It’s been 25 years since the Berlin Wall, and communism, fell. Síofra Ní Shluaghadháin looks at how American film have historically depicted the Cold War and how those attitudes are changing.
A lot of things can change in twenty five years. Music charts change by the week, politics by the day, and fashions by the half hour. Cinema has changed with the times as long as it has existed; and its reactions in the quarter of a century since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been no exception. The end of the Cold War signalled a new era in cinema, particularly American cinema; but what has this meant for the world of the silver screen?
The period between 1989 and 1991, which saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union, marked a new era in international cultural developments, particularly anti-communist developments. The future, it seemed, was to be an American-led venture; a brave new (and most importantly) capitalist world. Free from the spectre of Communism, and (at least temporarily) the associated threat of nuclear warfare, this new, more confident culture spread its wings and flourished. America, a country in which the right to free speech was prized above all, promised much to the world of the arts. Yet, in the following twenty five years, what would emerge was a pattern of new conservatism.
Confidence is a key word in this discussion. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the subsequent reunification of Germany, and the final fall of the USSR, the powerhouse of Communism which had lurked in the Eastern half of Europe for half a century disintegrated. History is written by the victors, and the case of the Cold War is no exception. The removal of the threat allowed for new discussion and new evaluations. It also allowed for a spectacular parading of capitalist ideas, and more relevantly, a spectacular ostracism of communism/perceived Russian ideals, on a worldwide scale. Militarism and capitalism would become a central pillar of American cinema.
Action movies are perhaps the best representation of these new, confidently conservative ideals. Hollywood has made millions from the sale of bravado, from Die Hard to Transformers. Undercutting all of these franchises are the principles of the American dream. To be rich is to be happy and anyone can be rich if they try hard enough. If you shoulder the burden of large corporations and work really hard, you can become a wealthy, iconic member of society. From the seemingly harmless to the blatantly overt, these trends can be seen everywhere. Batman and Ironman have both always been altruistic millionaires with do-gooder agendas, protectors of the American dream. In Slumdog Millionaire, this Americanized vision of happiness is exported beyond the traditional sphere, though in this case it is his struggle for survival that earns him his wealth. The concept has become universalized, America seemingly growing into the legacy it has created.
Yet, despite this bravado, the east has yet to come in from the cold in American pop culture. The villains in James Bond are often equipped with sinister, East Bloc accents, and a recent offering in the X-Men franchise resurrected the tensions of the Cuban Missile Crisis for dramatic effect. In conventional American cinema, it seems, the memory of the Cold War is a fire which must be stoked, a pattern infrequently broken but notably done so by films such as Dr.Strangelove. In many ways though, Russia still represents the ‘Other’, and the Cold War in American cinema is a long way from over.
These representations thankfully tell only part of the story. These last twenty five years have also witnessed a rise in independent cinema, an important balancing voice in the medium. These films are often heavily critical of the mainstream approach to cultural capitalism and have allowed for historical, political and cultural re-evaluations of the legacy of the Cold War. They often show strong undercurrents of scepticism, satire and left-leaning sympathies, which highlight the issues unconsciously raised by the mainstream. Independent films such as the cult German film, Goodbye, Lenin, balance a critique of the old Communist regimes against the farce of capitalist freedoms which have replaced it. This scepticism has, in places, bled through to parts of the mainstream, although this has happened in a largely Euro centric manner.
The faceless, East Bloc villains of James Bond films have been counterpointed in recent years by a more sympathetic brand of espionage cinema. Films such as 2012’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, present a view of the Cold War that is much more ambiguous than would have been possible up until now. While these films are set from a Western vantage point, the lines between the good and the bad are troublingly blurred, unsettling the easy correlation of right and wrong, and right and left which is so often drawn by the mainstream. It is only in recent years that traces of this ambiguity have found their way to Hollywood, with the unprecedented success of The Wolf of Wall Street, a film which exposes the harsh underside of the capitalist agenda. Only now, after these twenty five years have elapsed, can American cinema look at the legacy of the spectre of Communism, and begin to critique itself.
Although these signs are welcome, it is unlikely that they will mark an overwhelming change in the politics of American cinema. With their cultural dominance assured, the agenda of capitalist bravado will most likely continue unabated. But the voices of dissent are alive and well in the world of Independent cinema. Therefore, we will most likely continue to see a view of the Cold War which maintains that the people who lived behind the Iron Curtain might not have been as different as they had been happy believing, and that the ideals which emerged victorious in the wake of the Cold War may have been as flawed as those which they opposed.