My upcoming book Back To Our Future (due out on 3/15) posits that the 1980s--and specifically 1980s pop culture--frames the way we think about major issues today. The decade is the lens through which we see our world. To understand what that means, here are five classic flicks that show how the 1980s still shapes our thinking on government, the "rogue," militarism, race, and even our not-so-distant past.
1. Ghostbusters (1984): Peter Venkman, Ray Stantz, Egon Spengler, and Winston Zeddmore seem like happy-go-lucky guys, but these are cold, hard military contractors. Between evading the Environmental Protection Agency, charging exorbitant rates for apparition captures, and summoning a Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, the merry band shows a Zoul-haunted New York that their for-profit services are far more reliable than those of the Big Apple's wholly inept government. At the same time, the Ghostbusters were providing 1980s audiences with a cinematic version of what would later become the very real Blackwater--and what would be the anti-government, privatize-everything narrative of the twenty-first century.
2. Die Hard (1988): Though the 1980s was setting the stage for the rise of anti-government politics today, it was also creating the Palin-esque "rogue" to conveniently explain the good things government undeniably accomplishes. Hitting the silver screen just a few years after Ollie North's rogue triumphalism, John McClane became the '80s most famous of this "rogue" archetype--a government employee who becomes a hero specifically by defying his police superiors and rescuing hostages from the twin threat of terrorism and his boss's bureaucratic clumsiness. This message is so clear in Die Hard, that in one memorable scene, McClane is yelling at one police lieutenant that the government has become "part of the problem." Die Hard, like almost every national politician today, says government can only work if it gets out of the way of the rogues, mavericks, and rule-breakers within its own midst.
3. Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985): "Sir, do we get to win this time?" So begins the second--and most culturally important--installment of the Rambo series. The question was a direct rip-off of Ronald Reagan's insistence that when it came to the loss in Vietnam, America had been too "afraid to let them win"--them, of course, being the troops. The theory embedded in this refrain is simple: If only meddling politicians and a weak-kneed public had deferred to the Pentagon, then we would have won the conflict in Southeast Asia. Repeated ad nauseum since the 1980s, the "let them win" idea now defines our modern discussion of war. If only we let the Pentagon's Rambos do whatever they want with no question or oversight whatsoever, then we can decisively conclude the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan...and we can win the neverending "War on Terror."
4. Rocky III (1982): Before the 2008 presidential campaign devolved into cartoonish media portrayals of the palatable "post-racial" Barack Obama and his allegedly unpalatable "overly racial" pastor Jeremiah Wright, there was Rocky III more explicitly outlining this binary and bigoted portrayal of African Americans. Here was Rocky Balboa as the determined but slightly ignorant stand-in for White Middle America. Surveying the diverse landscape, the Italian Stallion could see only two kinds of black people--on one side the suave, smooth, post-racial Apollo Creed, and on the other side the enraged, animalistic Clubber Lang. Rocky thus gravitated to the former, and reflexively feared the latter, essentially summarizing twenty-first-century White America's often over-simplistic and bigoted attitudes toward the black community today.
5. The Big Chill (1983): This college reunion flick from Lawrence Kasdan is hilarious, morose, and seemingly nostalgic for the halcyon days of the past; but powerfully propagandistic in its negative framing of the 1960s. Over the course of the film's weekend, character after character berates the 1960s as an overly decadent age that may have been rooted in idealism, but was fundamentally destined to fail. Sound familiar? Of course it does. The 1980s-created narrative of the Bad Sixties can still be found in everything from national Tea Party protests to never-ending culture-war battles on local school boards. The message is always the same: If only America can emulate the Big Chillers and get past its Sixties immaturity and liberalism, everything will be A-okay.