Book Review: In “Make My Day,” J. Hoberman revisits “Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan”

Book Review: In “Make My Day,” J. Hoberman revisits “Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan”

With a meaningful amount of the 2000s behind us, it’s remarkable to look back and realize just how neatly the preceding century coincided with the reign of the movies. Films as we know them were just becoming widespread at the turn of the 20th century. Then, 100 years later, the internet permanently dethroned movie theaters as venues for a pop-culture lingua franca. Movies are still around, but if you wanted to get a vital read on the national pulse in 2019, you certainly wouldn’t turn to Hollywood.

Things were different a few decades ago, and J. Hoberman was in the thick of it. As Village Voice film critic from the late 1970s through the early 2010s, he was educated on the cinema of the ’60s and found his voice writing about the movies of the ’80s. His new book, he writes in a preface, completes a trilogy that includes the preceding titles The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (2003) and An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War (2011). The latest volume’s title? Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan.

It’s certainly a ripe subject. Ronald Reagan was, of course, America’s only movie-star president — a distinction it now seems he’ll hold forever. That fact wasn’t incidental to his presidency: he constantly cited his Hollywood history and used cinematic allusions like the book’s title phrase (a 1983 Clint Eastwood line Reagan borrowed for a 1985 speech challenging anyone who wanted to raise taxes).

In a broader sense, Hoberman notes, Reagan leveraged voters’ penchant for using movies as vehicles of escapism. A Reagan-era voter might settle into a theater seat and surrender to the flickering screen’s all-consuming illusion of an alternate universe that followed a coherent narrative and addressed clear themes, wrapping up with a satisfying conclusion in which everything was right with the world. Reagan instinctively knew how to make the real world feel that way, using the presidential seal to make it official.

Born in 1975, I’m a product of the Reagan era. “Ronnie” was a satisfyingly paternal figure on TV, and I ate up the unapologetically commercial entertainment that his administration’s deregulated media fed to me. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were sorcerers, the most gifted working artists I could imagine; there was truly nothing better than going to see a new Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie.

My ’80s nostalgia has only grown as my adult decades have piled up, but recently I’ve been curious to go back through the looking glass and see that world from an adult perspective. How did all of that play out for the grown-ups? Make My Day is a potent time machine in that respect, laying out what the movies of the ’80s signified for an educated, liberal, critical thinker in New York. Where I saw awe-inspiring sorcery, Hoberman detected a darker magic at work.

For the purposes of Hoberman’s survey, what you might call the cinematic ’80s began in 1975 and ended in 1988. He’s not alone in demarcating a movie era that aligns with those markers: in his book-length gen-X love letter to those films, Mark O’Connell defines the “watching skies” years as the decade beginning with Jaws.

Roger Ebert found unparalleled movie-critic fame by taking an everyman’s view of blockbusters, affirming that Spielberg and Lucas delivered extraordinarily entertaining experiences. Hoberman, steeped in critical theory and writing for the country’s leading alternative weekly, had a more acid view.

For Hoberman, Jaws — the definitive founding film of the modern blockbuster era — was also the ultimate ’70s disaster movie. “Despite their overt fatalism, the disaster films were fundamentally reassuring,” he writes. “They celebrated the inherent virtue of decent, everyday Middle Americans, linking their survival skills to traditional social roles and conventional moral values.”

The period’s most popular and celebrated movies, then, served to codify the social structure and manner of thinking that elevated Ronald Reagan and his increasingly libertarian-leaning Republican Party. Star Wars “was an anti-technological technological wonder — an ultra-authoritarian presentation with an anti-authoritarian message.” Raiders of the Lost Ark was “the first real Reagan movie,” starring “a positive version of what would in the Sixties have been described as an Ugly American.”

It’s a stimulating line of argument, but it can only stretch so far. When he gets to Ghostbusters, Hoberman sees a movie that “mocked academic research, counter-cultural idealism, and governmental regulation to celebrate, even as it parodied, an entrepreneurial free market and skillful merchandising.” Even Ray Parker Jr., it seems, was singing subconscious anticommunist propaganda when he sang “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” a slogan that “includes the very specter that, 136 years before, Marx and Engels saw haunting Europe.”

Wouldn’t it be more productive to approach Ghostbusters, as a text, in the context of the iconoclastic SNL-Lampoon-SCTV axis of comic actors who made virtually all of the decade’s biggest comedies (and just as many of its flops)? That’s left for other writers, though, who might watch these movies through the eyes of our own era. By and large, Hoberman is repeating and amplifying the things he said and thought when he saw these movies through the eyes of an intellectual critic in their own era.

That means that his strongest praise is backhanded, and his most scathing critiques are vicious. He won’t even allow that Ghostbusters is an entertaining movie: “often plodding, overly dependent on special effects, and frequently infantile in its fixation on mucous textures.” The John Williams fanfare heard at the opening of Star Wars, the music that helped make Williams the best-loved living composer? “Cornball migranemaker.”

