Category Archives: Cold War

Atomic Blonde (2017)

It belongs to the current New Wave of Hollywood Wokegnosis, but it’s better than I expected. This is clearly Charlize Theron’s bid for the female equivalent of a 007 or John Wick franchise. To her credit, she carries off the role of MI6 superspy, Lorraine Broughton, fairly convincingly. Part of me was just happy that the film and character was based on an original property and wasn’t just another tiresome gender swap from an existing franchise.

Atomic Blonde is a Cold War espionage thriller which centers around a list of double agents which has fallen into the wrong hands. The events of the plot are set against the rising tide of democratic populism which culminated in the collapse of the Berlin Wall and Communism 1.0. Since espionage thrillers exist to propagandize clandestine services, it raises some interesting questions about the degree to which the entire Cold War was being stage managed by intelligence agencies. James McAvoy is a double agent named Percival who is also a black marketeer. He is the one who provides all of the Western consumer decadence to the cultural vacuum of East Berlin. From jeans to booze to porn, Percival helped stoke the appetite for Western capitalism and pop culture. Naturally, the film places your sympathies solidly with the burgeoning underground punk culture who are just trying to get some kicks but keep getting terrorized by Stasi and KGB thugs.

There are also several very obvious product placements throughout the film. Given the film’s tacit emphasis on the influence of consumer culture in hastening the collapse of communism, I think that these are more than advertisements. I suggest they reveal the role that these shadow elites played in moving geopolitical power blocs.

Take the nine times Stolichnaya is featured prominently. Yes, Lorraine looks very cool when she’s drinking vodka on the rocks, but why Stoli? Perhaps because the Pepsi Corporation was able to enter the Russian market in exchange for vodka and several naval military vessels. Considering the film’s anti-Russian tone, it could be an additional subtle form of mockery.

Then there are the deeper cultural references. The cutthroat moral nihilism of the film makes the inclusion of Machiavelli’s Prince an obvious choice. A prominent fight scene takes place in a theater playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Since Stalker reads (to me) as an indictment of communism, it’s very possible that David Leitch was reaching for some kind of arch metacommentary by using it as a backdrop for a fight scene. However, I believe that the inclusion of the film all by itself suggests the depth of the role that it, and consumer culture in general, had in turning sentiment against communism.

It’s surely a subject that’s been broached by many others, but the idea of a woman who is a cold blooded killer and can dispatch men bigger and stronger than her requires a greater suspension of disbelief than most other films with male leads. It seems a little too tailor made for wokescolds in the press to regurgitate the standard idiocy about “manbabies who can’t stand #STRONG womyn”. I don’t want to get too pedantic when I’m watching movies, but when every role that was intended for men gets a gender swap, it gets a little stupid.

Furthermore, we’re expected to believe that a woman with highly specialized combat skills was doing elite espionage and black operations in Berlin in the late 80’s and 90’s. Given that approximately .00002% of the current female population are seeking assignments in elite military units in 2019, the starting point is a bit of a reach. Again, I’m not saying that I’m expecting pure realism when I watch a spy thriller, but you shouldn’t have to leap this high just to buy into the initial premise.

There’s also an unfortunate humorlessness to Lorraine. Part of 007’s appeal was his charm and dry one liners. And he smiled, too. Of course, Mx. Theron can’t be bothered to enact that kind of emotional labor for us entitled dudebros, but there’s something just perverse about casting one of Hollywood’s most attractive women in roles where she exhibits no feminine charm. The lesbian makeout scene doesn’t make up the deficit either.

Even the fight scenes create a psychic dissonance that seems calculated to fuel feminist griping over “toxic masculinity”. Every normal man wouldn’t think of physically assaulting a woman. It goes completely against everything decent you’ve ever been taught. Here, you’re seeing men who are fighting Lorraine to the death. At one point in time, men fell in love with actresses in films. Now, men seem relegated to seeing themselves portrayed as dolts and villains while simultaneously watching the most beautiful actresses portrayed as potential deadly adversaries who also happen to be lesbians. Hooray for #EQUALITY.

It’s also kind of funny how schizophrenic Hollywood is in its portraits of communism. If you’re watching Trumbo or Reds, communism is a brave and principled set of ideals. If you’re watching Atomic Blonde or the latest season of Stranger Things, they’re diabolical jackbooted thugs. As someone who grew up during the 80’s, I can firmly attest to the overwhelming prevalence of Cold War hysteria. However, the fever pitch of Russophobia that has permeated every corner of the mediasphere since 2016 feels just a tad forced.

