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The Commie within

The spate of Red Scare movies could not have come at a better—or worse—time

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Illustration: Raul Allen
S.T. VanAirsdale

As hard as it can often be these days to admit you’re wrong, it’s even harder sometimes to know you’re wrong.

Take the ongoing Russian spy case, which shocked the world last week when 10 accused moles living seemingly normal American lives were taken into custody. (An 11th, thought to be the ring’s money man, was apprehended in Cyprus before jumping bail.) The arrests occurred at a time when our nation’s political left laughed, then shivered at the right’s dread of socialist interests informing everything from health-care legislation to Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Personally speaking, they also came at a time when I, as a journalist on the movie beat (and sure, a liberal), could not for the life of me understand how a slew of movies like Salt (Angelina Jolie is an accused Russian spy!), Red Dawn (American teens repel a Communist invasion!), Iron Man 2 (Russian baddie Mickey Rourke threatens heroic American plutocrat!) and the in-production The Darkest Hour (American students battle aliens ... in Russia!) could possibly be relevant 20 years after the end of the Cold War. Who among their target demographics would even get it?

Well, now we know. Or do we?

It depends on to what extent you believe in the New Red Scare—and if the Cold War’s lingering existential panic can ever really overtake the more visceral, post-9/11 fear of terrorists in our midst. Before last week I would have said it couldn’t, despite the likes of Sharron Angle and Rand Paul pledging to repeal such “socialist” New Deal doctrines as Medicare and Social Security if they successfully ride their waves of Tea Party momentum into the U.S. Senate. And I still don’t think most Americans under the age of 25—even on the right—are ready to dwell on the specter of a Commie bogeyman when we’ve got plenty of contemporary, flesh-and-blood villains to vanquish in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Yet the pop-culture correlatives are uncanny, with the movies leading the way. You can’t simply attribute the real Russkie relapse to Hollywood—it’s too conspiratorial, too obviously absurd. Still, it’s just as absurd to write this confluence off to chance. The first rule of the film industry can be reliably summarized in screenwriter William Goldman’s famous adage, “Nobody knows anything,” but let’s think about this for a moment: Why wouldn’t 75 years of 20th-century ideology—roughly overlapping with Hollywood’s own first 75 years in business—suggest otherwise? Of course studios know exactly the same thing that the Tea Party fearmongers do, because as much as each side seems anathema to the other, they’re playing the exact same game with the exact same trump card: To this day, Americans are petrified of Communism—and Mother Russia in particular.

Before last week I would have said their fear was irrational and any attempt to capitalize on it was myopic at best, cynical at worst. Today I’m not so sure. It’s just business. We’re talking about Hollywood here, the town responsible for a dozen Friday the 13th films with another on the way. In the same way Coca-Cola drew national ridicule upon changing its recipe in 1985, consumers (who are voters, natch) are thought to resent the threat to ... well, let’s just call it “adversarial consistency.”

And one look at the first wave of New Red Scare cinema is enough to make anyone believe that art no longer reflects life. Art is life.

It was even true of the controversy that followed Alvin Greene’s victory last month in the Democratic Senate primary in South Carolina. Amid the doubts and suspicions as to how an unemployed 32-year-old Army veteran not only raised a $10,000 filing fee but actually won without so much as a campaign website, my favorite was the rumor that Greene was a brainwashed Commie plant just following the script laid out for him during his tour in Korea. In other words, Greene was the real-life Manchurian Candidate, just a solitaire game and a queen of diamonds away from enacting a plot to hijack the Senate for North Korea’s Dear Leader (and confirmed totalitarian freak) Kim Jong-il.

Insane stuff, but somehow less so in the wake of Anna Chapman’s arrest a week ago. Though the sultry Russian has not in fact been accused of espionage (she and the others face lesser charges of conspiracy and money laundering), the conflation of her case with that of Angelina Jolie’s title character in Salt (opening July 23) bespeaks timing even more suspect than the 28-year-old herself. Federal authorities who spent the better part of 10 years investigating the spy ring—and who acknowledge they have no idea what the undercover suburbanites were even attempting to ascertain in the first place—chose to announce the arrests on the exact same day Jolie’s new Vanity Fair cover story broke. Cue the frenzy in both the political and cultural media establishments.

And why not? These developments transcend politics. We can argue all we want about the President Obama’s strategies in a two-front war or the implications of his own general’s willingness to slag him in public, but the idea that a cell of Russian agents spent a decade—in the 21st century—burrowed around the country is something almost elemental. It affirms a fear in our very souls—the same way a secret Russian operative living an ordinary American life distorts his or her own. And even “ordinary” is kind of misrepresentative in the case of a Facebook bombshell like Chapman or Spanish-language newspaper columnist Vicky Pelaez, who used her platform in the New York daily El Diario-La Prensa to assail America’s foreign policy. Here we were at the midpoint of 2010 with the Cold War not only flourishing, but evolving beyond our crusty old modes of belief and loathing into something more engaged.

Recently I asked Oliver Stone, who knows from conspiracy theories, why he thought so many Americans could not relinquish their dread of Soviet-style socialism 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Sadly, we spoke a week before the spy arrests; the Oscar-winner was on a press tour for his new documentary, South of the Border, which itself ticks off the reasons Americans needn’t fear the likes of socialist-minded Venezuelan president—and American bete noire—Hugo Chávez.

But Stone said something crucial in defending Chávez and the other independent-minded, “New Bolivarian” leaders of South America. “Honestly, what have we done wrong?” he asked, not quite rhetorically, about the U.S. media’s attribution of radical traits to Chávez in particular. “I wonder what harm there is in this. Is [Chávez’s policy] really going to change? Is it going to make people fall into the trap of the Communist mind?“

It depends whom you ask. While slavishly sympathetic to Chávez and ostensibly having nothing to do with the long shadow of Communism inside the United States, Stone’s film itself attempts to discredit the myth of that “trap of the Communist mind.” But even administrators at New York’s Baruch College in 2008 dismissed Pelaez’s husband, Juan Lazaro—who was also arrested last week—from a teaching gig after students complained he praised Chávez and discredited U.S. foreign policy a little too vehemently. In 2008, critics of Steven Soderbergh’s epic biopic Che chided the filmmaker for eliding the darker elements of Che Guevara’s life after the Cuban revolution, most notably those centered around his sanction of political foes’ executions.

In this sense, the New Red Scare could be read as more than a deeply conservative nation’s news-aided nostalgia. It is in many ways a deeply conservative (economically and conceptually, at least) industry’s savvy embrace of that nostalgia—an awkward collusion of ideologies that have more in common than each side thinks. In any case, if it’s going too far to suggest Hollywood is involved in stimulating the scare with its slate of Commie-battling movies, then surely it’s not too much to suggest that it will milk the scare for all it’s worth.

To wit, Captain America’s implications just grew exponentially, as did those of a G.I. Joe sequel. That Red Dawn remake—in which the embattled teens fight Chinese invaders as opposed to the old Soviet nemeses of the 1984 original—will finally make it into theaters in November after a protracted delay. Speaking of whom, the Chinese government is rumored to be considering a ban of Salt on grounds that it’s too aggressively anti-Communist—or least too damning of the country’s Russian allies. If they’re mad now, wait until they get a load of the movies certain to spring from the recent spy arrests in the U.S.

So is this war? Again, I don’t know. But no one can deny it seems awfully familiar. Mission accomplished, Hollywood.

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