are terrorizing such and such. But yeah, no, generally I mean, I guess that’s true. You generally don’t get many foreign characters. But I thought The Americans was in the… Forgive me, I forget the filmmaker’s name, the creator’s name of The Americans. Gosh, I can’t remember.
Lyta Gold: That’s okay.
Adam Johnson: But he wrote an op-ed a year ago I think in The Hollywood Reporter or Vanity Fair or something, Washington Post, I forget, where he was basically like, hey, why don’t we not have a new Cold War? We should have some kind of de-escalation with Russia. And people lost their minds over it. They were like, oh, I knew that show was too soft on the Russians. And they were basically accusing him of being a fifth columnist and I was like…
Lyta Gold: Oh my God.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. I couldn’t imagine making that show without being that dogmatic today versus 2013.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. I think we’re going to see a huge rise and it’ll be Russians back as the villains.
Adam Johnson: Well, Red Sparrow was very much a cartoon depiction of Russians, because it had every cliche in the book. They’re all a bunch of sociopaths. I mean, that’s the stuff I assume we’re going to… Ever since 2016, ever since the WikiLeaks, we’re going to get a nice heaping pile of that kind of bullshit. Which is like you said, with rare exception, would be far less nuanced than what we got in the ’80s.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. I mean, Dolph Lundgren’s character is a victim of a system. He’s portrayed sympathetically. I mean, again, it’s still ideological. It’s still a system that is evil.
Adam Johnson: Well yeah, it’s a neoconservative framing, where good people are often hostage by this regime that we have to overthrow.
Lyta Gold: But that’s very different than cartoon-like mustache twirling.
Adam Johnson: Yeah, it is. Which is also probably true for some, but not for others. And one of the things I thought The Americans did well is they were like, no, Keri Russell, she’s a hardcore communist. This is what she believes. This is not an act where it’s obviously a husband, I forget his name. It’s a little more nuanced or a little bit more complicated, because you have to have a mix of both or it’s not very interesting. You can’t just have everyone be a fucking hardcore patriot or a total cynic.
Lyta Gold: Yeah.
Adam Johnson: But anyway.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah, in the early seasons of The Americans, there’s lots of interesting characters and their different handlers have different approaches and different beliefs, and some are harsher than others and yeah, it’s [crosstalk] –
Adam Johnson: They suspiciously avoid ideology in the first season.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, a little bit.
Adam Johnson: And then in season two, three, four, five, it’s a huge part of the show. I thought maybe they were scared to start off with it.
Lyta Gold: It’s a risky premise and it wasn’t that popular a show. I mean, it’s critically acclaimed and people who have seen it love it, but it never got particularly good ratings.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. Well, none of the shows people on Twitter talk about ever have a good rating. If you ever look at the top ratings, people talk about Euphoria or something and then you look with total viewership and it’s 900,000 people versus Navy NCIS which gets like 15 million. No, the shit left liberals talk about on Twitter, nobody watches except for liberals on Twitter, because you look at actual ratings, you’re like, oh this is like Yellowstone.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. People love – What is Yellowstone? I don’t know what this is.
Adam Johnson: I indulged. I watched it.
Lyta Gold: Is it good?
Adam Johnson: The first season is complete soap operatic mess. And it’s written like a 14-year-old views women. Every woman character is this total… But then it gets better and then it becomes the definition of a guilty pleasure. It gets way better. The first season’s horrible. Then seasons two and three, you’re like, oh, that’s actually pretty good. Because they got rid of all the dumb stuff and kept the good stuff, which seems obvious, but a lot of shows don’t do that.
Lyta Gold: For all that journalists, yeah they wake up early and they do the actual hard reporting and all that, a media analyst like yourself has to slog through terrible TV. And who’s the real hero here?
Adam Johnson: I think basically, they should give a Pulitzer and a Peabody to people who provide any commentary on shows from the ’80s. And they told me I couldn’t use my film degree. I actually don’t have a degree, but I would’ve had I finished.
Lyta Gold: I just want to talk about these real quick before we have to go, but I slogged through one and a half seasons of the new Jack Ryan show.
Adam Johnson: Oh yeah. We did a whole thing on that.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah. I thought –
Adam Johnson: Season two is definitely outright State Department propaganda. It could have been written by Marco Rubio. I mean, it’s a parody of Venezuela politics.
Lyta Gold: Season two I actually found unwatchable. I couldn’t. It was silly
Adam Johnson: Season one is also bad and the fact that –
Lyta Gold: It’s quite bad too.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. It’s like, oh, it’s a Shia-Sunni Alliance and I’m like, yeah. Not a thing that we would ever oppose. He’s like super Bin Laden. He’s uniting Shias and Sunnis. I’m like, do you know how Wahhabism works? Do you know how… No? Okay.
