Over the weekend, the 1985 comedy Spies Like Us aired on basic cable.* Today, Spies Like Us is remembered (if it’s remembered at all) as either the best of the movies that paired both Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd – which isn’t saying much when the other two choices are Caddyshack II and Nothing but Trouble – or for the fact that it featured a theme song by Paul McCartney that wound up being McCartney’s last solo top ten hit.
*The fact that I still have basic cable sounds outdated, but there are a couple of reasons that I still like it: The first being that I would never just watch Spies Like Us if it was up to me to choose anything out of a catalogue of practically everything. So, I enjoy the randomness of it all. Second, at least in New York City, no one has yet to prove to me there’s a viable alternative. There’s always some hitch. “Yeah, my new setup without cable is great. Sure, sometimes the sound doesn’t always sync up with the picture and I don’t get CBS, but other than that, I love it. And I save about $15 a month doing it this way.”
Spies Like Us is a throwaway comedy that becomes a pleasant-enough thing to waste time on a lazy Saturday afternoon. But, this time, I found it depressing. If you don’t know the plot of Spies Like Us (and why should you, really?), I’ll do a quick summary: Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chase) and Austin Millbarge (Aykroyd) both work at the Pentagon and are headed for careers behind a desk. Both are relatively smart, but they’re also clowns and have a tendency to screw things up. After they’re caught cheating on a test, the pair is chosen to be foreign spies. But, unbeknownst to either of them, they are decoys for the real spies. Eventually, the two meet up with the real spies in an effort to capture a Soviet Union nuclear missile launcher. Also: Bob Hope makes a cameo.
Donald Trump has ruined every dumb ‘80s-era, patriotic, anti-Soviet Union movie, even something as benign as Spies Like Us. I despise conspiracy theories (and I find someone like Seth Abramson the most annoying human being on Twitter), but as every day goes by, it’s increasingly clear the Trump campaign did something with Russia. And now, most likely, a Russian state-sponsored candidate is the American President. It’s impossible to watch a movie like Spies Like Us and see Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Millbarge and not think that these two goofs are more capable than anyone actually in charge in real life right now. At least I know where their allegiances lie.
The ‘80s were a weird time to be a child. The music was happy-sounding, yet the lyrics were often depressing. (I think that’s why we have so many slowed-down versions of ‘80s pop songs in movie trailers these days – it’s like an unlimited bin of secretly depressing music.) The movies were big, wondrous, and many became pop culture phenomena that are still with us today, yet the threat of dying in a nuclear war was a thing to worry about at all times. The relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union was much more complicated than a movie like Red Dawn (also ruined) could ever try to explain. But the sentiment at the time, often expressed via pop culture in an overly patriotic way, was that the Russians were obviously our enemy and they shouldn’t be trusted and their best boxer takes steroids. It was only when cooler heads like Sting came along that we thought to ourselves, hey, maybe Russian kids my age don’t want to die in a nuclear war either. Thanks, Sting.
But if we get past the politics of all these movies (which were thin to begin with), they did serve as mindless entertainment that, if nothing else, we could watch and feel good that no matter what our problems were, at least we stood up to the Soviet Union. And in the real world at the time, I do think maybe it gave some people hope that there were people out there who cared. And if you don’t believe me that this was big business back then, consider this: the weekend that Spies Like Us was released, the top three movies at the box office were Rocky IV, Spies Like Us, and White Nights, all movies dealing with U.S./Soviet relations in one way or another (and all movies with hit theme songs).
But now, it feels different, as if, after all this, the Russians got the last laugh and the people in positions of power in the U.S. don’t seem to care that much. Did none of these senators and representatives see any movies in the ‘80s? Did John Rambo go to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union by himself in vain? Did Rocky Balboa tell a Russian audience that if they can change, we all can change for no reason? Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Millbarge risked their lives for what? Did Clint Eastwood steal a Soviet super-plane in Firefox just so Donald Trump could start taking orders from Putin?
That last paragraph is mostly in jest but, before this Russian scandal, most of those movies just looked like silly entertainment. They were nothing to take too seriously on their own, but at the end of the day, at the time, made us feel a little better about maybe not dying in a nuclear annihilation. Now they are just disheartening – made by filmmakers who would have never guessed in a million years things would turn out the way they did. Red Dawn presented us with a military invasion, but no one guessed the United States (more specifically the “party of Reagan”) would just comply with all this for no good reason other than greed. Even the events in The Manchurian Candidate seem more plausible than this – at least real brainwashing was involved. Now, all these movies seem from a different time and they look much different. As Rocky is beating Drago, it’s just not fun anymore because, deep down, we all know we somehow, at least for the time being, lost.
Anyway, take it away, Sting.
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