Cold War Drama: The Last Final Frontier

As one of the last children of the Cold War, its sometimes sobering to know that there's a whole generation who know of Russia as nothing but another economically-troubled moderately corrupt quasi-democracy having trouble with radical Muslims within her borders. It's the price paid for the Cold War being won without a shot fired: Reagan bankrupted the Soviets, and as a result the new generation didn't fear them as they feared, say, the stories of the unstoppable German Panzers.

Anyways, liberal Hollywood has always had a lot of subject matter to do with the Cold War: Manchurian Candidate, Dr. Strangelove, The Way We Were,

Still, the Cold War was a great source of material, though anger over the HUAC hearings meant that Hollywood instinctively didn't give right-wingers the "satisfaction" of having our views told. Anyways, this past week I've watched probably the last two of the Cold War dramas. These movies, one right-wing, one left-wing, were released in 1990 and 1991 respectively, and thus mark the end of the Cold War itself. Some also like to label Air Force One (1997) and Crimson Tide (1995) as Cold War dramas, but this isn't particularly true. In both movies, the Soviet Union has already fallen and the spectre of a return to the old ways requires a new revolution in which exiled or imprisoned former generals come back to Moscow to take over. They are best described as post-Cold War films, though the post-war era for the Cold War was pretty small: by 2001 a new enemy in a new form had presented itself, and we could no longer look at things in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union.

Anyways, the first of those Cold War dramas is the most recognizable as such: The Hunt for Red October, adapted from Tom Clancy's 1984 novel. Of course, back in 1983 when Clancy was writing it the Cold War was in full steam. By 1990 when the movie was released the Soviet threat was already diminishing: Reagan had clearly scored major victories against the Soviets at the negotiating table. The Berlin Wall had already fallen. The Cold War was peacefully winding down. Therefore the movie works more as an action adventure than as a drama. The spectre of a Soviet missile sub laying off the Hudson River isn't nearly as omnious as it was when the only American victory to date was the Grenada invasion. One of the things that always bugged me about the movie version of Red October, despite it being one of my favourite movies of all time, were the changes from book to movie. Now I understand that books need to be adapted to the screen, and that some changes were necessary. In the same way that Lord of the Rings had to ditch the non-linear format of the last two books to allow the story to flow properly, the British fleet had to be left out of the movie. It would just have confused the audience. When I last watched the film it was with a young woman who grew up on the other side of the Iron Curtain in the 1980s, and I was amazed at how much trouble she already had following along with parts of the plot. Adding the Brits would have made it far far worse (ie. another C&C or bridge to memorize). Other changes like removng the Ethan Allen explosion, the failure to show Krazny Oktyabr defectors being debriefed in D.C., Ryan boarding the Dallas, are all easily seen as being simply changed in the interest of good movie storytelling. As a physicist, one of the changes I delighted in and was wishing the book had done as well, was the different concept of the "caterpillar" drive. In the movie, the Red October's silent drive is not actually a "caterpillar". A caterpillar drive is actually a long cylindrical tube running alone the long axis of the sub which contained therein are propellor blades (actually impellors). Water comes in the front, is expelled from the stern by the impellors (there are supposedly 4 or so per tube) and moves the sub. Its inefficient and slow, but it eliminates the cavitaton noise that plagues subs at high speeds. (I once saw a Los Angeles-class 688 boat being given a drydock retrofit, and the propellor blade was covered in canvas to hide the classified cavitation-reducing design) In the movie, though, the Красный Октябрь uses a magneto hydrodynamic propulsion system. (Actually, the movie seems to use a thermo hydrodynamic system, but that's another story). The use of a 21st-century drive system is extremely exciting, even though the real MHD drive systems have yelded very poor results.

Anyways, where I was going with this is changes from the book to the film that are apparently for no good reason. When Ramius goes to periscope depth rather than oepning his bay doors, in the movie Captain Mancuso describes him as "a very cool customary Russian". In the book, the same action causes Mancuso to claim "yeah that fits. He's a cowboy". Why the change for the course of the movie is odd at best. But hey, that's how these moving pictures work. Hunt for Red October was one of the few right-wing war movies to ever get made, mostly due to the convictions of Tom Clancy himself. (The other pro-war movie that comes to mind was another American hawk, John Wayne, who did The Green Berets in 1968).

