Cold War, Hot Takes: Movie Edition
May 1, 2019 | Watch any American action movie or series, and I can just about guarantee you, you’ll find a Russian antagonist. Watch any American movie at all, and you’ll still find them. From oligarchs to gangsters to former KGB agents to scientists to athletes, bad guys usually come pre-packaged with thick Eastern European accents and dropped articles.
Why is that? It may or may not have something to do with the massive ideological and geopolitical struggle we refer to as the Cold War. The propaganda and caricatures were kind of aggressive, a little vicious even.
Hollywood has long been obsessed with Russians and Soviets playing baddies, and even recent films show that the end of the Cold War did not mean the end of Russian villainy. This is due to Hollywood’s (and humanity’s) propensity to generalize, meaning that “Russian villains” can come from anywhere that fell behind the Iron Curtain. We have well-established images of evil Eastern Europeans in action thrillers and dramas alike, smoking cigars and sporting hammers and sickles, and that’s even without going into Hostel-style horror movie territory. Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) from Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) is Ukrainian. Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) from Spy (2015) is Bulgarian. Even Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—American hero lost in the WWII fight against Red Skull and fascism—is coded as Russian when he is later reintroduced as the Winter Soldier. All of this is to say that Russianness in American cinema has less to do with nationality, and more to do with innate evil.
A possible counter-example in recent memory would be The Man from U.N.C.L.E (2015), which features a Russian KGB agent (Armie Hammer as Ilya Kuryakin), an American CIA agent (Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo), and an East German citizen (Alicia Vikander as Gaby) working together against Nazis in Italy. However, despite a successful team effort to thwart a mutual threat, in the end we see pressure from the Soviet and American higher ups to create competition and conflict between Kuryakin and Solo. Ultimately, the American and Soviet protagonists come to an agreement to ignore their superiors, and thus their continued cooperation proceeds based on an individual level rather than a state one.
To an extent, portrayals of Russians follow geopolitical trends. Red Dawn (the 1984 version, not the 2012 garbage reboot) depicts a Communist invasion of the United States. It was released when US-Soviet relations were at the lowest point since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Air Force One (1997) featured a group of Soviet (Russian) separatists who hijack Air Force One with the President of the United States on board, while they demand for the “new Democratic president” of Russia to release General Radik, recently imprisoned dictator of Kazakhstan and ostensibly a faithfully ruthless Communist. The film came out six years after the fall of the Soviet Union and signaled at least a reluctance to give up Communists as convenient ideological villains, if not an outright doubt that the transition from the Soviet Union to the Russian Federation went much deeper than a name change.
Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol (2011) was written in 2009, with filming taking place between October 2010 and March 2011, a frame of time in which President Bush had been called out for antagonizing Russia over the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, and the Obama Administration had set to work on a relations reset with Medvedev’s Administration. Despite the political shift in tone vis-à-vis Russia at the moment, the film portrays Russians only slightly kindlier: first as obstacles, and later as friends—but never as partners. In 2017 we have the release of Hitman’s Bodyguard, which does not feature a specifically Russian character, but rather a genocidal Belarusian dictator. While the movie shies away at targeting Russia specifically, the proxy is close enough to match the mood of the day’s politics.
Remember when SALT had Russians as the villains and people were like “lol how ridiculous and antiquated” fuck y’all!!!!— Ira Madison III (@ira) April 19, 2019
Russians have also historically been an acceptable group to demonize. Red Dawn (1984) saw a 2012 remake, which was originally supposed to feature Chinese baddies. Because China represents such a large market for Western films and is plenty happy to censor and restrict distribution if they don’t appreciate the content, however, the movie had to be dramatically edited in post-production to feature North Korean villains instead. Strangely, losing the North Korean market just isn’t quite as damaging to the studio’s bottom line.
The other kind of non-Western villains we’re likely to see are, of course, Middle Eastern terrorists. The Ten Rings organization that takes Tony Stark hostage following a weapons demonstration in Afghanistan in Iron Man (2008) is a multinational organization but seems mostly to be composed of brown people from the Muslim world. This is unsurprising for a superhero story set contemporaneously with the War on Terror. But as we see in Iron Man, they’re ultimately never a villain that owns the screen—there always seems to be a bigger bad behind the scenes, whether that’s American businessmen, repercussions from the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, or even a preference to make the terrorists Chechen, bringing us back once again to the evil Russian trope.
Even beyond the stereotypical images themselves, we all know the Churchill quote. Popularly, Russia is seen as an enigma, and that mystery adapts well to the screen. It’s what captures the audience’s imagination and keeps them invested in the story. Furthermore, renewed animosities and reports of outlandish military equipment development will add their own intrigue and influence to contrivances of this “devil we know.” As long as we’re captivated by Russian and post-Soviet villains, they’ll continue to appear in American media.
Kenzy Seifert is a Master’s candidate in Russian area studies at Harvard University and former intern for the U.S. Department of State in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror itself.