It is the dawn of World War III. In mid-western America, a group of teenagers bands together to defend their town, and their country, from invading Soviet forces.
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Although many higher quality films about the Cold War have been ignored or long since forgotten, Red Dawn, an action film aimed at teenagers, still inspires vigorous debate. In case you doubt this, browse through the “reader reviews” at Imdb.com. There you will find a host of supporters and detractors who can only view the movie through their own political prism. For some reason, this movie still has the power to stir controversy.
Red Dawn begins with the landing of Soviet and Cuban paratroopers in a rural Colorado town. Amid the chaos, six teenagers escape into the nearby mountains. The small band is led by Jed (Patrick Swayze), who refuses to surrender to the enemy and return to their families, despite some of his followers’ wishes. Running low on food and supplies, the group returns to town for a reconnaissance mission. Once there, they realize that their family members have been either killed or sent to Communist re-education camps, and that the Soviet and Cuban forces occupy a large swath of the United States. After adding two teenage girls (Jennifer Grey and Lea Thompson) to their cadre, the teens decide to become a paramilitary guerilla outfit, causing as much damage to the occupying forces as possible.
The movie’s plot is patently preposterous. Eight teenagers with civilian weapons would have no chance of survival against trained soldiers with more sophisticated weaponry. The teenagers seem free to wander in and out of town without being spotted by the enemy, despite being known to the occupiers. And, until the end of the film, the Soviet and Cuban tactics are counterproductive and unrealistic. Even though all the action sequences are well shot, the only one with a ring of truth is the first. The teenagers are accidentally spotted by sightseeing Soviet troops, and the ensuing gunfight is one of fear, panic, and chaos.
Red Dawn, however, does not pretend to be a documentary about guerilla tactics or counterinsurgency strategy. The movie is focused on the changes in the teens as they struggle to survive. (To the film’s credit, none of the teenagers talk about “winning.”) Robert (C. Thomas Howell), whose father was killed by the Soviets, becomes increasingly desensitized to the violence. Jed’s brother, Matt (Charlie Sheen) recognizes the growing toll the warfare is taking on the young men and women, and asks Jed to consider giving up the fight. For his part, Jed remains intent on inflicting as much damage as possible while understanding that he will be a failure if all of his work was merely a suicide mission. Although these adolescent soldiers feign bravado, they are scared. The boys tell each other not to cry but cannot hold back tears when a family member is announced dead or they contemplate the magnitude of their task. They name their outfit after the high school mascot, the Wolverines. They play football to relax.
Red Dawn also accurately depicts the fear of Soviet occupation during the Cold War. The men are rounded up into re-education camps where they are constantly inundated with Communist propaganda. Soviet newspeak is plastered throughout the town, such as the Soviet-American Friendship Center, which is later bombed by the Wolverines. There is one scene though that particularly resonates: when the occupying forces commit a mass execution of civilians as “punishment” for the Wolverines’ activities, there is a reaction shot of the town’s mayor (Lane Smith) who has been assisting the Soviets and Cubans. Although the scene is wordless, Smith’s performance suggests reflects the realization of every collaborationist who finally understands the true nature of those he is aiding. These scenes have been criticized as a “right-wing nightmare.” On the other hand, if the Soviets were willing to commit such atrocities against their own people, what would be their compunction against committing the same acts against their enemies?
Significant flaws prevent Red Dawn from being much more than a diverting action movie: the dialogue is weak at times; a subplot with a downed American pilot only serves needless exposition. Why then, is the movie so hotly contested still? The movie’s real goal is to provide a salve to weakened American confidence after the defeat in Vietnam. Even the guerrilla-style tactics of the Wolverines reflect a reversal of fortune. The movie reflects a fundamental debate between Right and Left over the historical import of the Cold War. This new war is over controlling the historical narrative, and a teen action flick is on the battle line.