Red Dawn

Red Dawn

John Milius

USA, 1984


Review by Jason W

Posted on 19 September 2007

Source MGM DVD


I blame my dislike of Red Dawn on George Clooney. Having loved Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Three Kings, and practically the entire Clooney liberal preacher canon, I’ve been thoroughly Clooney-ized, and no longer have a taste for blood while watching one-sided, knock down, drag out ’80s Cold War movies. I’ve been neutered by rational level-headedness against my own will, and equipped to see both sides of an argument. I no longer divide the world into an Us against Them mentality. My eyes no longer burn with rage watching Chuck Norris take out an entire South East Asian militia. It was more fun when my thoughts on politics succinctly boiled down to the plot of Rocky IV, but I guess we all have to grow up sometime.

Even watching a bunch of Patrick Swayze movies – Red Dawn’s star Wolverine – couldn’t reverse the Clooney effect if I tried, because by the late ’80s Swayze himself got so interested in pleasing his female audience that he went from plugging Commies in the forests of Colorado, to not putting baby in a corner, to being a ghost with no balls, to being admittedly awesome in Point Break, to wearing outright drag by 1995. Compared to the rest of Swayze’s filmography, Red Dawn might as well have been made by cavemen.

Seeing Red Dawn for the first time ever a few weeks ago also clued me in to the importance of seeing movies when they come out, especially if a movie comes out when you are a kid or a teenager. If you can enjoy a movie without letting attempts to think like an adult get in the way, that enjoyment will stick with you forever. For instance, does The Goonies suck? I don’t know, because I loved it so much as a kid, I can’t not love it now. I figure the same goes for Red Dawn.

To enjoy Red Dawn from scratch in 2007, think of the film as a Reagan-era mirror of hyperbole, reflecting straight back at us the current Bush Administration’s agenda of instilling paranoia and fear in its people. If Red Dawn was remade today, writer-director John Milius’ imagination for Right Wing derangement would juggle the current war on terror by making viewers believe in the possibility of Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan teaming up and sneak attacking the U.S. on a mass scale.

The Russians, Cubans, and Nicaraguans in Red Dawn are all cartoonishly evil, while The Wolverines – a group of small town Colorado teenagers – remain to fend for themselves without aid or outfit. It’s a very straight off the farm, corn fed approach to war, and The Wolverines just keep trucking along and fighting. I find it all strangely Canadian, The Wolverines being almost hockey player-like in their work ethic and giant parkas. Maybe I only think this because The Swayze was in Youngblood a few years after Red Dawn. Either way, Red Dawn treats war like a sport, with The Cold War turned into a massive board game, right down to the fleeting emotional payoffs.

It’s no surprise this movie is a cult hit: America gets to be both entitled victim and gun-loving lunatic. It’s the dream of a nation unconscious to itself, with an aggressive foreign policy, embodied by S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders as guerrilla freedom fighters. The tagline might as well be, “America: We’re destructive in life, but victims onscreen.” The Wolverines are guerrillas not because they believe in a political cause, or because they have worked to erase an imbalance of power and injustice through an ideological cause. They are guerrillas because a sneak attack has left them homeless, forcing them to unexpectedly go on the offensive. Red Dawn only works if Russia sneak attacks, because any sense of intelligence, patience, or diplomacy by either side would make this plot impossible. The Wolverines become oppressed, homeless guerrillas in a matter of seconds, and Colorado become what politically strife regions become over decades, centuries, or even millennia.

Westernized political aggression is usually the equivalent of militaristic rape, but in this case a bunch of young men and women fight off being militaristically raped at a primal level. Yet the film’s not even enjoyable at a primal level. First Blood is a much better film, because it emotionally resonates, articulating the cultural frustration of Vietnam soldiers rejected by their own country, as well as the guilt ridden reaction of a country that knows it unfairly turned its back on its soldiers. First Blood, like all good exploitation movies, creates rationality from feelings that could not otherwise be logically justified; feelings that only make sense in the context of a character’s world view, once that character’s world view has been empathetically explained.

First Blood feels like a cleansing fairy tale, in which a little gnome of a Vietnam veteran must destroy a mountain village and its evil sheriff leader, Brian Dennehy in full-on shithead mode, in order to be understood, or at least left alone in misunderstanding. John Rambo fights as an army of one, and yet his individual strife stands in for the presumed pain of many actual Vietnam soldiers. The Wolverines are unlike Rambo in that their emotional turmoil comes from an in-the-moment trauma of being sneak attacked and displaced, with little comprehension of the state of their nation in whole.

Red Dawn forcibly extrapolates the emotion of its characters, and this is why the emotions are so unconvincing in Red Dawn; you can’t emotionally justify a nation’s guilt through dishonesty about exploring that very guilt. An emotionally honest film about Cold War hysteria may ask: How do we acknowledge the fear of an overblown media promoting an increasingly artificial division between Communism and Capitalism/East vs West, and How does a Superpower sleep at night knowing that destruction and world bullying is what allows the fortress of North America to stay tightly sealed?

If you are going to be aggressive and militaristic, at least embrace it. America as a nation must realize that social guilt is the necessary result of a suppressed national conscience and the uncomfortable fallout for external global power and control. You can’t be both entitled and oppressed, and yet this film claims you can. Red Dawn would have been effective if it created a fictional scenario which allowed an expression and reflection of actual, subdued emotions that divided moviegoers during the Reagan era of the Cold War. As is, it exploits feelings, or rather, paranoias without offering viewers catharsis or understanding in return.

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