And that provides a clumsy segue into the next Cold War movie that I watched last night and again today, starring one of the actors from The Green Berets. Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the final movie featuring the full cast from the original Star Trek series -- including Green Berets' George Takei. In keeping with the late 80s anti-Reagan Hollywood mindset, the end of the Cold War is always given as the acheivment of the Soviets for letting their empire collapse. Likewise, Undiscovered Country uses an environmental catastrophe on the moon Praxis (Chernobyl) to spurn a desire for peace by a maverick Klingon Chancellor (Gorbachev) over the objections of "hard right-wingers on both sides" (???) Much of the Cold War drama elements are still in place. Conspiracies, great battles that serve only as skirmishes if the fragile peace fails, battle of wits, prisoners held captive in barbaric conditions, and the like abound. The Klingon Empire is shown in full bore, making it a true Cold War drama rather than a Crimson Tide style faux-empires-at-war scenario. The Klingon Bird-of-Prey which can fire while cloaked was a redo of the F-117 stealth fighter, while the Klingons themselves were shown occasionally as variants of the Nazis (Shakespeare in the original Klingon/German) for example, and often as well as the Russians whom they have portrayed since 1967 (the Romulans were often considered the Chinese). The Rura Penthe gulag prison is the most obvious, as is the Stalineque show trial that is held before sending Kirk and McCoy away for life. A more subtle anti-American jab is the "don't wait for the translation" line used against Kirk by General Chang when being accused. Of course, Adlai Stevenson was facing off against somebody known to speak English but whom pretended not to, so its perhaps not a perfect fit. Christopher Plummer has no connection to Gogo from Final Fantasy either.

Both of these movies are very good, but there's a quality to Hunt for Red October that is largely missing from Star Trek VI. Namely, the quality of being "fun".

Fun movies can be good movies (Hunt for Red October) or bad movies (Godzilla 2000). Good movies can be not fun, as Star Trek VI is, and obviously bad movies can be unfun as well. Fun is an intangeable separate quality. The Lethal Weapon and Die Hard movies are fun, particularly the original Die Hard and Lethal Weapon 2. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring is a fun movie more than the latter two, even though Return of the King is a better movie. Das Boot is perhaps a better submarine movie than Red October, but Red October is far more "fun".

Romantic comedies are almost never fun, but when they are the result is Groundhog Day or Grosse Point Blank. National Treasure was a movie who's popularity was hard to explain by film critics. The similarly-themed Sahara did far poorer that same year, and Nick Cage's Matchstick Men that same year didn't do as well either. National Treasure was just a fun movie though: and that's the sort of thing that gives it the edge. The "fun" factor is a hard one to figure out, but if you could master it you would be rolling in the movie-making dough. Sin City and Fifth Element are two more "fun" Bruce Willis movies (the man has a talent for finding them, one must think). A movie doesn't have to be "fun" to be popular: Titanic and Willis' The Sixth Sense aren't fun movies that did very well at the box office. Sequels often fail, I think, in part because they just aren't often as fun the next time around. Lethal Weapon 2 is an obvious counter-example just because the first one was so serious much of the time, when Mel Gibson "funned" his character up the change of pace was so refreshing. Shrek 2 and Ace Venture: When Nature Calls are two glaring examples of ruining a "fun" movie. The second and third in the Matrix trilogy weren't as "fun" as the first, which cost them popularity. Sometimes too "fun" is overmilked. The Adventures of Ford Fairlane and Batman & Robin are two examples of films which knew about the "fun" thing but just tried too hard. Batman Forever is also guilty of this on a smaller scale. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, another good movie I have on DVD, lost its "fun" quality about halfway through, not even waiting for a sequel to develop. Bubba Ho-Tep similarly lost its fun partway through, which left it as a good cult movie as opposed to a hugely successful mainstream film (and I mean hugely successful as both well regarded and profitable -- along the lines of Lord of the Rings or Shrek). I mentioned Serenity in this post and it too is just a "fun" movie.

Fun movies, and Cold War adventure flicks. What a way to spend Wednesday afternoon when your MLB.tv subscription is down and your internet is unreliable...