Musings on the Excessive Silliness of Red Dawn

29 May

It’s a senior week at Swarthmore, so I have a lot of free time.  With that free time, I watched the 2012 remake of the 1984 classic movie Red Dawn.  In the Cold War version, the Soviets and Cubans invade, but are partially fended off by a group of Colorado high-schoolers.  In the new (and probably not improved) film, it’s the sinister North Koreans invading, and the setting is shifted to Spokane, Washington.  The movie includes a plethora of implausible scenes, but also sparked some good discussion among the four of us that watched the movie.  I can’t take credit for all the below ideas, so this post was more of a collaborative effort (thanks Taryn, Lorand, and Sam) that I’d like to share.

Unlike in 1984, it’s pretty hard to identify an obvious invasion threat to the United States, and therefore the filmmakers were forced to create a three minute montage in the beginning to set the stage for a North Korean invasion.  Everything from the bailout in Greece, Islamic terrorist in Russia, cyberwarfare, and new conflicts in the Middle East were thrown into the mix to create a sense of impending crisis.  While it was a hoot to watch, it probably didn’t really help the movie at the box office.  The film’s target audience, middle America, is unlikely to fully understand the complex international problems that were subsequently exaggerated in order to make the movie somewhat plausible.  While NK is does exist in the American public consciousness as a threat, it isn’t comparable to the imagined threat previously posed by the USSR.  The filmmakers were forced to cast North Korea as the bad guys to give the movie a chance at the box office in China, but even China, if potentially more scary, doesn’t carry the same ideological threat that the Soviets did.  The threat of communism was enough to get people on the edge of their seats, but there isn’t a single word that can describe the Chinese threat to the American way of life in the same way.

In the film, following the North Korean invasion, our heroes (who adopt the name “Wolverines”) escape their cookie-cutter suburb and make for the wooded hills, where they set up a base from which to launch attacks on the occupiers.  While they can be forgiven for being disorganized both organizationally and strategically in the beginning of the film, their strategy fails to develop.  Their only goal seems to “resist” by killing North Korean soldiers.  The group’s rhetoric is peppered by references to freedom and patriotism, rather than a fixed final goal they are working toward.  Though they attempt to contact American central command through a North Korean EMP-resistant communication device, the group failed to use the radios they had all along.  They never make any effort to link up with other guerrilla groups, and only begrudgingly accept help from Marines they run into.  Similarly, while they seek help from people in town when necessary, they never attempt to recruit new members until the final scenes of the film.  Finally, in one of the most interesting scenes, the group’s leader Jed, a former Marine who had previously fought in Iraq, gives the group a quick rundown of guerrilla warfare.  He says that in Iraq, he was one of the good guys who helped to enforce law and order.  Now however, Jed says, the Wolverines, are the bad guys, who need to unsettle their North Korean occupiers.  Despite using moral rhetoric, the speech actually totally avoids the tricky issues of morality at play as the audience is supposed to accept that no matter where they are in the world or what they are doing, Americans are the good guys.

While it’s not the most glaring, the film’s portrayal of NK’s counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics is its most absurd aspect.  Firstly, North Korean paratroopers parachute in the Wolverines’ tranquil suburb, but miraculously avoid trees and power lines.  Once firmly in power, the first action is to set up reeducation camps (the cliche variety complete with loudspeakers extolling the errors of American society) for a randomly selected group of people, which prove to be entirely ineffective.  Over the course of the film, NK’s COIN strategy is ultimately very gentle.  There are only two portrayed executions of American resisters (another is implied), and excluding numerous checkpoints, there seems not to be any punishment handed down to American residents despite the Wolverines’ repeated attacks.  This strange facts comes down to the American public not understanding how COIN works.  Collective punishment is never even threatened in the film, and while North Koreans are quite gruff in their dealings with Americans, this film is not Battle of Algiers.  Finally, NK is entirely incompetent as an occupier.   Though less than ten people make up the Wolverines, North Korea is unable to stop them from moving in and out of town despite knowing their identities.  Finally, the Wolverines are able to inflict very disproportionate losses on North Korean troops despite have inferior technology, almost no formal training, and a much smaller fighting force.

Red Dawn’s portrayal of military engagement is the most obvious object of criticism, especially for people watching it with an interest in political violence, but the movie also has a race problem.  There are three black characters: Mayor Jenkins, his son Daryl, and Wolverines member Danny.  They fulfill three common stereotypical roles for black actors: a morally weak Uncle Tom, the first-to-die, and the selfless yet underdeveloped individual who sacrifices himself for the (white) group.  Mayor Jenkins is one of the first Americans to defect to the North Korean side, and meekly attempts to convince the Wolverines to surrender.  Danny is the first Wolverine to die, and we learn little about him before his death.  Daryl survives until the end of the film, but inexplicably decides to stay behind and fight on alone after being implanted with a tracking device that endangers the group.  There is no attempt made to remove the device before the decision to leave him behind is made.

The film is not a cinematic masterpiece, but is worth a viewing solely for the number of laughs it produces.

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