The Politics of 1980s Movies

May 31, 2020 by Thor Hogan

Instead, I’ve been doing a lot of yardwork. Like, more in the past three months then in the previous three years. I’ve also been cooking up a storm, including making enough cookies, ice cream, and pie to sink a battleship. While riding my stationary bike in the mornings, I’ve rewatched highlights from every Liverpool football match played since 2015. My partner Kate and I have been watching more television. We rewatched the entirety of the ever enjoyable and relaxing Downton Abbey. We caught up on the phenomenally consistent Ozark. We’re currently working our way through the frustratingly engaging Money Heist. Finally, I’ve been rereading the exceptionally good Dresden Files wizard-detective books in preparation for the first new releases in the series for several years. I expect that, in different ways, each of us has a similar list of things we are doing to try and get through this crisis.


Yet, I’m struck by the degree to which my brain is still just all over the place. But, over recent weeks, I’ve found that one thing that eases my anxiety is immersing myself in the pop culture of the 1980s. Given that I wasn’t at all interested in the music of my youth when I was actually young, I’ve been listening to an inordinate amount of music from my formative decade (“Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman is flowing through my AirPods as I write). This got me thinking about a new project. Something to pass the time.


For me, the best part of 1980s pop culture were the movies. I grew up in Alaska, which before the digital age felt very far removed from the life of our nation. Yet, movies provided me with a window into the places and people who lived in what we called the Lower 48. At the beginning of the decade, I didn’t get to see many movies because my family mostly couldn’t afford going to the theater and there were only four television channels. The rare occasions when we did go see a film remain burned into my memory. By mid-decade, when I was old enough to start working part-time jobs, a great deal of my spare cash was spent seeing films (thanks Taco Bell). I’d mostly go to the theater at the University Center Mall, smuggling in some ice cream from Baskin Robbins and allowing myself to be swept into other worlds.


At the same time, cable television came to Anchorage. Like most street-smart kids of my generation, it didn’t take me long to figure out how to hack the cable box to take advantage of everything the platform offered – which provided access to a treasure trove of movies. Given that there still weren’t many channels back then, this meant that I watched the films I liked the best over and over again. Many were simply terrific! Others were quite bad (I’m looking at you One Crazy Summer), but even those provided immense pleasure.


Given that watching these 1980s movies seems to deliver a nostalgia-fueled dopamine hit to my brain, I’ve decided to watch a bunch of them and write mini-reviews for my rarely used blog. These reviews will include some personal observations but will focus more on reconsidering the films through a more contemporary political and cultural lens. Although I deeply love these movies, they were made during a period that represented a key turning point in our national history. The country was gripped by an incredibly damaging conservative backlash that began the process of destroying our faith in American institutions. It was also a time of tremendous national wealth, when it was quite easy for many of us to ignore what was happening. The films I liked the best, often in subtle ways, provided commentary about these trends and began shifting the way I thought about the world. So, I’ve made a long list of my favorites from that period (more than 80 so far) and I’m going to watch them in semi-chronological order in the coming weeks and months and then post the mini-reviews. I’m not sure if anyone will want to read them (or be inspired to watch the films), and that’s okay. The exercise is more about the preservation of my sanity during these peculiar times!


But, if this does sound interesting, I’ll be posting the first review later today. I recently finished watching The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and was struck by the comparison between Cloud City and a modern-day gated community trying to bury its head in the sand and ignore the world around it – which seems even more topical given that our country is literally aflame this week.