Wednesday, March 30, 2022

Operation Blue Thunder: Or, First time as Violence, Second time as Action

 


Recently in a bit of odd exhaustion and insomnia I watched, or rather rewatched, the movie Blue Thunder. In case you have not seen it I will tell you the plot. It stars Roy Scheider as a Los Angeles helicopter pilot and Vietnam vet. He is introduced to a helicopter with the code named "Blue Thunder" which is introduced as part of an increased security preparations for the 1984 Olympics. The helicopter is an armored attack and surveillance helicopter complete with a machine gun, powerful directional microphones, and infrared cameras. Over the course of the movie, and I am hazy on the details or may have fallen asleep, Scheider comes to the realization the helicopter is not only an unacceptable militarization of the police but would function as the basis of an expansion of powers of surveillance. After the requisite helicopter dog fights  and car chases he parks the helicopter in front of a freight train and destroys it. 

The helicopter was reborn the next year in a short lived television series of the same name. Gone was the concern of the militarization of the police, worries about the expansive powers of surveillance; the helicopter just looked cool and badass now. It went on adventures and fought crime. Ex-Football players Dick Butkus and Bubba Smith were its back up, Dana Carvey was comic relief. 


Less one thinks that this is an odd one off, a forgotten bit of trivia from the eighties, I would argue that the transition that we find in this film, in which violence, or anxieties about violence, are transformed into action, into adventure, in the direct to television sequel, defines a lot of popular culture especially during the eighties and nineties. To give a few other examples: Rambo which begins with First Blood, with a story of the alienation and psychic damage of war becomes by the end of the decade a cartoon for kids before being reborn in two revenge films in recent years; even Robocop goes from satire of the corporate police to cartoon celebration of a cool robot cop; and the most egregious example is Death Wish which begins with a conscientious objector driven to violent revenge in the first film is retconned into a badass special forces soldier who wages open war on New York City. Perhaps the most famous of all such revisions is the Terminator series which turns its robot killing machine into a father figure. 

What accounts for this transformation, this progress, from first time as brutal violence, second time as cartoonish action? Part of the answer has to be found in the ambiguity of the original film, which is often split between an admiration and fear of the violent power of the attack helicopter, trained soldier, or cyborg. Case in point the scene from Blue Thunder which introduces the helicopter, a scene which alternates between spectacular explosions and unchecked "collateral damage":


Modern filmmaking is so infused with the aesthetics of violence that one would be hard pressed to figure out how to present such destruction without making it part of a spectacle, without inspiring awe as much as fear. Beyond this particular aesthetics of violence it is necessary to look at the particular politics of violence that define the long nineteen eighties. First, there is the lingering effect of Vietnam. As I mentioned Scheider plays a Vietnam vet in Blue Thunder. After the display of the helicopter a character remarks "That we could have used this in 'Nam." To which Scheider's character responds, "We could have used something." Or, to take a less obscure film, in Rambo when Sylvester Stallone's character is informed that he is going back to Vietnam to rescue POWs he asks, "Do we get to win this time?"

 

This idea of Vietnam as a war lost because of a lack of technology or force informs the entire return to Vietnam sub-genre of the eighties, a list that includes Rambo, Missing in Action, Uncommon Valor, etc., all of which demonstrate that a true American force, without its hands tied by politicians or the population, can properly defeat the enemy. The problem is not the excessive force, even that of a helicopter that kills almost as many civilians as terrorists, but of the law that has restrained force. Although to some extent the technological fantasy of Blue Thunder is a little out of place in the post-Vietnam film. Most such films are defined not by the fantasy of better technology (the US already had that in the actual war, including attack helicopters) but of more ruthless and brutal force. As someone said on social media, I forget who, the fantasy after Vietnam is one of the US getting to be the vietcong, of becoming the guerrilla force that fights smarter not better defeating an enemy with a bow and arrow (Rambo) or a well timed roundhouse kick (Missing in Action). This fantasy defines the greatest reactionary movie of the eighties, Red Dawn and even continues through the most recent Rambo film in which Rambo becomes a one man vietcong, complete with tunnels and tiger traps, against a Mexican drug cartel, merging the lingering fantasies of the eighties with the fears of the new millenium. The last Rambo film, Rambo: Last Blood ends with a montage of all of previous films, showing Rambo fighting in Burma, Afghanistan, and the US, underscoring the dream of the character, a Rambo for every conflict. One, Two, Many Rambos is the geopolitical lesson of Rambo.


The geopolitical lesson of Vietnam matched by a similar ideological construction on the domestic front. The war on crime, especially as it is presented in film, is one in which the problem is not one of force, or excessive violence, but of the laws and politicians that held the righteous violence of the police in check. This is where we get the time worn cliche of the cop who plays by his own rules, he focuses on fighting crime, not on the rights and limitations that only curtail him. No film encapsulates this more than Dirty Harry. (For a full discussion of the politics and aesthetics of Dirty Harry I recommend this blogpost by Steven Shaviro ) Taken together the post Vietnam reaction and the tough on crime response define a situation in which no violence can be excessive. Rather than focus on the sequel or direct to television spinoff as the place where the original's anti-violence, or ambivalence towards violence, is distorted into a celebration of violence as action, it is necessary to recognize the celebration already at work in the original's ambivalence. In other words, most of the audience was already cheering at the badass attack helicopter before it got reborn that way for television. Rambo became a cartoon because the cartoon was already playing in our heads. 

Where does this leave us now? I cannot think of a similar trajectory in contemporary film, but I could be missing something. However, it does occur to me that where the eighties and nineties gave us a trajectory in which violence was reborn as action, transformed from a figure of fear to celebration, what we get now is in some sense those two things at once, without the progression. I am thinking of Batman who exists simultaneously as a kids character and toy and as a series of films that each get grittier and more realistic. Or of the Punisher who is both a comic book character and a logo for police and military forces around the world. 


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