Lyta Gold: There is the lack of, and I think it’s something that we see post 9/11 and the shift to Muslims and Arabs as villains more so than Russians, of course we’ve got resurgence with that, is this completely cartoonish over the top. It’s a very inhuman way of portraying. Although strangely enough, in season one of Jack Ryan I’d say that the Muslim characters often were more human than the extremely boring, flat, American characters who seem to have no life whatsoever. They just move through empty spaces.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. Well, they always have the good Muslim, because there’s only two Muslims you’re allowed to have. You’re allowed to have the… Well, three. You’re allowed to have a snitch, a victim, and a terrorist. You can be the good one who speaks Arabic and works with the FBI. In this case of Jack Ryan, it was his partner. He was a Black Muslim. And then two, you can be a terrorist, and then three, you can just have a hijab and be screaming as your child dies and you’re a victim. Those are the only three acceptable positions. You’re not allowed to be an anti-imperialist or a communist or anything that’s not those three caricatures
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Although the villain in the first season, the terrorist villain, they do show his backstory.
Adam Johnson: Well, they do. Yeah, he’s blowing up in Beirut. They’ve been doing that one for a few years to make it look like he’s not a total psychopath. I think it was some US drone strike or bombing at Beirut or something.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Yeah.
Adam Johnson: They have some of that bleeding heart liberal. They do. I think they even do that in 24 a few times just to make the [inaudible] Muslim seem somewhat non one-dimensional.
Lyta Gold: Right. So they checked off a box.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. They checked a liberal box. So they’re not just mindlessly racist. No, they didn’t even bother doing that in season two. They were just like, here’s this Nicholas Maduro, who we’re going to call Nicholish Mamoro. And he’s this right-wing dictator and America just goes in there and funds the… It’s the CIA’s basically human rights watch with guns. And we care deeply about freedom of the press, and also we’re going to fund this left-wing character, which is also not a thing the CIA does, unless it’s the nominally left, but mysteriously supports the first thing they want to do when they get in office is move the embassy to Jerusalem and take out a bunch of IMF loans.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Well, so one of the things that I love very much about Citations Needed is I think you guys are really good at talking about… Some of these shows that we are forced to watch are very terrible, but a lot of the stuff is very lovable and is very fun. And people like it because it’s enjoyable even if it’s problematic, and it’s getting at the way that this propaganda works, and it works because things are very… Even though the propaganda and the ideology is really troubling, the movies or the TV shows are often really well made.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. I think there’s a weird thing where people act like you can’t like bad things, that I think doesn’t reflect the human condition. Nima and I were talking, we did a whole episode on anti-Muslim racism. And Nima’s like, God, True Lies is just a horribly racist movie full of awful caricatures, but it’s my favorite movie. You can have both of those things. You don’t want to be too glib about it because obviously there are stakes here and there is a limit to that. We’re not going to go on talking about how great the latest Richard Spencer article is, how well written it’s been. I mean, there are limits. But generally speaking, yes you can hold those two ideas in your head at one time. Otherwise, I don’t think anyone takes you seriously. Anyone’s going to go like, oh, I don’t watch 24. It’s like it’s [inaudible]. It’s not. 24 is the most entertaining show ever. It’s also horrible.
It just doesn’t seem honest to me. People get very defensive too, because they’ll be like, oh, no, no. They’ll say, oh well, Band of Brothers is an army recruiting commercial. Or, Saving Private Ryan is an army recruiting commercial. Oh, you didn’t like it? It’s great. I love it. It’s just also an army recruiting commercial.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. That’s what it is.
Adam Johnson: It’s okay to be honest about the political effects of the art we consume without viewing any of these moral binaries, because I think that that’s just not a human way of interpreting art. For example, we did a whole episode on the way that the CIA influenced literature, and we kept stopping every five seconds being like, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy literature. It’s just there are greater forces at work. Just as you can enjoy Soviet art. I mean, there’s tons of great Soviet films. It doesn’t mean you’re endorsing the ideology or whatever. And once you accept those two things in your head at once, it makes it a lot more, I think, honest when you talk about this stuff.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. I don’t want people to come away from this episode thinking that it’s wrong to enjoy ’80s movies, it’s wrong to enjoy a Tom Clancy novel. Enjoy, just be aware of what’s there.
Adam Johnson: Right. That’s the idea. You want to read it critically. Theoretically, that’s what you want to do. You want to understand that these things don’t just emerge out of nowhere.
Lyta Gold: So that being said, what one recommendation would you have for an, it doesn’t have to necessarily be an ’80s classic, but a really good classic Cold War propaganda. Again, doesn’t have to be made exactly during the Cold War, but what’s your go-to that you think people really ought to watch?
Adam Johnson: That is not right-wing [propaganda]?
Lyta Gold: Or that is, but people will like it. That’s something that you just love [inaudible] True Lives.
Adam Johnson: Funnily enough, in World War II Hollywood produced two pro Soviet films because they were an ally in World War II, one of which is called the North Star which is worth watching.
Lyta Gold: Oh, interesting. Haven’t seen that one.
Adam Johnson: It’s straight up pro Soviet propaganda. In fact, it’s a little problematic, but it’s a weird glimpse of the relationship that existed for a very brief time. But I mean, obviously the most subversive mainstream is Dr. Strangelove.
