US paranoia seen in new Red Dawn
By Benjamin A Shobert
The Chinese propaganda posters, carefully set inside the windows of the
Chinese/American Friendship Center in Detroit, say it all: the first, a picture
of the Capitol in Washington DC having its rotunda blown off, with the words
"Defeating Your Enemy" running along the top. The second, a Chinese hand
reaching down to help up an American, with the phrase "Helping You Back On Your
Feet", and the last, a burly laborer hammering away at an anvil, a figure of
the US dollar beneath his descending hammer, with the slogan "Repairing Your
Economy" in large white letters on the poster.
Another poster makes its point even more directly: beneath a picture of the
chastened US dollar, "Deceitful Leaders. Greedy
Corporations. This is Not a Democracy. We Are Here to Help."
Thankfully, this is not the Detroit of today, rather the Detroit of tomorrow,
at least as envisioned by director Dan Bradley, who is in the midst of remaking
the 1984 cult hit Red Dawn, but this time with the Soviets taking the
back seat and the Chinese standing in as the aggressor.
It can be easy to trivialize the narrative liberties taken by Hollywood
directors and writers, to see this movie remake as simply one more retreading
of a proven formula with updated cinematography and characters. But even
formulaic refreshers, as Red Dawn appears to be, draw on the current day
for both content and temperament. At an estimated budget of US$75 million
starring a range of young talent, including Tom Cruise's son, Connor, the movie
is slated for a traditionally big Thanksgiving weekend release in 2010. But
more importantly, the movie and its villains say much about America's current
The original Red Dawn worked in no small part because it preyed on
American insecurities about the outcome of an actual military confrontation
with the Soviet Union. During the early 1980s, when the first movie was
conceived, written and produced, the US was still recovering from a recession,
feeling both economically and militarily vulnerable.
In hindsight, both fears would prove somewhat overstated, as the US economy
fought off the aftermath of high inflation, unemployment and the savings and
loan crisis, and as the ideological strength of the Soviet Union crumpled. This
implosion was in no small part because of the growing disparity between the
Soviet Union's military capabilities and those being created in the US as a
consequence of the Ronald Reagan administrations aggressive funding of new
But the original Red Dawn is best seen and understood from the
perspective of an American worker in the early 1980s: insecure in his job and
facing fewer job opportunities; afraid of a future with high inflation; and
seeing a rising economic threat in Japan on one hand, and an increasing
military threat from Russia on the other.
As outlandish as we may find these ideas now, when the original movie opened
with scenes of Soviet Spetsnaz paratroopers parachuting into America's
heartland and gunning down a teacher who dares challenge them, this scene
worked because these same Spetsnaz had landed in Kabul several years earlier,
and because the hype surrounding the US's own military build-up drew much of
its force from a belief that we did not possess the necessary hardware or
strategy to defend ourselves from the growing Soviet communist menace.
As rewrites go, the new Red Dawn movie did not have far to go for
inspiration. Fast forward to the modern-day worker and his own insecurities: a
job market so bad that it requires generational markers, uncomfortable
parallels to the Great Depression, to measure and understand; fears over
inflation caused by run-away government spending; and those expenditures made
necessary because the whole of our system appeared ready to topple.
And, unlike the 1980s when our economic and military threats were distinctly
different, Americans have now begun to fear that China may be their true peer,
able to match them both economically and militarily. Perhaps most problematic
is that China and the Soviet Union have both been, and in some measure still
are, communist. Even though this label fits the China of today poorly (if at
all), the descriptor sticks in the minds of many. It can be easy to pass such
fears off as uneducated or irrational if it were not for how frequently these
same ideas can be heard from those holding Congressional seats, key government
appointments, and responsible journalists.
The movie's setting in Detroit is potentially priceless, and it will be
interesting to see what the remake does with this location. As an American city
currently with an official unemployment rate just south of 30%, and an
unofficial rate of closer to 50%, Detroit makes for an interesting locale on
which to drop the Chinese invaders.
The movie's marketing poster shows a simple solitary star with a Chinese
character nested within it, and the by-line: "They are here to help." The
Soviet threat could never have been couched so innocently in the original
movie; the subtext of our disagreement with the Soviet Union was ideological,
matters related not only to differing views on economic theory, but more
fundamental questions regarding personal liberty and matters of our essential
humanity. Consequently, the Red Dawn remake will have to walk a finer
line, showing how a once symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship turns
sour, to such an extent that one country chooses to invade the other.
