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‘Make My Day’: J. Hoberman on Reagan, Rambo and ’80s Movies

The film critic and author of a new book on 1980s cinema talks Spielberg, the Gipper and getting flak for writing about politics and pop culture

From Maverick to Rambo — the heroes of Eighties movies and subjects of J. Hoberman's 'Make My Day.

Moviestore Collection/Shutterstock, StudioCanal/Shutterstock

He was a former radio announcer who broke into movies in the late 1930s and served time as an actor in Warner Brothers’ B-movie unit and a TV host (and corporate pitchman) for General Electric Theater. Then, after flirting with the growing post-Goldwater conservative side of the G.O.P., Ronald Reagan successfully ran for the governorship of California in 1966. That was when Jim Hoberman, a Queens, New York, native who’d wound up in Berkeley right as things were coming to a sociopolitical boil in the Bay Area, first encountered the Gipper as something other than a stock player on the screen. By the time Reagan began his second Presidential campaign — the one that would get him elected commander-in-chief in 1980 — Hoberman had been a second-string film critic at the Village Voice for a few years. But he’d been closely following the man’s career for a while. And he was both fascinated and a little horrified by how the man who shared scenes with a chimp in Bedtime for Bonzo was using his “movie stardom” — and the movies themselves — to sell some seriously reactionary policies with a smile.

Hoberman’s new book, Make My Day: Movie Culture in the Age of Reagan, charts how Reagan’s ideology both reflected and refracted what was playing at a theater near you during his extended “morning in America” tenure — from an adventuring archeologist’s romps to a time-traveling teen’s wild rides, a Reese’s Pieces-eating E.T. to Rambo, Top Gun to Blue Velvet. The third in a trilogy of tomes examining the relationship between the political stage and the silver screen (following the Sixties-centric The Dream Life and the Fifties-focused An Army of Phantoms), it’s a sprawling look back at a formative media-driven moment in our nation’s history. And like the work Hoberman pumped out during the three-plus decades he served as the Village Voice‘s primary film critic, the book has a way of connecting various dots between real figures/events and their reel-life counterparts that feels singular, stylish and slightly intoxicating in its scope.

The venerable writer sat down to discuss his deep-dive into what he calls “Reaganland,” his love-hate relationship with Spielberg’s movies, how researching the book changed the way he thought about the former President, the ne plus ultra film of the Eighties and more. The conversation has been edited for clarity and to include as many references to Jaws as humanly possible.

[Find the Book Here]

Going back to these movies, you trace a direct line from that early priming of the 1950s nostalgia pump to Reagan. It’s like: You don’t get Rockin’ Ronnie without Happy Days first.
[Laughs] And you don’t get Happy Days without American Graffiti. Reagan may have never even seen Happy Days, but it doesn’t matter. He invented a kind of 1950s that never really existed, much like that show did. I think that was a great source of his appeal, the ability to fabricate this imaginary past. He knew how to do that because he was creature of Hollywood. It wasn’t just that he was in the movies; the movies were in him, in a very profound way.

What does the benefit of hindsight tell you about those films from his two terms now?
By and large, my opinions did not change that much. I’m trying to think if there’s any movie that I really disliked back then and have come around to now — or if there’s a movie I loved back then that I now find to be a little lacking….

So your opinions on, say, Top Gun and Temple of Doom have not changed over time?
No. God, no. They’re as horrible now as they were then. [Laughs]

You’ve mentioned getting shit from the political writers for writing about Reagan back in the 1980s.
Film writers were not usually writing about politics — but I think Reagan forced the issue. Now, it’s kind of common place. Look at the coverage of the 1988 election in the New York Times — the most interesting reportage is by Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd, who were both taking very pop-culture-influenced looks at things. But before that, it was considered really stupid and obvious to talk about Reagan as a figure of pop culture. From my perspective, however, it was like: Well, how the hell else are you going to talk about him?

The movies were how he sold himself!
He was not taken seriously when he ran for governor [of California] in 1965. Everyone dismissed him as a second-rate actor. They didn’t realize that he had been a political animal for quite some time. He even gave some major speech on the eve of the ’64 [Presidential] election in praise of Goldwater. So they thought he was a lightweight. Then he became the governor of California, which…I have to say, I loathed him. I was in Berkeley in 1968 and I really fucking hated the guy.