Lyta Gold: Yes.
Adam Johnson: The themes of which I think… I mean, it’s basically just a complete skewering of the military-industrial complex and the Cold War mindset. It’s done within a liberal milieu, but I think it’s even more subversive than that, would be my recommendation. I mean, it’s a little obvious, I guess.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. Often people haven’t seen classics because they think oh, this is a serious movie. It’s an important film.
Adam Johnson: No, it is legitimately still funny. It’s still funny. It doesn’t feel dated at all. So I re-watched it, I think, last year. I was like, this is still very… I mean, maybe it seems obvious, but sometimes comedies can become stale. It’s not at all. It’s definitely worth watching if you haven’t seen it.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. My recommendation, and it’s a problematic fave, but I’m probably going to do a whole episode on it because I’m obsessed with it. It’s Enemy at the Gates, which came out in 2001, I think.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. That’s a very cartoonishly anti-Soviet film in many ways, because it’s reinforces –
Lyta Gold: In many ways. Yeah.
Adam Johnson: Well, it reinforced the idea that the only reason the Soviets beat the Nazis is because they just mindlessly threw people at the Soviets, which is some weird. I think Chris [Hayes] said this once, and it’s a way we say, okay, clearly the Soviets lost 20 million people and killed probably 90% of the Nazis, but we can’t let them have the win so they cheated. It’s like they cheated by throwing –
Lyta Gold: Yeah. They just threw bodies in the [crosstalk].
Adam Johnson: And it’s like, well yeah, I mean, when your city’s under siege and people are starving for six months and your children are eating other children to survive, you’re probably not going to be too precious about arming everyone. No shit. I mean, it’s a weird revisionist thing people are obsessed with, because we have to make it look like they won, but they cheated. It’s a very American pathology. Whereas we played the game the right way. And that movie I thought reinforced a lot of those.
Lyta Gold: Oh yeah. It’s again –
Adam Johnson: Those tropes that are goofy when you stop and think about them.
Lyta Gold: One of the hardcore communist characters at one point gives a speech about how communism can’t work. I mean, it is cartoonishly anti-Soviet in a lot of ways.
Adam Johnson: Yeah, it’s a very cynical interpretation of the great patriotic war.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. But it’s also –
Adam Johnson: I don’t know. In my mind if you lose 20 million people, you get a pass. It’s like do we really need to go back and revise that they didn’t do it the right way? Were they supposed to stop everyone and read their fucking Miranda rights? What was the right way to persecute the war against the Nazis in the Eastern front? Please tell us.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. And it does portray it as a very desperate situation. I mean, but even the duel between the snipers is portrayed as a propaganda battle rather than an honest, that kind thing.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. That’s true. I mean, I don’t think it was all bad, but they did the whole they like, oh, they were cheating. And it’s like, okay. I don’t know.
Lyta Gold: But Rachel Weisz is gorgeous. It’s just a great movie.
Adam Johnson: The Soviets lost more people in Leningrad in one year than the US lost in the entire war. So I feel like they [crosstalk].
Lyta Gold: Yeah, the context definitely matters.
Adam Johnson: Yeah.
Lyta Gold: Obviously people should watch The Americans, but if you want a problematic fave I’d say Enemy at the Gates is something.
Adam Johnson: It’s a good movie. It’s a problematic fave.
Lyta Gold: Oh yeah [crosstalk].
Adam Johnson: It’s a very subtle form of liberal revisionism that I find curious, because there has to be some moral distinction between the US [inaudible] Nazis. Versus how they did it, which they did. They did it badly. They did it the wrong way. They just threw people at them and it’s like, okay, sorry, the Nazis didn’t invade Canada and invade Michigan.
Lyta Gold: Yeah, exactly. The scenario’s very different.
Adam Johnson: Yeah. Anyway.
Lyta Gold: But yeah. So yeah, go ahead, go forth people and watch these great movies, these great problematic faves, some of them. And everybody should listen to Citations Needed, because it is great. It is, for whatever reason, my go-to dirty chores podcast if I ever have to do something really difficult. I’m gross. I clean out the fridge or something.
Adam Johnson: We’ve gotten that before.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. I find [crosstalk].
Adam Johnson: It’s better than when people tell us they use this to fall asleep. I always get offended by that.
Lyta Gold: No, you keep me at a good level of anger. I think that’s why you’re great for these kinds of chores. I never thought about it this way. That’s so infuriating.
Adam Johnson: Honestly, as a podcaster, the highest compliment you can get is, you make my tedious task slightly less tedious. And I’m like, you know what? That’s pretty much my job. I’m okay with that.
Lyta Gold: Yeah. The job for which you wake up at noon and watch terrible television.
Adam Johnson: True.
Lyta Gold: It’s pretty great.
Adam Johnson: It’s tough work.
Lyta Gold: All right. Well, thanks everybody for listening. If you are hearing this, you’re probably subscribed to Real News Network, but if not, you should subscribe to it. We’ve got lots and lots of fabulous shows. And we’ll see you next time. Thanks.