SPEAKING FREELY The Rocky punch in US foreign policy
By Issa Ardakani
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
"This is not Rocky IV," said US Secretary of State John Kerry with respect to the Russian response to the ongoing putsch in Ukraine. Some may find it strange that an American secretary of state would invoke the name of an anti-Russian Hollywood movie to implore a Russian leader to heed his warnings. But in fact, Kerry's statement is not unusual at all; rather, it represents the wider lack of self-awareness which is the driving force behind American foreign policy culture. This lack of self-awareness manifests itself perfectly in Rocky IV. The movie was not only a masterpiece of political propaganda, but it has unintentionally served as a window into the absurdities of American
exceptionalism and the concept's role in US foreign affairs.
The artificial villain
The first issue of note in Rocky IV is the artificial, contrived nature of the driving conflict. This conflict is strictly born out of the emergence of our villain - Russian Olympic champion Ivan Drago, who is introduced to us through a Sports Illustrated cover. The cover reads: "Russians invade US sports." As we all know, this is in reference to Drago's foray into professional boxing.
In the Hollywood universe, this is sufficient reason to make one a villain (so long as he's Russian, anyhow). However, objectively speaking, how can anyone consider such an act to be an "invasion?" Drago going pro is only an act of aggression within the context of American exceptionalism and its inherent paranoia. Compare this to actual current events: American officials and media personalities are crying imperialism over the potential "annexation" of Crimea by Russia, despite the fact that Crimea's government requested Russian military presence, and the option to join the Russian Federation will be put up to vote in Crimea. A democratic imperialism, indeed.
Glorification of a non-glorious struggle
Apollo Creed, boxer Rocky Balboa's former rival and current friend, plays a big role in propping up the non-conflict: "I don't want this chump to come over here with all that hype, you know … trying to make us look bad. They've tried every other way. With Rocky's help, we can get great media coverage. We can make them look bad for a change." And minutes later: "You and me, we don't even have a choice. … We have to be right in the middle of the action because we're the warriors. And without some challenge - without some damn war to fight, then the warrior may as well be dead, Stallion."
Apollo equates Drago entering professional boxing to a Soviet violation of American sovereignty, and likens the boxing ring to a field of battle. To any sensible viewer, this type of disproportionate response and over-politicization of a non-issue should be taken as an indication of Apollo's delusion and paranoia. But that is not how this speech is framed in the movie. The filmmakers clearly want us to take this as the rousing speech of a brave warrior, much like how Mr Kerry and the like expect us to take their stances on Russia as having any semblance of moral value.
Right and wrong sides of the tracks
So, what is it about Drago that makes him a villain? Why should we, the audience, be pulling for Apollo or Rocky? In the press conference before the Drago and Creed's Las Vegas exhibition bout, Apollo makes an ass of himself, taking repeated verbal jabs at Drago's expense while Drago remains completely silent. Apollo's patriotic offensive continues into fight night, when he participates in a ringside concert along with James Brown, performing "Living in America." Until this point in the movie, there is really nothing that would objectively suggest Apollo being the character we should sympathize with. So why is it a foregone conclusion that Drago is the baddie? Simply put: because Apollo is American. Drago is Russian. That's all that matters. Apollo has the right to make an ass of himself; Drago's mere existence in professional boxing is an act of aggression against him and his country.
This extends to other characters in the movie, as well. Take note of how Ludmila (Drago's wife) is depicted for doing more or less the same things as Rocky's wife Adrian. When Adrian supports Rocky in his training, it is portrayed as an act of love by a devoted wife. But Ludmila's support of her husband - including her concern for threats against his life - is essentially used as a point in favor of her being evil.
Another case of this double standard can be seen as the commentators discuss the Moscow crowd's booing of Rocky. "Listen to this crowd! - We knew he wouldn't be popular, but this borders on pure hatred." Note: there was no reference to "pure hatred" when Drago faced similar levels of booing in his Las Vegas. Such double standards only make moral sense within the context of American exceptionalism. But these very double standards are often the backbone of American stances. We can see this in American dealings with Iran, for example - where the United States government has afforded itself the right to embargo the country and threaten it with military action, for enriching uranium within the limitations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
During the press conference announcing the Drago-Rocky bout, it is revealed that the Russian side has two demands: they want the fight to take place in Russia, on Christmas day. The latter is to be interpreted as a depiction of the atheistic communists' disregard for the most important holiday for Christians. But there are two very important flaws with this: firstly, Christmas for Orthodox Christians (Russians being among them) is on January 7, by which time most American families have already disposed of their tree. So why should such a date have even been objectionable for Americans? Secondly, it makes no sense for a country where "The NBA on Christmas day" has become a tradition, to express opposition toward the idea of a sporting event being held on Christmas.
As for the location of the fight, the moment Rocky tells the press that the fight will be in Russia, there is an uproar. But why? Why is the idea of the fight being held in Russia so objectionable? Wanting to hold the fight in Russia is not political at all, unless you find it offensive that any sporting event be held outside of your own country.
Politicization of sport
These Russian demands, among other things, are used by the filmmakers to depict how the Russians are politicizing the sport. When Ludmila says "We are not politic," we are meant to take it as a bald-faced lie. But there truly is nothing political about their demands. The uproar is based upon a foundation of hypocrisy and self-styled exceptionalism.
Furthermore, how can the movie condemn the supposed politicization of sports, when Rocky IV's narrative is itself a politicization of sports (and not in such a subtle way, either)? The politicization of sports is nothing new to the United States, and Russia has been a prime target of this politicization. The Winter Olympics in Sochi were politicized to a very high degree amongst American athletes and media personalities alike, with Bob Costas' anti-Putin political monologue, Pussy Riot appearing at the Amnesty concert in New York to coincide with the Sochi games, and numerous American athletes before the games protesting Russia's supposed oppression of homosexuals.
Self-redemption through submission
In the lead-up to the fight, Rocky trains in almost total isolation. In fact, his plane to Russia lands in what seems like a remote village. (But then again, perhaps this was the filmmakers' understanding of what Moscow looked like). Rocky did not interact with very many Russians until fight night, where he was booed violently. At the start of the fight, the Russian people are one with Drago. Their emotions and animosity are surrogates; they act on behalf of the stoic Drago, whose character does not allow for such expressions of emotions. The Russian people are the villain.
However, the transformation of the crowd from enemy to friend is the single most important dynamic of the movie. What happened during the course of the fight that, following its end, led Rocky to become the object of adoration of the people of Moscow? What happened was, Rocky won. The first cheer for Rocky was heard after Rocky started not getting completely throttled by Drago. And this momentum would build until, toward the end of the fight, it seemed that almost everyone (including the General-Secretary of the CPSU) was on Rocky's side. Rocky achieved all of this simply by punching the Russian people's national hero into submission.
The Russian people redeem themselves and reclaim their humanity only by disowning Drago and embracing Rocky. In other words, had the Russians not began to cheer on the man in red, white and blue trunks as he beat their greatest sportsman, they would have languished in their moral inferiority. Submission to America's will is the requisite for moral acceptability. Thus, immoral world actors like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the like, can become moral simply through their allegiance to the American imperial project.
It is clear that the makers of this film had a Kanye West-level of self-awareness with respect to their country. But considering the recent statements by Kerry, and other American behavior on the world stage, this is not very surprising. Rocky IV may be recognized by most Americans viewers as being ridiculously absurd, but these same viewers should not neglect to notice that the movie tells us more about the sad reality of American foreign policy than first glance would seem to reveal.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Issa Ardakani is a Detroit-based historian and political analyst who writes mostly about Iranian issues.