That was when he was really going after the longhairs, right?
He ran on a platform of going against student protestors! Nixon picked up that stance from Reagan, really. But as governor, he as forced to compromise with the Democrats, and was not really as extreme as he might have been. Then, when he decided to run for President, he began to stake out the far-right terrain. But once he was in office, and I think the assassination attempt had a lot to do with this, a lot of the public saw him as a lovable, witty guy. People liked him. Which is something that I just couldn’t get. I didn’t understand it.

It wasn’t just that Reagan was in the movies; the movies were in him, in a very profound way.

Well, you knew who he was — or maybe “what he’d become” is a better way of putting it, since he’d started on the left and gradually drifted right. Being in Berkeley in the Sixties, you saw that first hand. And you mention in the book how your perception of him was colored by seeing him play a villain in the 1964 version of The Killers.
Completely! That bled through. I wasn’t thinking of him as Knute Rockne. I was thinking of him as the guy who slaps Angie Dickinson around. But he could be whatever he needed to be to advance an agenda. He could be charming and lovable, he could be your doddering grandfather, he could be the Gary Cooper cowboy on Main Street facing down the Soviets — or he could do several of these things at once! He wasn’t a star in the movies, but he was certainly a “movie star” in the political realm.

As opposed to a reality-TV star in the political realm?
I started working on this book in earnest around 2012, early in the Obama administration’s second term, and was finishing in it 2018 — so I was thinking about Trump a lot around the end. And one of the things I realized was that I had a very particular view of him. Because he was someone the Voice would report on all of the time — if America had been reading the Voice in the ’90s, when Wayne Barrett was writing about him, he never could have been elected.

Did you think he could get elected?
Well, I’d never seen The Apprentice. So I had no idea. I was naive. It goes back to using the media, and how to make the media use you.

J. Hoberman

Going back to Reagan: Having spent time in the Reagan Library and researched this man’s life and career, did it change your sense of who he was as a person?
In some ways it did and it some ways it didn’t. I did a couple of days of research in the library, which is a crazy place. It’s kind of like a theme park.

It’s an annex of “Reaganland.”
Yeah! It’s on a hilltop overlooking Simi Valley. It’s just wild. He’s buried there. And I was never going to get anywhere near any smoking guns, if there are any left. That’s not what Presidential libraries are for. They are there to protect the legacies of Presidents, not shed light on them.

When I started researching, one of the takeaways I got was that it was incredibly important to both he and Nancy that they were part of the Hollywood community. You know, being the governor of California and the President of the United States — that was nice. Being part of the Hollywood community — that was a big deal to him. That was a much greater accomplishment in their eyes. They stayed in touch with the people they knew from the moviemaking days. They remained members of the Academy. They operated what amounted to a little studio in the Oval Office. People always said, Well, as President, he knew how to find his light and hit his mark. It was meant as an insult, but that was what he did best. That’s like saying a writer knows how to meet his or her deadlines. It’s a basic function of the job.

As an editor, I take issue with that last one, sir….
[Laughs] The point is, he was a professional. He knew this stuff. They spent the better part of a month working on a video tribute to [MCA head] Lew Wasserman. This was a guy who was actively raising money for the Democrats! He was anything but a Republican! But he was their agent at one time, and that was way more important to them. It’s so telling.

There’s politics, and then there’s Hollywood, in other words?
Absolutely. That connection transcended politics. And I have to admit, that was something I ended up appreciating the more I dived in to his history.

You quote him talking to Warren Beatty and saying, “I don’t see how anybody could be President and not be a movie star.”
That was one of his standard lines. The great thing is that he used that line with everybody, but Warren Beatty thought he was the only he ever said it to [laughs]. But Reagan was genuinely impressed that Beatty wrote, produced, directed, acted and starred in Reds. “How could you do all those things?” Not a big fan of John Reed — but a big fan of hyphenates.

The thing with Reagan is, it was very easy to think he was stupid. He was not stupid. I wouldn’t say he was politically savvy in the manner of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. Or even, for that matter, as savvy as Richard Nixon, who was very intelligent when it came to the business of politics.

