Culture

Best TV and Movies About the U.S.-Russian Relationship

 

While the Berlin Wall gave Hollywood a momentary spine in the ideological battle against communism, it didn’t last long.  Throughout the 1960s, moral equivalence and the fear of nuclear annihilation, brought on by anti-communist militancy, ruled the day.

And in the ’80s, when Reagan had the Russians on the run, Hollywood openly took the other side; and after the fall became even more confused.

Here is a look at a few exceptions to those rules, from the hottest part of the Cold War to the New World Order.

For our look at Hollywood and the U.S.-Russian relationship from Lenin to the Berlin Wall, click here.

Night People

A Hollywood attempt at Third Man-style post-war intrigue, set in an even more fascinating crossroads of politics, espionage, and corruption, 1950s Berlin.

Gregory Peck is an Army intelligence colonel whose job is to get a kidnapped soldier back from the Russians. They want to trade him for an elderly German couple. The problem? These are not two escaped Nazis, but heroes of the Resistance.

I have a lot of affection for this film. No other movie I know of makes use of the fact that the communists used former Nazis as their goons, or hunted down anti-Nazi Germans as likely allies.  Also, Peck’s descriptions of the Soviets as a “methodical bunch of lice” and “head-hunting cannibals out to eat us up” are unique for a big-budget film.

I have never been able to enjoy this talky, but clever, movie in its original CinemaScope glory. What survives at this moment in the U.S. is one of the worst pan and scan butcheries of a film I’ve ever seen in which the backgrounds are lost in favor of grainy blown-up color close-ups of one actor at a time.

The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming

Yes, it took some pokes at supposed anti-communist hysteria, and the message was “Russians are people too,” but this very funny comedy about a Soviet sub, run aground off the coast of a small New England town that thinks it’s being invaded, is worth seeking out.

With a cast that includes Alan Arkin, Theodore Bikel, Eva Marie Saint and Brian Keith, this adaptation of Nathaniel Benchley’s novel has a Kumbaya ending. But there is a definite point, after the townspeople help the Russian sub get away, that the sailors are wistful at the brief glimpse they got of what it’s like to live as free people.

The Good Shepherd

Robert De Niro makes a serious attempt to look at the history of the first few decades of the CIA through the eyes of the duty-driven Ivy Leaguers who dominated it, from WWII through the 1960s.

While the movie is a near-miss in the masterpiece department, it is the only film to deal in an adult way with topics like the Bay of Pigs and Central American covert operations without over-moralizing or making the CIA into a bunch of monsters. It also takes counter-espionage seriously, knowing there is a fine line between a witch hunt and the very real need for security, particularly in a battle of ideologies.

Did I mention it’s a Serious Film? To a fault. And that turned off not a few critics, and even more moviegoers. It is definitely worth a look, however.

Moscow on the Hudson

Robin Williams’s first dramatic role (though it’s a very funny movie) was as a Soviet immigrant in Moscow on the Hudson, a celebration of the immigrant experience given an added edge by being a celebration of American freedom in comparison to communism.

Who can forget William’s character swooning at the sight of so many brands of something he stood in line for hours in Moscow to get—coffee?

This sweet, insightful masterpiece works on every level and works just as well today as it did the day it was released.

Red Dawn

Few movies are equally as loved and hated as Red Dawn, and few movies are as good of a political Rorschach test in discovering political identity.

While even the most fervent anti-communist should recognize Red Dawn’s flaws, it is still the most visceral reaction to the evil of the communist threat produced in the ’80s. And the paratrooper opening, logical or not, is really effective.

While liberal Hollywood deliberately produced The Day After to propagandize against Reagan as bringing the end of the world, director John Milius just as deliberately celebrated anti-communist resistance groups around the world by translating them to the American heartland.

You could make a pretty good case that liberal Hollywood has never forgiven Milius, once one of the most sought-after screenwriters, for Red Dawn.

Charlie Wilson’s War

This film about Democratic Congressman Charlie Wilson’s crusade to arm the mujahideen against the Soviets is smart and entertaining, though it probably exaggerates Wilson’s role as the instigator. It’s more likely that the Reagan administration and CIA deliberately sought out Wilson so the crusade could have a Democrat face.

Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts clearly enjoy their roles as the congressman and a Texas Republican socialite who spearheaded the effort to raise awareness and push Congress to fund sending Stinger missiles to Afghanistan.

One thing that comes to mind when watching the movie today is the realization that there probably aren’t any moderate Democrats left in the Congress to take up causes such as this and work with the other side of the aisle.

The Americans

Besides the great acting, tense plots, and overall superb writing, the FX cable series The Americans is also extraordinary in viewing Reagan’s concerted efforts to defeat communism from the point of view of Soviet agents embedded in Washington, D.C.

The advantage, of course, of a television series as opposed to a movie, is that these details can appear from time to time without being talky or preachy, nor does every point have to be squeezed into a two-hour plot.

And like The Sopranos, every time you are about to identify with the struggles and goals of the main characters, the writers slap you in the face with the cold, murderous reality of what the characters really do.

For The Americans from a West German point of view, check out Deutschland 83, a fantastic German TV series about a young man, forced to spy for East Germany during the Reagan missile deployment, who discovers the West really isn’t looking for war, but discovers elements on his own side are pushing for one.

The Peacemaker

The only serious effort to deal with the chaos of post-Soviet Russia and loose nukes. This underrated thriller stars George Clooney and Nicole Kidman as an Army colonel and a White House advisor chasing a stolen decommissioned Russian warhead all over the world after it’s taken by terrorists in league with the Russian Mob.

Interestingly, the movie is written by left-leaning national security journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, and unlike most of the political thrillers of the era, doesn’t make the United States the ultimate bad guy or provocateur in world events. It was also director Mimi Leder’s first feature film.

Shooter/24

Perhaps the most common side effect of the breakup of the Soviet Union is that the Russian Mob has become the most common unstoppable force of evil in countless thrillers and TV shows. (One of the best of these is the Viggo Mortensen movie, Eastern Promises.)

In 24, Jack Bauer runs afoul of the Russians after he kills several Russian diplomats involved in smuggling nuclear material to terrorists based in the fictions Islamic Republic of Kamistan. While loose nukes, Russian involvement on both sides of Islamic terrorism, and the inability to tell whether Russian officials are representing the government or the Mob all have their counterpart in real life, the fact that this surrounds a fictional Islamic nation—and other 24isms—robs the show from having much to say.

Shooter, the USA Network’s series based on the great Bob Lee Swagger novels of Stephen Hunter, takes a current—and much more possibly relevant—approach.

Updating both the book, Point of Impact, and the awful movie adaption, Shooter, the TV version has Bob Lee on the run for being framed for killing the Ukrainian president while attempting to assassinate the U.S. president. And the Russians are ultimately behind it. (That’s only a spoiler for about an hour, by the way.)

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Shooter is much of an analysis of the current Russian situation, but there is enough to make the show feel current.

I would include the attempted remake of the Jack Ryan franchise with Chris Pine in this era, but it was so routine and by the numbers that I can’t remember anything about it.

Forget the simply awful reboot of 24, 24: Legacy. The man inheriting the Jack Bauer mantle is Bob Lee Swagger.