I love the movie Ghostbusters. Not the mediocre 2016 remake but the original 1984 release starring Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd and Sigourney Weaver. Directed by Ivan Reitman, the film remains a classic example of a very recognisable era of American cinema, when the uncertain final years of the Cold War encouraged Hollywood to turn to fantasy and science-fiction to amuse and distract unsettled homeland audiences. This of course was the “Spielbergian” period of US entertainment, explicitly revived in the two seasons of Netflicks’ nostalgia drama Stranger Things, a reconstruction of childhood familiarity for worried Millennials in a new age of uncertainty for the United States.
However, despite my own nostalgic fondness for Ghostbusters, from an early age I was struck by some of the dramatic incongruities in the movie, later recognising how much of the film’s tone was bound up with the political ascendancy of Reganism in ’80s America. After all, what other period of modern American history would portray a concerned representative of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a minor “baddie” in a theatrical feature soon to be populated with demonic dogs and destructive demi-gods? Well, maybe the present era given the antics of the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who has conjured up his very own version of conservative voodoonomics.
Below is a rather nice analysis from the YouTube channel Renegade Cut explaining how Ronald Regan became a silent if influential partner in the 1984 ghostbusters’ team.
There was something else in the late 1970’s and early 80’s that had a lot of people pissed off at the EPA. And not just Reaganite Republicans. But also a wide assortment of liberal people were upset. Namely at the increasing lead regulations in paint and other things in the 1970’s, but also the lead gasoline phaseout primarily from 1973-1986. (Although final phase out was 1996, and some loopholes and exceptions are still being closed). Basically this extensive regulation made people all over the political spectrum upset. The conservative reasons are well known.
But some groups of liberals who didn’t like it included some labor unionists who worried about already declining industrial jobs (although many others WANTED the protection). Civil Rights advocates, early critical race theorists(can’t stand critical race theorists!!), and advocates for the urban and rural poor were often upset that so many resources were used to clean up lead paint in poor area when they saw the residents as having worse more immediate problems, and some saw the efforts and intrusive. Some people worried that if the bans made paint more expensive it could make urban renewal and efforts to provide the poor with decent housing more expensive, or that negative impacts on fuel economy could be an issue so soon after the oil embargo of the 1970’s. Many felt that the amount of money spent on the clean-ups and phaseouts could have better been spent on hunger in the US and in poor countries
Older cities like New York were often more affected by heavy duty paint related clean-ups. I have a lot of relatives in Boston who are across the board Democrats and extremely liberal. (Indeed we are talking almost archetypal Boston Irish Democrats here.) And I remember many of them just getting red in the face at any mention of the EPA because they felt that lead phase-out had “overdone it”. And these were people who DID NOT like Reagan, and many felt Carter had been judged unfairly and blamed for things that weren’t his fault. But the whole lead phase out had just alienated a lot of people from the EPA. One aunt of mine was furious that the money went to this “silly” lead regulation when it could have-according to her-fed all the starving kids in Ethiopia.
I remember seeing bumper stickers that said “More women have died in Senator Ted Kennedy’s car than from lead in gasoline and paint.” Ted Kennedy had been on one of the Congressional committees that established the phaseout’s timeline.
Of course, later studies show that the average national IQ has gone up 6 points due to the lead phaseout.
And there are many people who believe the restrictions in lead in gasoline and paint, were the reason for The Great American Crime Decline, because early exposure to lead can affect brain development with regards not just to IQ but also executive function, self-control, anger and aggression.
However, if you assume everyone who resonated an EPA man as the bad-guy was a Reaganite, that overlooks much of the context of the 1980’s.
Oh sure, I’m aware that the EPA was a more general bogeyman at a certain point is US history (and remained so for the right-wing of the Republican Party and for some genuinely anti-regulation or vote-chasing Democrats). But Regan was a particular foe of environmental regulations after some pandering to voters during his governorship in California. His tenure in the White House led to a very Trumpian crusade against legislation and funding, aided by some dire nominees to key offices in the EPA and the Department of Interior.
I would still agree with those who argue that the movie, Ghostbusters, overall has a very Reganite or 1980s’ small “c” conservative tone to it. As did many US films of the era. Not all American cinema, certainly, but it’s remarkable how many theatrical releases of that age are so recognisable in terms of the socio-political attitudes on display, even the comedic ones. Albeit attitudes that were maybe mainstream at the time. The dead hand of the Cold War tended to mute counter-culture productions or deny them the acclaim and popularity they deserved or could have achieved. Then again, Field of Dreams, a very Apple Pie movie in many ways, has the famous diatribe against book-burning Nazis scene 😉
We actually had a big fight at my high school over a debate to ban the book “Huck Finn”. Along with “A Wrinkle in time”, “Bridge To Terabithia”, “The Chocolate War”, several Pat Conroy novels, Stephen King novels, “The Color Purple”, “Catch-22”, “The Red Badge of Courage”, “The Canterbury Tales” and a whole run of other things. But Huck Finn generated the most heat.
School book ban controversies where you have crowds of outraged parents and (if at a high school level) students, at the PTA meetings or even school board meetings telling each other off………very apple pie. I’ve actually watched it play out at my own school.
I also think you’ve under-estimated Trump not just by comparing him to Brexit (which was a “what” not a “who), but more by comparing him to Reagan.
I’m no fan of Reagan, politically. But Reagan never shirked his basic non-partisan, Presidential duties to the nation. I also know people who were working in the environmental clean-up business during the 70’s and 80’s and oh boy, most of them are bitter even today. Most liberals who were mad about the lead clean-ups and phase outs in the 80’s have since accepted that they were necessary.
Reagan might have had a bad ideology. But Trump has no-ideology. It’s all about his ego, and Vendetta against Obama. Basically he wants to undo everything Obama accomplished and/or replace it with “something better”.
But when you talk about the politics of 80’s movies, you know what I see as the constant subtext?
The threat of nuclear war. I mean with Ghostbusters you have the whole theme of people fighting off their ancient Zoroastrian demons and The Stay Puff Marshmallow Man. If you look at it in the context of “The Day After” and when “Threads” found its way across the Atlantic from Britain……the idea that the Ghostbusters could save the world was in a silly way rather empowering.
Of course, Terminator was a darker version of the whole thing.
Indeed when 9/11 happened, I’ll admit to having felt a bit alienated from my whole culture. While the attacks were terrible and I’d never agree with the sorts of things Ward Churchill, Paul Theroux, or Ta Nehisi Coates might say about terrorist attacks in the US….
…..I simply couldn’t get how somebody could live through the 1980’s and not at least at one level be GRATEFUL that the first serious catastrophe of the 21st century didn’t involve ICBM’s, smallpox or an attempt to release a disease on all North America’s wheat, corn, and soy. And that was before the push to invade Iraq.
***Although the narratives from British media that the US never had any major terrorist events before 9/11 is wrong. As is the left’s favorite of “well before 9/11 it was all homegrown white guys”. Both easy to debunk.