Nixon just had a few other deficiencies.
[Laughs] An understatement, yes. But Reagan was witty, and the encounter with Beatty is a great example of that. He hosted a screening of Reds at the White House, and after it was over he joked with Warren, “Well, I was hoping it had more of a happy ending….” But the funny thing is, in Reagan’s mind, Reds actually does have a happy ending! In his view, the commie got what’s coming to him!

Is there one movie that, in your opinion, really sums up the Reagan era?
[Pause] I mean, the temptation is to say Rambo: First Blood Part II, but I don’t want to say that.

Why? Because it seems too obvious?
Because it seems too oppressive that Rambo would be the quintessential statement from that era. Maybe Blade Runner — whether or not it speaks to the Reagan presidency specifically, it strikes me as very much a movie of that moment. The same could be said about Ishtar, which I’m really glad is getting a major critical reappraisal. I mean, two showbiz entertainers having a big misadventure in the Arab World and the C.I.A. is involved — that is a genuine Reagan era movie! Maybe The Terminator. Maybe The King of Comedy.

But I guess I’d pick Blue Velvet.

It’s possibly the most subversive movie of the Reagan era.
And David Lynch loved Reagan! He was mildly horrified that people read it as a critique! But, you know, intentionality is not nearly the most interesting thing about a work of art. Plus you have Dennis Hopper, the symbol of the Sixties, threatened this Boy Scout type who looks like he was dropped in from the mid-Fifties. Lynch is the perfect example of a real artist who’s operating out of his own imperative. The greatest thing about Blue Velvet is that, somehow, at the moment, it was able to fucking happen at all.

Did you feel like there was a definite counter-Reagan cinema going on then — movies that were reactions to his Presidency? You mention a few in the book….
Yeah, Videodrome, The Fly, Aliens, They Live — there are a few early on during his first term but you really start getting those counter-Reagan movies around 1986. That’s when the serious hangover starts hitting people. You can see why the Spielberg feel-good movies are they’re associated with Reagan, in a way. And you can see how filmmakers like David Cronenberg, Joe Dante and James Cameron are sort of pushing off from Reaganism in a way.

I mean, to me, you go back to the movies of the Sixties — there’s such a craziness going on there. Maybe it was because I saw them when I was teenager, but you can see this incredible portrait of a breakdown going on. And in the Eighties, the movies are really taking a cue from Reagan and are trying to bring back and reconstitute a certain conservative Eisenhower-era mentality.

It also replaces the New Hollywood of the Seventies, right?
Everyone likes to think smart American cinema “ends” after Jaws inaugurates the age of the blockbuster— and it doesn’t. But there was room for personal expression in the movies of that time, and that kind of personal expression sort of goes away once the blockbusters take over. It really doesn’t come back until Sundance gives us the independent revolution of the 1990s. That becomes a training ground for a subset of Hollywood that gets really interesting in that decade.

So you don’t agree with the now-popular notion that the great white shark “kills” American movies? Or permanently maims them?
Listen, I like Jaws. I liked it then and I still like it now. It’s the newer Spielberg movies I have a lot of issues with.

The ones where he tries to be our nation’s civics professor, you mean?
I mean, my favorite Spielberg film — and the one I would go out on a limb and say it’s the most significant to film history after Jaws — is Jurassic Park.

Why, exactly?
It’s the movie that really makes CGI an unstoppable force. It’s the best example of his talents as a Hitchcockian director — he knows how to manipulate an audience. It’s quite brilliant. To me, it’s one of those movies that if I idly come across it on TV and it’s on, no matter what point [of the story] it’s at, I’ll stop and watch it. And he makes that in the middle of what you call his “civics professor” period, so even then he hasn’t lost his touch.

What bothers me more about his later work, I guess, is that he sort of buys into the old notion of the studio “prestige” film and then keeps selling that back to the industry as the standard for “importance.” Something like Lincoln…well, Lincoln is somewhat interesting. The Post is a better example.

You started writing for the Voice in 1977, but per your own estimation, you started doing more political reading of mainstream movies around 1982, 1983, right?
Yeah, that’s about right.