David Leitch manages to imbue the whole affair with enough style and storytelling panache to remain entertaining. The jams are pretty righteous too. In fact, I’m convinced that the inclusion of “The Politics of Dancing” by 80s one-hit synth poppers, Re-Flex, tells us everything we need to know about the role of intelligence operatives in waging psychological warfare and toppling regimes without ever firing a bullet. Despite the film’s final twist which would lead you to believe that it was Lorraine’s cunning badassery that made dupes out of the dirty commies, I suggest that Re-Flex really delivered the overriding message of the film.
We got the message
I heard it on the airwaves
The politicians
Are now DJs

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Damnation Alley (1977)

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Jack Smight’s adaptation of the Roger Zelazny novel, Damnation Alley, is an unsung classic of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. Following the precedent set by the similarly themed television show, Ark II, Damnation Alley is the story of a group of WWIII nuclear holocaust survivors traversing the radioactive wastelands of a blasted out America in search of the remnants of humanity. Its cheeseball B-movie reputation is not without some validity, but I maintain that its virtues outweigh its demerits. Post-apocalyptic sci-fi is roughly analogous to the Western. In other words, it’s a post-flood Biblical allegory. How do you rebuild civilization after all has been destroyed?

Laying out the prototype for his role as Colonel Hannibal Smith in The A-Team, George Peppard is pitch perfect as grizzled hard ass, Major Eugene Denton. Jan-Michael Vincent plays his subordinate, Tanner, who’s just a little too uppity for Denton. Rounding out the cast of heroes are Paul Winfield as Keegan, a young Jackie Earle Haley as Billy and token female, Dominique Sanda as Jackie. The film opens at a nuclear missile facility at which our two main heroes are stationed as missile combat officers. What begins as a training exercise ends up as a Defcon 1 scramble to fire defensive strikes at an incoming volley of warheads from the other side of the globe. The spectre of nuclear war was a theme found throughout lots of film and television made throughout the Cold War era, but there’s something genuinely harrowing about the nuclear cataclysm in Damnation Alley. In a scene that surely provided the inspiration for the arcade game, Missile Command, the commanding officers listen in stunned silence as the technical officer reads off the names of American cities while we watch blips of the electronic map signal each warhead strike. A montage of actual mushroom cloud atomic explosions follows as most life on earth is extinguished.

After the conflict, the globe is an irradiated hellscape and natural weather patterns have been disrupted as a consequence of the bombing. Using techniques that made sci-fi films from the 70’s so great, color filters and effects transform the skies into a roiling cauldron of psychedelic radiation and are accompanied by ominous analog synth howls. A short text frame sets up the appropriate vibe.

The Third World War left the planet shrouded in a pall of radioactive dust, under skies lurid and angry, in a climate gone insane. Tilted on its axis as a result of the nuclear holocaust the Earth lived through a reign of terror, with storms and floods of unprecedented severity. When this epoch began to wind down, the remnants of life once more ventured forth to commence the struggle for survival and dominance. This is the story of some of them.

After surviving yet another catastrophe resulting from a porno mag that caught fire next to some explosive materials, our heroes set out to find what remains of civilization in the other star of the film, the Landmaster. Designed as a fully functional all-terrain military vehicle, the Landmaster is a glorious 12-wheel feat of vehicular badassery. Most people probably consider the Mad Max films ground zero for futuristic car porn, but Damnation Alley clearly set the precedent. The various location shots of the Landmaster barreling through the canyons and desert plains of American southwest are indeed pretty righteous.

In contrast to just about anything made today, this vision of post-apocalyptic earth retains a remarkable amount of civility, respect for military order, and concern for the welfare of the one woman and teenage boy. There is some heartwarming paternalism exhibited by both Peppard and Vincent towards the young Haley. Even the run-in with hillbilly mutants is remarkably civil. For all the pedants bemoaning the lack of realism, it’s important to bear in mind that this was made during a time when traditional heroic archetypes and acts of patriarchal chivalry were still considered worthy of canonization in cinema. It’s not the story that Zelazny told, but it’s worthwhile on its own terms.

There are, of course, some rather delightful post-apocalyptic thrills, too. Overgrown scorpions, flesh eating cockroaches, and radioactive dust storms are among the travails that our band of heroes must overcome. And no sci-fi action movie would be complete without a few lines of pure hardboiled tough guy grit. Naturally, that honor belongs to Peppard’s Denton.

Maj. Eugene Denton: There are areas of radiation we couldn’t get through. It’s not a matter of wrong turns though – “Damnation Alley” is a hundred miles wide a lot of the way.

Tanner: “Damnation Alley?” Who named it that?

Maj. Eugene Denton: I did.

The ending is a bit of a surprise, but the signal that indicates that they’ve reached civilization is the sweet sound of jazz-rock pumping through the radio transmitter. Hallelujah!

Damnation Alley is a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi that you just don’t see anymore; an optimistic view of humanity and its ability to reclaim civilization. As the genre progressed over the years since the release of the film, one sees an increasingly despairing and cynical view of humanity. One could say these were more realistic visions of human nature, but people sometimes forget that an occasional uplifting ending gives people a sense of hope and an ideal to which to aspire. Cynicism is the norm. Affirming positive values is a lot harder than it is to sit back and sneer at pollyanna idealism.

Despite being paired with another personal favorite from that year, Wizards, Damnation Alley tanked. Not only was the film a commercial flop, but Zelazny apparently hated it. Not even the tidal wave of Star Wars’ popularity was sufficient to boost its prospects. It won’t do anything for you if you have no taste for this kind of film in the first place, but if post-apocalyptic sci-fi is in your wheelhouse at all, the trip down Damnation Alley is worth taking.

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