Say what you like about 20th century America, but give them this: they could tell a story. While late Cold War Soviet propaganda showed all the subtle intent of a supermarket customer with ladies stockings pulled over his face, American propaganda was from a paradigm of guile where Trojan horses graze the lawns of confidence men. US media was by necessity so much more sophisticated than its superpower rival's. Decades of corporate jostling in the consumer-driven free market had led to intense emphasis on research of how to create, grow, and maintain loyalty – a strategy as applicable to a breakfast cereal as a political ideology. There was no Soviet style brainwashing, just a relentless imperceptible trickle that gently displaces original ideas with the required colouring.
My childhood was 1980s Ireland. “Tit-for-Tat” killing in Northern Ireland reported everyday on the Irish news channels; Reagan, Thatcher and Gorbachev on the British TV channels we received. Mike Tyson was the name on everyone's lips in the school playground. This ferociously gifted and inordinately powerful young man was the greatest sensation in sport – boxing's heavyweight champion of the world – and seemingly unbeatable. In an aggregated matter of ring minutes he bound the fractured heavyweight boxing crown that was previously distributed among three men, who later wished Iron Mike never existed. In rare variance from the standard reaction of a fallen champion, none of the three wise men ever asked for a rematch. These were of course the early days for the young man who would soon step two-footed in to almost every trap that stratospheric celebrity brings.
In the schoolyard we flicked jabs and swiped hooks out of range, then threw our heads back as if we'd been tagged – just like the Rocky movies.
– Do you think Rocky would beat Tyson?
– Yeah he would!
– No way Man!…Tyson is unbeatable.
– Maybe the first time yeah, but Rocky wins the rematch. Rocky always wins the rematch.
Around my eighth birthday, my sister took me on the bus in to the city to pick a movie. She groaned when I chose the latest instalment in the Rocky franchise – Part IV. To her immense credit, even without knowing she'd be cited in an article some 26 years later, against her better judgement she bought the tickets, the popcorn, the can of Fanta and the packet of Snax before enduring a film which rottentomatoes.com now rates at 44%, while I sat entranced at what I then considered to be the greatest movie ever made. My new found sophistication in cinematic taste saw Disney's The Jungle Book harshly displaced from the pinnacle of my silverscreen affections.
For those who don't recall the movie, the Rocky storyline takes a political turn at the behest of Sylvester Stallone's pen. Rocky's nemesis is Ivan Drago, a steroid addled automaton, a tool of the politburo detailed to humiliate the United States of America and its great champion. Drago arrives in the US with his handlers, including his Mini-Me type wife, she as inordinately tall, blond, sculpted and a master of her sport – swimming – as her husband. Ludmilla is a formidable woman who speaks for her even more formidable spouse. Drago's handlers challenge Rocky, but Rocky's old rival and new best friend Apollo Creed wants a piece of the Russian first. Having danced his way to the ring to the strains of the presciently ironic “Living in America” with James Brown at his side, Creed is carried from the ring as a corpse, cruelly beaten to death by the brutal robotic punishment of Drago, while Ludmilla exudes a post-coital pout of satisfaction at ringside.
Rocky does what Rocky has to do despite his homely wife’s urgings. He sets off to Russia to fight Drago in his own backyard. The odds are against Rocky…of course. He trains in a bleak secluded snowbound log cabin among a grim scattering of weary undernourished Soviet peasants, their pathetically undeveloped infrastructure barely disrupting the endlessly barren landscape (filmed in Vancouver rather than Russia mind you). Drago trains among the most sophisticated equipment, technology and indeed injected chemicals. A team of scientists directs his every exertion. Evidently, the not so subtle message is that the Soviet regime has neglected caring for their people in favour of directing their resources to cheating their way to victory over America. No one ever claimed the movie was an elusive multidimensional miasma of plots, hence the aforementioned 44% rating from the movie buffs, but what kind of formative understanding of international society does an eight year old kid take away from it?
In the expected fashion Rocky takes a beating that would have seen most multi storey buildings reduced to rubble, but there ain’t no building got a heart like Rocky Balboa. Catching a slow motion teary glimpse from his ever-cardiganed Adrienne through the solitary swollen and bruised eye that remains somewhat operational, he paws the canvas with his gloves and finds the true American inside himself. Balboa rises to his feet, goads the mindless wrecking machine Drago forward and turns the tide of the fight. The farcically partisan Moscow crowd also turn, and these fickle fight fans begin to cheer for Rocky, his name coldly echoing around the industrial wasteland that hosts the fight in a not very subtle juxtaposition to the James Brown powered razzmatazz of Las Vegas that prefaced the Apollo v Drago section of the movie.
Rocky beats Drago to the canvas and the Soviet man-machine doesn’t want to know anymore. Getting off the floor wasn’t part of the training programme. Fear infects the faces of Drago’s handlers and the hitherto unflappable Ludmilla. Their concern presumably not for their friend Ivan but for the one-way ticket to the Gulag that the failure of their project has just bought.
