As if things weren’t Badenov: Even in good times, Russians are villains in Hollywood
The fact that Moscow is behaving badly — with President Vladimir Putin meddling in Ukraine’s presidential affairs last December, annexing Crimea in March and now, despite denials, likely supporting pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine — has validated Americans’ view of “evil” Soviets lurking in the new Russian empire. Even before Putin took back Crimea, more than 60 percent of Americans regarded Russia as a bad guy on the world stage.
Politics is largely to blame, but Hollywood may be the true villain in this drama. American culture never adapted to Moscow’s friendlier face. Though the Cold War was over, movie executives decided to ignore that memo. Russia may have been trying to leave behind its bad old days, but in the movies, Russians were still the bad guys.
In Air Force One (1997 – six years after the Soviet Union’s dissolution), a Russian nationalist psycho hijacks the plane of the U.S. president (Harrison Ford) in order to overthrow post-Soviet democracies. In The Saint (1997), based on a suave 1960s British television series starring Roger Moore, the heavy is a communist mafioso intent on diverting Russia from its new liberal course.
I remember looking at the screen in disbelief: “Why are we still your enemy?”
Putin’s rise to power in 2000, in part, was a result of what Russian “capitalism” had become and how closely allied it was to the U.S. model in the Russian mind. His promise to restore Russia’s self-respect did revive policies familiar from the communist era. He began jailing “dishonest” oligarchs, clamping down on the “irresponsible” press and suppressing critics of his regime. But was he really, as Americans believed, the ultimate villain?
Russia’s problem is that Hollywood realized there is no better bad guy. Cuba is too small — and Fidel Castro is fading with age. North Korea’s Kims — the late Jong Il and now Un — may threaten to annihilate the West but are unable to deliver a fusillade of missiles. China is too big a trading partner, and Arabs are both politically incorrect as enemies and simply too frightening to keep things fun.
Russians, however, are always amusing to vilify and humiliate. First, since we are white Europeans, we are not a minority in the United States. Second, when U.S. leadership stalls somewhere — in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, in the global economy or in managing the Israeli and Palestinian conflict — Russia is a happy reminder of Washington’s victory in the Cold War. Americans think that theirs is the best country in the world — they have a lot to feel superior about — so it must have been great fun sticking it to supersized Russia, which stretches from Finland to Japan.
Putin, once a spy himself, wanted to be the James Bond of contemporary Russia, particularly given his physical resemblance to actor Daniel Craig, the current agent 007. But Putin was instead quickly labeled a Bond villain. This happened even though there were real villains in power, including Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran.
Perhaps then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have explained it best: The Cold War fills all “with nostalgia for a less complex time.”
So Hollywood’s Cold War attitudes continued even during the first decade of the 21st century, a time when Russia and the United States actually got along. In 2001, President George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw his soul. In 2009, President Barack Obama initiated his “reset” policy with the Kremlin.
We can now debate whether Putin has a soul, or whether the reset was a waste of time. But in 2007, the Russian president clearly felt the Cold War had ended. Putin had been named Time’s Person of the Year, and he told the magazine that the Cold War was “a tragedy in relations between our two countries.” He said he “wouldn’t want to see the vestiges of those relations prevailing in the future.”
But even then, Hollywood couldn’t resist making Russians the bad guys. In The Golden Compass, an elaborate 2007 fantasy based on an acclaimed British trilogy, young viewers got a subliminal anti-Russian message. The enemy forces in this movie’s alternate universe shout in Russian and look like an army of Rasputins, with long beards and Cossack hats. For adults, there were Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum, featuring Moscow’s security services, police and oligarchs.
In 2010, Angelina Jolie starred in Salt, parading in a stunning Russian sable hat while revealing a long-simmering KGB plot to destroy the United States. Even Steve Carell sported an “evil” Russian accent as the “world’s greatest villain” in the cartoon Despicable Me. His character’s name was Gru no less — the Russian acronym for First Chief Directorate that oversees all foreign military spying and special forces.
When FX came up with The Americans series last year, harking back to Cold War-era cloak and dagger, I still couldn’t fathom why we matter that much.
It is true that Republican 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney claimed that Russia was Washington’s “No. 1 geopolitical foe.” But seeing Russia as a major geopolitical problem was a leap at the time. Romney was bitterly mocked for his view, including from Russians who accused him of watching too many Cold War Hollywood films.
The latest events in eastern Ukraine, however, have shown that Romney was not so wrong and that Russia matters. It now also looks like Hollywood has been prophetic.
Speaking in Hollywood recently, Barack Obama admitted that “entertainment is part of our American diplomacy.” In the case of Russia, this diplomacy has failed miserably.
This summer’s deeply anti-Russian The Last Ship and Legends on TNT, as well as the coming feature The November Man, a Cold War throwback, are more signs of overwhelming cultural animosity.
Meanwhile, Muppets Most Wanted just prepared the next generation of Americans to view Russians as the enemy for decades to come.
TOP PHOTO: Harrison Ford (R) stars as the President of the United States, who must deal with a terrorist attack led by a Russian neo-nationalist played by Gary Oldman (L) in the summer movie “Air Force One” which opened in July 1997. REUTERS/Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
INSET PHOTO: Tina Fey plays a key bad guy in the Disney flick “Muppets Most Wanted,” released March 21, 2014. REUTERS/Courtesy of Disney