October 18, 2014

Red Dawn (1984)

Amazon Prime Instant Video Presents: RED DAWN (1984)

I have gone on at length about my love for the pop culture of 1984, it seemed necessary to finally watch a semi-iconic movie from '84 that I had never seen. So one Saturday night while my wife was putting the boy to bed, I started RED DAWN.

(Side Note: What is it about movies with less than eight letters in the title that encourages me to always spell them in ALL CAPS?)

RED DAWN surprised me. It wasn't what I was expecting at all. Instead of a teen movie set in a war, it's a war movie with teens in it. It wasn't a great movie, but it has a lot to recommend it, maybe even more than it did when it was new. Going into it, I knew it was about a cadre of scrappy high school students who fight back against a Soviet invasion of the Midwest. I knew it had a proto-Brat Pack cast, and it does not have a serious reputation.

With that image in my mind, I was surprised to discover RED DAWN is actually a completely serious war movie, from the sole perspective of a small prairie town in Colorado. The opening image is sobering: a high school history teacher interrupted mid-lecture by Cuban paratroopers silently landing in the football field outside.
Until halfway through the film, our teen rebel force, led by reluctant alpha Patrick Swayze, have no idea of the full scale of the war. Most of the big "global catastrophe" movies of the 1980s and 90s flit from city to city, continent to continent. RED DAWN dramatizes what it would be like if you were suddenly cut off from the rest of the world, not knowing what happened to your parents, never mind the rest of the country. If the nukes dropped on Washington DC, you wouldn't get a Breaking News flash on CNN.
The screenplay (by director John Milius and Kevin Reynolds) takes a real-world hypothetical and brings it to life: Circumstances force the Soviets and the Cubans into invading the USA. they launch a sneak mini-nuclear attack (on only several small cities) through bombers disguised as passenger jets flying from Mexico. RED DAWN dramatizes the political and strategic reality of a Cuban/Soviet alliance, and will remind any viewer just how seriously America took their threats to our safety. There are moments when Soviet-occupied small-town Colorado seems almost a satire: red-and-gold signs for the Soviet-American Cooperation Office, the co-opted mayor's office has a portrait of Stalin on the wall, the local theater shows Russian propaganda for free, while all the suspected insurgents are held in a concentration camp...at the drive-in theater.
The Cuban and Soviet leaders of the occupation offer a surprising perspective: the Soviets are completely unilateral in their response to the rebel "Wolverine" attacks, while the Cuban leader recognizes the insurgency from his own experiences overthrowing the imperial regime in his native Cuba.
A pleasant surprise, as it turns out. I'd recommend RED DAWN as a serious war movie, as a time capsule of America's view of the Cold War in 1984, and solid performances from a Brat Pack cast asked to step up their game and perform outside their comfort zone (and literally outside- almost the whole movie is shot outside on location)