We’re counting down the Top Five Most Liberal Movies of All-Time. Click here to read about #5 and #4. But now it’s on to…
3. “The ‘Burbs”
I think of 1989-1991 as Tom Hanks’ magic years – after his breakout role in “Big” and before he started to move away from comedy with “Philadelphia.” Along with “Joe vs. the Volcano,” “Turner and Hooch,” and “Punchline,” “The ‘Burbs” features a virtuoso turn by Hanks, burning bright with the confidence of a comic actor at the top of his game. But “The ‘Burbs” also fits into another cinematic pattern: movies that skewered the vision of a tranquil 1950s suburban fantasy perpetuated by the conservative Reagan administration.
Filmmakers in the 1980s created an industry of nostalgia for the 1950s. Movies like “Diner,” “Stand by Me,” and “Hoosiers” spoke to Americans mired in the difficult choices of adulthood longing for a simpler time. “Grease,” which caricatured the style of the decade perhaps more than any other film, became a hit just before the ’80s began. The lead character in “Dirty Dancing,” a massive 1987 hit, pines for those times “before President Kennedy was shot, before the Beatles came…and I thought I’d never find a guy as great as my Dad.” Even “Superman” used images of an idyllic, small-town upbringing to create the ultimate American hero. President Reagan traded on that imagery, as well, peppering his campaign speeches with language that sought to build up the post-war period in American minds and erase the stain of Vietnam from their hearts. Listening to his speeches, it was if Vietnam and the turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s plain never happened. This is from a speech during his 1980 campaign:
Not so long ago, we emerged from a world war. Turning homeward at last, we built a grand prosperity and hopes, from our own success and plenty, to help others less fortunate. Our peace was a tense and bitter one, but in those days, the center seemed to hold.
With the nostalgia business booming, a quiet, subversive backlash emerged in film. “Blue Velvet” showed a seedy underbelly to the idyllic suburban existence, portrayed literally in the film’s opening sequence in which the camera lingers on a calm, suburban street, only to dive beneath the ground to find grubs and insects battling to survive. “Back to the Future” hinted at the twisted, Freudian impulses that lay beneath Reagan’s false vision for America.
But 1989’s “The ‘Burbs” tackled the discrepancy between what Reagan sold and what average Americans in the ‘80s experienced with unique flair. Tom Hanks plays Ray Petersen, a suburban husband and dad who takes the week off from work and decides to stay at home and relax instead of taking his family on vacation. Well, he intends to relax, but it’s not so easy. His annoying neighbor Art is convinced that Ray’s new next-door neighbors, the mysterious Klopek family, is up to no good. What’s his evidence? They don’t mow their lawn, they stay in their house, and Art is convinced he has heard some weird noises coming from their basement. In other words, they don’t conform to the prescribed suburban existence. From this he deduces that the Klopeks must be murderers. With nothing to distract Ray from Art’s conspiracy theories, they band together to begin investigating the new neighbors.
Ray’s suspicion of his neighbors is reflective of his era. While many Americans would have loved to believe in Reagan’s vision of an idyllic suburban existence, historical events in the ‘60s and ‘70s deeply affected the nation’s consciousness, and words from a President could not magically erase them. “The ‘Burbs” represents this conflict between the vision of America Reagan perpetuated and the darker feelings Americans were grappling with.
The characters that make up Ray’s team of amateur investigators neatly illustrate this. First is Art (Rick Ducommun), a portly lay-about whose mind is teeming with conspiracy theories. It is worth noting here that the very idea of the “conspiracy theorist” was not prevalent until the Kennedy assassination, an event that marked the end of the period Reagan sought to re-create. Art’s suspicious nature seems founded in TV shows popular in the 1980s such as “America’s Most Wanted” and “Cops” that highlighted the crimes of ordinary people and turned ordinary viewers into potential crime-solvers.
Then there is Rumsfeld (Bruce Dern), a retired Lieutenant who never left Vietnam behind. Rumsfeld sees everything in military terms and relishes the opportunity to dust off some of his old gear and lead his men on a secret mission. He is clearly suffering from PTSD, and the choice of actor is noteworthy. Dern, of course, starred just eleven years earlier in “Coming Home,” a counter-culture anti-war picture that was the first Vietnam-era film to deal with PTSD. His presence here is a nod to the film’s politics.
Then, lastly, there is Ray himself, who would like nothing more than to believe that Reagan’s time machine to the ’50s is real. He wants nothing but a peaceful and quiet existence, and he tries at every turn to resist the invitations from his nutty neighbors to join them in their conspiracies and amateur criminal investigations. In the end, Ray not only joins their little team but, sadly, becomes their leader. After their investigations go awry and the neighbors’ house is burned down, Ray sees the error of his ways:
Although the filmmakers’ undercut this message with a trick ending, Ray’s speech leaves an indelible impression. With eloquent speeches and administrative flourishes, Reagan painted a beautiful fantasy of suburban life – the way we remembered it. But “The ‘Burbs” illustrates the dangers of such a fantasy when it ignores a nation’s very recent and imperfect history.
Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi blockbuster is set in a dystopic Detroit, in which gangsters, murderers, and rapists run wild. Like most of the action movies of the 1980s, only one man can help. But while movies like “Die Hard” and “Action Jackson” espouse the conservative belief in the power of the individual who defies authority, “Robocop” takes a different tactic and conveys a firmly liberal political perspective.
At its core, “Robocop” is a dark cautionary tale about capitalism run rampant. The evil corporate executives at Omni Consumer Products (OCP) have built their empire by privatizing public entities. Now, they have taken over the police force with the help of a local gangster (Kurtwood Smith). With police workers set to strike, they plan to give city officials a cheaper, more efficient option: a crime-fighting cyborg.
While the movie provides a heavy in the shape of a particularly corrupt executive at OCP, it’s clear that the real villain is the pervasive influence of corporate interests on public entities. Privatization is, after all, one of the cornerstones of modern political thought. After Robocop, who is created using a human cop who is nearly killed in the line of duty, begins to remember his human life, he goes rogue and launches a solo effort to kill the gangsters who are in bed with OCP. The corporate execs recognize the threat he has become and order the police force to kill him. Against their better judgment, the cops launch an operation to destroy Robocop – even though he is one of their own – because they are, as one cop says, “under orders.” The corruption of corporate influence could not be more clear.
The director of “Robocop,” Paul Verhoeven, has made several movies that address the role violence plays in maintaining a fascist society. “Starship Troopers,” for example, portrayed a nationalistic call to war as a means of subjugating the youth. But in “Robocop,” he addressed an issue that we are still coming to grips with today, exemplified by the controversy over the Citizens United case. Corporations have a pervasive and negative influence in our daily lives, and it is going to take more than a cyborg to stop it.
Check back soon for the #1 Most Liberal Movie of All Time.