The book’s most informative and insightful passages unpack the procession of movies that helped Americans process the confusing quagmire of Vietnam. He sorts them into three waves.

Released in the late 1970s, the first wave of Vietnam films, notably Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, were self-important epics that sought to provide a narrative for America’s most unsatisfying war; the second wave, clustered in the mid 1980s, were essentially compensatory, focused on hero-building and restoring national honor through the rescue of American captives; the third, longest, and most varied wave sought, with mixed success, to tell it like it was. Platoon was the first of these — experienced and subsequently presented as a form of national therapy.

Rambo was the quintessential second-wave film, but Hoberman points out that its predecessor First Blood told a much more ambiguous story. (Rambo was technically First Blood Part II, which means that Rambo III should actually have been Rambo II: First Blood Part III and the 2008 Rambo was the implied First Blood Part IV, but we can only hope that this year’s installment is accurate in its decisive moniker Rambo: Last Blood.)

First Blood, a 1982 movie based on a 1972 novel, opens with John Rambo’s original sin: looking long-haired and surly while wearing combat fatigues in civilian life. His antagonist is a lawman who wants to sweep the Vietnam War under the rug. Rambo simply wants to be seen, wants his trauma to be witnessed. His monologue at the end of the movie’s trail of destruction inspired the character’s later, pithier quips (“Do we get to win this time?”), but in First Blood he’s not issuing a clarion call, he’s struggling with PTSD.

You could hardly say Rambo was appropriated by Reagan — as Hoberman notes, Sylvester Stallone was embarrassingly eager for the President’s approval — but the character certainly lost his shades of grey as he became an emblem of an America that was ready to stop apologizing for flexing its military muscle. By 1988’s Rambo III he was so firmly in the Cold War pocket that despite the movie’s explicit analogy between Russian involvement in Afghanistan and U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Rambo was fighting for the Mujahideen because they were against the commies.

Now, Rambo’s been reduced to a “MAGA fever dream,” as Slate puts it. Hoberman concludes with an essay on our current political era, which in true ’80s fashion involves a bigger and badder form of weaponized nostalgia. Donald Trump was an emblem of the ’80s so broad that it would have been comical if people weren’t already getting hurt (see: Central Park Five), and “MAGA” itself is adapted from Reagan’s promise, “let’s make America great again.”

In Hoberman’s view, Trump took Reagan’s insight that American voters have an appetite for comforting fictions and pushed his resulting actions to a nihilistic extreme. For Trump’s base, all truths are inconvenient, and consistency is the hobgoblin of large minds. White supremacy, America’s most insidious fiction and the subtext of Reagan’s appeal, is Trump’s unvarnished rallying cry. He’s a television president, changing the channel as often as he wants to avoid any perspectives that aren’t his own.

Ronald Reagan? He was a movie president. Whereas Trump’s constant lies validate his supporters’ hopes that they never have to listen to anyone who might tell them something they don’t want to hear, Reagan’s falsehoods tended to burnish his view of a world where the good guys won, in properly cinematic fashion.

One of his best-known departures from the truth, one that alarmed his staff in a way that now almost seems quaint, was his repeated citation of an apocryphal story about a bomber pilot who went down with his plane so a trapped comrade wouldn’t have to die alone. He seems to have seen it in an old wartime movie: as good as true, right?

A similar process seems to have been in effect when Reagan advanced one of his strangest untruths: he told Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir that he had personally filmed Nazi concentration camps after their liberation. In fact, he never left the country during World War II. He later revised the story to describe seeing a “secret film” of the camps as part of his wartime service in the film corps. The truth is that not only did Reagan not make the film, it wasn’t even secret: the footage he seems to have been describing was publicly shown in American movie theaters in 1945.

Reagan was a lifelong avid movie viewer (Hoberman carefully notes many of the films the Reagans screened at the White House and Camp David, along with some capsule reviews from the President’s diary), and biographer Lou Cannon, who talked with Reagan at length during his presidency and after, believes he had “difficulty in distinguishing actual from cinematic experience.”

Hence Reagan’s repeated suggestion that Americans and Soviets would quickly forget their differences if they faced a common foe: invading space aliens. Hence his belief that the 1983 Mathew Broderick movie WarGames depicted a legitimate national security threat. “I don’t understand these computers very well,” he told congressional leaders, “but this young man obviously did. He tied into NORAD!”

Thus the fascination of Hoberman’s book for those of us who watched the ’80s with wide eyes turned to the movies. For better and for worse, the President of the United States was just as captivated as we were. You don’t need to go as far as Hoberman — in arguing, say, that E.T. deployed “the narcissistic fantasy of the stranger in (our) paradise and the joyful recuperation of the authoritarian Fifties” to “restore universal faith in smoke and mirrors” — to appreciate his argument that those of us hoping for the decade’s brilliant cinematic fantasies to come to life ought to have been careful what we wished for.

Jay Gabler