So the style that you helped make a default way of writing about movies in alt-weeklies in the late 1980s, and throughout the 1990s, really starts during the Reagan era. Do you think that having someone like Reagan in power contributed to you developing and honing your voice that way?
Oh, definitely. Most definitely. On one hand, I wanted to make things interesting for myself — I wanted to find a way to talk about it that felt like something I’d want to read. But on the other hand, I really hated a lot of these movies like Top Gun, and the chance to talk back to them was invaluable in helping that style develop. And the Voice was really supportive of me doing that overall. Even when the political writers were hostile to me about it, the back-of-the-book editors were extremely encouraging.

I don’t know if you’ve had the pleasure of tuning in to Stranger Things….
[Blank stare] Is it a podcast?

No, it’s a TV show on Netflix.
Ok. What is it about, exactly?

Well, it’s about four kids in the early 1980s….
Uh-huh.

…They live in a small town, in what you might call a Spielbergian suburbia….
Right, ok.

And they meet a young telekinetic woman who was part of a government experiment, and there are monsters and also another dimension….
Wow! Yeah, ok, I see where you are going with this now.

There’s a lot of Spielberg in it, a lot of Stephen King in it — it’s like someone took a lot of that ’80s pop culture and put it into a blender.
So it’s like Happy Days, but if Joe Dante had made it?

That’s one way of putting it, sure. And there’s also another Rambo movie coming out later this year.
I’d heard that. I think I know what your question is going to be.

So this nostalgia for and/or return to ’80s pop culture — in your opinion, is it just that the people who grew up watching this stuff are now the ones making movies and TV shows, or is there something else in the air that people are picking up on?
It’s interesting, the way you describe this, it’s like people are experiencing the 1980s now in the same way they experienced the 1950s in the Reagan era. I remember teaching a course at NYU in the late Eighties and we were looking at a lot of then-recent stuff. And I made a joke about there being a very strong pop identity for the decade we were about to exit — whether that fact was good or bad was totally beside the point. It was more like: It’s there. You can feel it. And the fact that people are going back to that moment right as my book about movies and the Reagan era is coming out [laughs] — I have no problem with that.

Really great marketing ploy, Jim.
I think, of course, Trump has something to do with what you’re talking about as well — I mean, he has something to do with everything these days, right? He is, at his core, a cartoon character from the 1980s. But I think the whole modification of a President, while you could say it really starts with Reagan and ends in Trump … there’s been a lot of water under the bridge, really. I don’t think one can underestimate the influence of Bill Clinton on Trump. Clinton is the one who really blurs the line between entertainment and politics. That’s when talk radio and cable news and Fox really come into the picture. The tawdry scandals and the whole baby boomer thing and Bill identifying himself with Elvis — it’s all right there.

But I think the decade, especially compared to the Nineties, it’s a much more vivid time in the collective memory banks. It’s not just Spielberg, too — it’s MTV and Stallone and Madonna and Schwarzenegger. I don’t know if you watched the [Brett] Kavanaugh confirmation hearings on TV, but I can remember hearing him talk and thinking, what would be the movie that he and his friends would probably have watched over and over again? You know, what would have been the big movie playing at that time in theaters that would have been their bro-movie. And you go back too that moment to see what was the No. 1 movie in the country — and it’s Conan the Barbarian. I’m convinced that would have been the film they went and saw and screamed, “Yeah!”

That was their aspirational text, you think?
Yeah. Probably, yeah. [Laughs]

How did the movies of the period you’re talking about in your book affect the movies we’re seeing in theaters today?
Well, those 1980s movies certainly foreclosed the possibility of Hollywood movies having an ambiguous or unhappy ending. That’s disappeared from screens today. I think the stuff that’s so wonderful and pulpy in James Cameron’s movies from that period are the same things that have become overwhelming and bludgeoning in Marvel movies now. He totally anticipated the rise of superhero movie, and although it probably would have happened without him regardless, he certainly sets the stage for them. It’s where the endless-sequels concept really takes hold, and where the notion of going after the same prefabricated experience at the movies becomes a business strategy. Convergence culture becomes solidifies then. The whole notion of aggressive MTV-style filmmaking has become assimilated into the vocabulary of classic Hollywood now. I mean, I don’t see as much as I used to. But I see a lot of that decade in the big films I do see now. A lot of it starts there.

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