In the summer of 1984, with “Morning in America” well underway and a national election heating up, our Cold War skittishness was quickly giving way to militant triumphalism. The year before, the U.S. had invaded Grenada. Over the summer, a team of America’s best and brightest athletes rebounded from our boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games with a big, showy display of American exceptionalism held in Los Angeles, the city America goes to for lies about itself. And the weekend of the closing ceremony, a movie called Red Dawn opened in theaters, sparking the interest of a nation of impressionable kids raised in fear of what lay on the other side of an ever-shrinking world.
Set in a small town in Colorado, the original Red Dawn, a remake of which hits theaters November 21, posited a takeover of the country by a Cuban-Soviet alliance. A group of high schoolers stocking up at the friendly local sporting goods store adopt the name “The Wolverines,” after their school mascot, and take to the hills to mount an uprising against the invading forces. “In Our Time, No Foreign Army Has Ever Occupied American Soil,” one movie poster noted. “Until Now.”
“What both films succeed in doing is asking: ‘What if the fight was brought to your front door?’” noted Josh Peck, who has the lead role in the remake. “Everyone would have a visceral reaction to their home being threatened.” He noted that even a natural disaster, Hurricane Sandy for instance, could pose that sort of threat. In either case, tough decisions are necessary in times of crisis.
“The original came out at a time when kids were still hiding under their desks,” Mr. Peck added. “It was able to take advantage of the political climate. With this film, there was an effort to root it in reality.”
That means both a grittily realistic style of action—you really feel each grenade going off—and obtuse nods at the national scene, as in an opening sequence that edits together speeches by the real-life President, Vice President and Secretary of State to make them appear excruciatingly ineffective in battling the fictional Axis rising in the East. And just as the original film became a touchstone for the Patriot movement, the remake is poised, for a sizable segment of its audience, to speak to the despair over President Obama’s perceived incompetence and/or craven malevolence (take your pick) and his supposed second-term agenda of dismantling the free state.
Appeals to patriotism aside, neither version of Red Dawn is likely be screened at the Library of Congress. The 1984 version is most easily seen today as a dopey popcorn flick celebrating unity and fellowship among high schoolers, a time capsule of 1980s teen culture (among its stars: Patrick Swayze, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen and Jennifer Grey) or a straight-up action movie. But its director, John Milius—who also co-wrote the first two Dirty Harry movies and directed Arnold Schwarzenegger in Conan the Barbarian—may have had something else in mind with his story of a robust last-ditch national defense mounted by a well-armed citizenry. Not for nothing was the film listed among the National Review’s “Best Conservative Movies of the Last 25 Years.” And Mr. Milius is not your typical sushi-eating Hollywood elitist. A longtime member of the National Rifle Association’s board of directors, he has called for “mass denunciations and executions” of Wall Street leaders and for U.S. military intervention in Mexico’s drug-trafficking crisis. “We need to go down there, kill them all, flatten the place with bulldozers, so when you wake up in the morning, there’s nothing there,” he has said, adding, “I do believe if you have a military, you use it.”
But what if the military is actually in cahoots with the enemy? The new Red Dawn, which replaces Soviet soldiers with North Koreans and stars boys of the moment Mr. Peck, Chris Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson, comes at a time when the newly re-elected commander in chief of the Armed Forces is believed by a not insubstantial portion of the electorate to himself be an invader from abroad. The conversation on Twitter about this new film contains both the typical, studio-stoked hype (“This Thanksgiving we FIGHT for our freedom!,” wrote the operator of the film’s official feed) and something a bit more edgy. As one self-proclaimed veteran of the war in Afghanistan put it, “If Obama raises our taxes it is going to be like the movie Red Dawn in these parts.”
But the congruence between the despair over Mr. Obama’s re-election and the picture’s release is just coincidental. The film was originally intended to premiere just after the 2010 midterms, but was delayed until this year due to financing issues with MGM; during that time, post-production tricks were used to change the villains from Chinese invaders to North Koreans, reportedly due to the studio’s desire to retain a relationship with the growing Chinese moviegoing audience.