The original movie paid only scant attention to American collaborators,
preferring to focus on the valor of those who resisted; but amidst the city of
Detroit so beset by economic calamities, scriptwriters could be easily forgiven
were they to suggest that more citizens of Detroit might be tempted to join the
ranks of the "liberators". The propaganda posters likely envision this, in
particular one which shows the infamous Wall Street bull with a "Chimerica"
flag driven through its heaving chest, the words "Fighting Corporate
Corruption" boldly written across the poster. The original Red Dawn made
no attempt to cast the invading Soviets as good guys; they were invaders bent
on conquest. The new movie appears to go to some lengths to represent the
Chinese as solutions to the most acute of American problems in the most
severely hit of American cities.
The past several years have seen the Chinese become convenient stand-ins for a
variety of TV and movie plot lines; shows as wide ranging as Monk to Law
and Order have made use of the Chinese villain, typically as either a
shady government operative or the greedy Chinese businessman whose defective
products put Americans at risk.
At some level, this can be blamed on the culture of the day, and the ability of
writers to interject the most recent fear into a boiler-plot drama. But to
label all such endeavors as innocent would be a mistake: as much as we might be
entertained by a two-hour movie transporting us to a version of the future that
is highly improbable, the idea of an ascendant China threatening America's
sovereignty is a potent one, and has the potential to easily enter our stream
of consciousness in ways that are damaging and unproductive. The Soviet threat
was always somewhat esoteric, whereas the perceived Chinese threat of today is
more practical, and can be understood by anyone negatively impacted in today's
recession in purely economic terms.
What the writers and director of the original Red Dawn may have seen
most accurately was that some sort of confrontation between the US and the
Soviet Union was inevitable; what they saw less clearly was that the
confrontation would stay non-conventional, but that the Soviet Union would
collapse from within as a result of its own ineptness and its inability to keep
up with the US's military build-up.
Similarly, what the writers and directors of today's Red Dawn may see
most accurately is that some sort of conflict between the US and China is
equally inevitable. Their version of the future - one which undoubtedly owes
its particular vision to that which will yield the best movie - is that this
inevitable conflict is going to involve guns, tanks and lots of explosions. We
might gladly provide them with this latitude if it provokes us to ask in what
ways the current relationship between the US and China is equally fragile.
The storytellers of our various cultural traditions are best understood not in
a literal sense, but in a more contextual one. Consequently, the insight from
the 2010 version of Red Dawn may not be its ability to forecast a
literal clash of conventional militaries, but rather the untenable nature of
the relationship between our two countries, that when something has to give, it
On its own, the remade Red Dawn is interesting, but not compelling. The
movie's backdrop of America's current economic problems, the profound
insecurities we feel about our future, frustration with what we see as the
downside of globalization, an increasing number of loud voices in government,
and media speaking out against China together make the new Red Dawn movie
not only fascinating but potentially may push frustration with China into the
forefront of a zeitgeist that could define the coming years. Most troubling is
not necessarily the role of Chinese aggressors for the movie, but the fact that
America's cultural center of gravity as reflected in our politics, business,
and now entertainment, seems focused on China as the cause of most of our ills.
Could the newly remade Red Dawn actually be a good thing? The hidden
beauty of the original Red Dawn was how wrong it was, and it became a
campy cult classic largely because of how myopic its view of American
vulnerabilities proved to be. Having rounded out a decade many are eager to
forget, American aspirations are certainly muted.
Questions over how we will compete globally, where we fit into the world's
economy as more than consumers, what industries and markets we can distinguish
ourselves in, all remain unanswered and are deeply troubling. But Americans
have always believed that what separates us is how we respond to these
problems, in our inherent optimism, and the conviction that we can make for
ourselves a future worth aspiring towards.
As unhelpful as the Red Dawn movie may be for US-China relations, it may
also serve as a small part of what provokes Americans to push forward and find
answers to these same questions, to find comfort where now insecurity holds
sway. And as with many cultural markers, we may only appreciate when looking
backwards how this version of Red Dawn marked a low point, after which
America rallied and found a vision for the future that was both compelling and
Benjamin A Shobert is the managing director of Teleos Inc
(www.teleos-inc.com), a consulting firm dedicated to helping Asian businesses
bring innovative technologies into the North American market.