Then the piece-de-resistance, and surely one of the finest moments in cinematic history. The uncomfortable twitching in the politburo’s seats above the ring is defused as the Soviet leader – who is never shown in full light but has a knowingly similar stature, bearing, silhouette and hair to scalp ratio as Mikhail Gorbachev – rises to his feet and unreservedly applauds Rocky’s valour in the contest and the stringy fondue of fraternal words that congeal through his post fight speech.
You see, if your heart is as true and American as Rocky’s you can overcome the shackles of state ideology and be one of the good guys too. I didn’t articulate it that way when I was eight years old of course, but on second viewing a long time later, it’s trowelled on cringingly thick. I’m surprised Stallone’s performance was not better appreciated by The Academy, it was a turn of Olivier proportions to keep a straight face.
In hindsight it wasn’t an isolated message in the flood of information that formed a kid’s worldview at that time. A generation of childhoods were engraved with similarly contrived American cultural values. We played “Cowboys and Indians”. We all wanted to be the Cowboys. They were good guys, and they always won. How was there unquestioned acceptance among kids that the Cowboys were the goodies? They too did what had to be done: shoot the savage Indians who would tie you to a post, cut off your scalp and set you on fire off if they got hold of you. Its a rather outstanding public relations achievement to spin through 180 degrees what some of those kids later discovered was a genocidal invasion upon the native continental population.
One year after Rocky IV was released, Top Gun hit cinema screens. A film that would have been impossible to make without the co-operation of the United States Air Force, they of course exercised great control over the portrayal of the life of a USAF pilot, and with the film censor’s age restriction set to 12 it sowed a seed of perception in to every impressionable teenager in America that they only had to sign up with USAF for an unparalleled opportunity at a life of swashbuckling adventure with supersonic planes, enraptured women, friendship and patriotism. The American military were somewhat less supportive of the movies Platoon and Salvador which were also released in 1986 and painted a little more realism in to the prospects of a life dedicated to sharing American values. Nor of course could the censor permit these more telling and graphic representations of blood and horror to be be shown to anything but an adult audience.
Kids were exposed to a lot more news in the 1980’s than they are now. A choice of round the clock cartoon channels did not exist, so early risers had the BBC and ITV morning shows as their background noise, and much news was overheard. Reagan talked of “An Evil Empire” when referring to the Soviet Union in March 1983 and the phrase was readily used by the media on an ongoing basis. For a kid this chimed with the Star Wars movies. The choice of language was impeccable in its effect, good and evil are starkly painted in Star Wars. The Jedi’s moral superiority over the ‘Dark Side’, or the Galactic Empire, is never in doubt.
If ‘Evil Empire’ branding was an exercise that among other things succeeded in winning young minds about who the good guys were, the Strategic Defense Initiative which became better known as “The Star Wars Programme” utterly blurred the lines between movies and reality. Overheard trivia that Reagan used to be a movie actor did not help to still the waters of this muddied discourse.
The utility of this unaccidental linguistic choice was later put to service by the George W. Bush administration in justification of wars of choice against what were deemed to be rogue states. The phrase “Axis of Evil” merges the ‘evil’ of the US Cold War enemy with an allusion to the ‘axis’ powers of Japan, Germany and Italy in World War 2. The implication is all of America’s enemies have teamed up to pose a threat of the likes never seen before – akin to Gotham City falling under simultaneous assault from Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler and whoever else is deemed to be a villain by the moral enforcers. You can get away with incredible things in the name of fighting evil.
It was only seven months after Reagan chided the Kremlin’s Evil Empire, that America saved the world from the unprecedented threat to humanity posed by the Caribbean island of Grenada. US forces invaded the island in October 1983 and secured the geopolitical powerhouse. The justification was that the airport had been developed and could possibly accommodate Russian / Cuban traffic. The good guys say: don’t improve your airport or we’ll invade. A UN resolution was passed condemning this invasion by 109 votes to 8.
Rocky ran the hard miles himself – “had the guts, got the glory”. He didn’t get his pal Apollo Creed to pay some up'n'comers down at the boxing club to take the hits. Outsourcing the dirty work doesn’t sit well with the American values ingrained in the English speaking world by 1980s media. Reagan wouldn’t send his own troops to El Salvador, but he sure could fund whatever side in any conflict he deemed to be less American in outlook. The Salvadoran government forces had – among their many crimes – in 1980 shot an Archbishop while he was performing a mass, and then massacred 42 of their own civilians on the steps of the church where they attended his funeral a few days later. Reagan later saw fit to make these guys allies in the just fight against the Evil Empire. Upwards of 80,000 people lost their lives in the Salvadoran Civil War, the vast majority civilians, vaster still the majority who did so at the wrong end of an American funded death squad.
Nicaragua, Panama, and Guatemala all have similarly macabre chapters from this era which are worth exploring for those who care to listen to the seldom aired flip side of America The Beautiful.
The path to adulthood is strewn with the remnants of many sorrowfully popped balloons of childish perception. People aren’t who you thought they were, or what you thought they were. World views spin to disorientation as the hot-air of unconsciously received propaganda concede to the pin-prick of reality, inducing a thicker layer of skin, embedding a wisdom of experience, and driving a fierce resolve that you won't get fooled again.