Of course, it’s effectively irrelevant which nation, specifically, is invading the suburbs of Spokane. “Personally, for me, it’s a fantasy action film,” said producer Tripp Vinson. “You need to create a situation where you put these teenagers in a high-pressure situation. We only cut to the bad guys two or three times.”
Neither Mr. Vinson’s nor director Dan Bradley’s résumés are especially political, aside from the new film. Indeed, Mr. Vinson suggested that the film would be an ideal distraction after a contentious election: “I don’t want to deal with politics. I want to see a kick-ass action movie and eat popcorn.” The cast has become well-known for starring in action flicks, after Mr. Hemsworth’s role in The Avengers (in which a group of ultra-qualified supermen come to the rescue of an Earth full of mediocrities), Josh Hutcherson’s performance in The Hunger Games (in which a group of idealistic teens fight to overthrow a decadent regime that thrives on death and lies to its citizens) and Isabel Lucas’s part in Transformers (… who knows, really?). And yet the film contains a few right-wing dog whistles that play into the militia fantasies still harbored by members of the conservative fringe.
The opening sequence, starring President Obama and depicting an America weakened by recession and thus unable to deal with the gathering storm, was the product of consultation with the RAND Corporation; the military-industrial think tank helped craft a geopolitical potboiler that showed “this domino effect of how the world could go to shit,” Mr. Vinson said. Posters prominently displayed throughout post-invasion Spokane (a world in which nearly every citizen is quietly united in their loathing for their new overlords, though only a few heroic individuals have the fortitude to take them on) indicate that North Korea’s sell is not so very different from the Democrats’ 2008 election pitch: “Helping You Back on Your Feet” and “Fighting Corporate Corruption.” In a speech to the assembled citizenry, a North Korean potentate tells his new subjects: “You, too, are victims. Greed, irresponsibility and fraud were encouraged by a corrupt government in bed with Wall Street.” The villainous foreign interlopers also try to convince the populace that they are entitled and to promote that age-old conservative bête noire—a culture of victimization.
Red Dawn’s America is one of rugged individualists defining true citizenship along deeply familiar lines: the protagonist, played by Mr. Peck, plays in a football game at the film’s start, pausing to get a bit of advice from his cheerleader girlfriend (Ms. Lucas). Mr. Peck’s brother is a veteran back to check in on dad, the town’s sheriff. The family has maintained a cabin in the woods stocked with canned food and ammo. In the era of popular reality series like Doomsday Preppers and an internet burbling with threats against Mr. Obama, we’re on familiar terrain. Spokane, the film’s setting, may be just another local stronghold; in real life, it’s the site of a thwarted Martin Luther King Jr. Day bombing in 2011.
“The defendant stated that he needed to make sure that everyone is fed up with [President] Obama,” read the would-be bomber’s sentencing memorandum.
“[F]or many of us, it feels that the things we hold most dear as Americans just don’t seem as secure as they once were,” Mr. Bradley, the director, observed in the film’s press notes.
It may be a cynical way to market a film, but it could also prove a smart one. Amid all the post-election discontent, one detects more than a touch of Red Dawn defiance, as when Fox News contributor Monica Crowley urged in a blog post, “We MUST … and more importantly CAN … fight” the President (who would be ultimately discredited, she hypothesized, after the U.S. economy collapsed once again and conservatism rose).
“America CAN be saved, and she is WORTH SAVING,” Ms. Crowley added, sounding in her appeal to patriotism and her self-conscious melodrama like an uncredited co-writer of the film. As Mr. Hemsworth puts it in the film, “For them, this is just a place. For us, this is our home!”
As a commenter on Glenn Beck’s website The Blaze put it immediately after the election, “The future is either Red Dawn or Ron Paul—i dont see any other options.”
And maybe—just maybe—the future really will be Red Dawn. Not that insurrection is coming, exactly. But Politico has termed the upcoming generation of unapologetically arch-conservative lawmakers (think Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz) the “Red Dawn Republicans”—claiming for themselves leadership and firing at will after a flailing older generation has been overrun.
“When you’re dealing with things like your community, family, neighborhood, your home, and you have to step up and defend it,” Mr. Vinson pointed out, “that’s a fun fantasy that people think about.”
Follow Daniel D'Addario via RSS.