The ’80s brought their own special sauce to movies about the Cold War.
Why? Because by the time the Decade of Excess rolled around, America and the Soviets had been superpower rivals for more than 30 years already. Tinseltown was ready for new ideas that would fill theater seats. No story lines were off limits, including outrageous comedy and exaggerated drama.
See what you think about my list of five top Cold War films from the ’80s:
1. ‘Red Dawn’ (1984)
Premise: What if the Soviets invaded America? What if high school kids fought them from mountain hideouts?
What made it so good: Written by Hollywood mad dog John MiIius, the crazy nightmare scenario of this drama seems so unbelievable in retrospect it borders on the ridiculous.
Best line: “Not bad for a bunch of kids, huh? Mama would be real proud.”
Fun Fact: When I interviewed Milius in 2009, he told me he spent some of his younger days hunting and camping in the mountains. For Milius, “Red Dawn” was kind of his sick fantasy film. “We were promised, when I was growing up, this war with Russia,” he said. “We were promised World War III.” He almost sounded disappointed that it never happened.
Cheese factor: An armed Soviet paratrooper lands at an American school. A teacher approaches him as he draws his rifle. The teacher walks toward the Soviet invader saying, “What’s going on here my friend?” The Soviet opens fire on the teacher. Not too smart.
Surprise: A young Lea Thompson and pre-“Dirty Dancing” Jennifer Grey show they know their way around a loaded Russian Kalashnikov. As they say in the movie, “Wolverines!”
2. ‘Firefox’ (1982)
Premise: Before there was Firefox the browser, there was the movie. In this spy thriller, Clint Eastwood plays a retired Air Force fighter pilot who must sneak into the Soviet Union to steal a jet fighter codenamed Firefox. This airplane is so fast it flies six times the speed of sound. It’s so technologically advanced it can be operated by the pilot’s thought commands. Eastwood’s character is chosen for the mission because he’s a top American pilot who knows how to speak Russian.
What made it so good: The story rocks because it comes from Craig Thomas’ 1977 best-seller. The special effects from John Dykstra, who brought us Oscar-winning effects for the original “Star Wars,” helped make this movie a sweet adventure ride at the mall movie theater.
Best line: “Yeah I can fly it. I’m the best there is.” — Maj. Mitchell Gant, USAF (Clint Eastwood)
Fun fact: The Firefox jet in the film resembles a real plane — the North American XB-70 Valkyrie at the Museum of the USAF in Ohio.
Surprise: Actor John Ratzenberger, who later went on to fame playing Cliff Clavin in TV’s “Cheers,” has a small role in the film.
3. ‘The Falcon and the Snowman’ (1985)
Premise: This drama centers around a disillusioned defense employee who conspires with his boyhood drug dealer friend to sell U.S. intelligence information to the Soviets. Before there was Edward Snowdon, there was Christopher Boyce.
What made it so good: Timothy Hutton’s portrayal of Boyce as he learns the ugly truth of global intelligence warfare makes it worth seeing. This is one of Sean Penn’s best early film performances in a dramatic role. Bonus: a great soundtrack by David Bowie as well as the Pat Metheny Group.
Best line: “They’re just as paranoid and dangerous as we are. I don’t know why I ever thought any differently.” — Christopher Boyce (Timothy Hutton)
4. ‘Spies Like Us’ (1985)
Premise: A comedy about two U.S. government officials who are duped into a undercover decoy mission to Afghanistan where they end up having to try and stop a nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets.
What made it so good: One of Chevy Chase’s best ever performances (watch the classic exam scene). He and fellow SNL alum Dan Aykroyd make this fast moving comedy work. Aykroyd’s hilarious script is packed with far out ideas including the funniest we-saved-the-planet-from-World-War-Three scene, ever. Bonus: a drive-in theater that doubles as a secret satellite weapons ground station.
Best line: “When we commissioned the Schmectel Corporation to research this precise event sequence scenario, it was determined that the continual stockpiling and development of our nuclear arsenal was becoming self-defeating. A weapon unused is a useless weapon.” — Gen. Sline (Steve Forrest)
Fun fact: Aykroyd’s real-life wife, actress Donna Dixon, appears in the film.
Surprise: Hollywood comedian Bob Hope’s cameo in this movie was his final appearance in a film, according to IMDb.com.
5. ‘Rocky IV’ (1985)
Premise: Soviet boxer Ivan Drago kills Rocky Balboa’s best friend Apollo Creed during a boxing match. Seeking revenge, Rocky travels to Moscow to fight Drago in front of the whole world.
What made it so good:
This was ’80s gold for three reasons.
a. It was Sylvester Stallone’s love letter to the country that made him rich and famous.
b. It portrayed the Cold War as a classic mano a mano competition between two men.
c. It featured a performance by the hardest working man in show business, James Brown, singing his top five hit “Living in America.” And it memorialized Dolph Lungren’s Ivan Drago, truly one of the scariest antagonists Stallone’s character has ever faced.
Best line: “I must break you” — Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren)
Fun fact: It was the highest grossing sports movie of all time until 2009, according to Guinness, raking in $300 million.
Cheese factor: The music montage scene when Rocky trains for the big fight at a remote site in the Russian countryside using old farm implements.
I don’t know if Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev ever saw this heart-pounding propaganda slugfest, but if he did, he should have saved us all a lot of time and just gone ahead and torn down that wall a couple of years early.
So, what do you think of the list? Do you think I left a few good ones out? What ’80s Cold War movies are in your top five? Tweet me now @thompatterson #EightiesCNN