It was just five years ago this month, in the midst of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics, that MGM released "Red Dawn," John Milius' belligerently anti-Soviet film about a band of teen-agers who become guerrilla warriors in order to thwart a Soviet invasion of the United States. In its ads, MGM called "Red Dawn" "America's movie."
The next year, in "Rocky IV," Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa went to Moscow to give a Soviet superman such a whipping that even members of the Politburo rose to give the American hero a standing ovation.
Orion Pictures has released "The Package," a thriller about an American Army sergeant (Gene Hackman) who sets out to foil an assassination attempt on the Soviet premier during a visit to the United States to sign a nuclear arms pact. There is no international communist conspiracy lurking here; the bad guys are the military leaders of both countries whose paranoia about U.S.-Soviet detente leads them to plotting murder.
Is glasnost working or what?
With the thaw in Soviet-American relations having created fast lanes of cross-cultural exchange between the superpowers, it was just a matter of time before Hollywood saw the commercial possibilities in treating the Big Red as a kinder, gentler nation. Orion is betting $16 million that moviegoers will buy into a fast-paced thriller where fear of peace rather than fear of war is the enemy.
The film's theme "is the ultimate liberal nightmare," said retired Navy Adm. Eugene Carroll, who served as a technical adviser on "The Package." "Namely, peace might break out and someone might sabotage it for their own selfish interests."
Beverly Camhe, the producer who brought the film concept to Orion, said she and director Andy Davis were encouraged by Orion to get the peace message into the movie as much as they could. Davis ("Code of Silence," "Above the Law") studied the J.F.K. assassination and modeled the conspiracy in "The Package" partly after the theory that John Kennedy was killed by rogue elements of the intelligence community, with Lee Harvey Oswald set up as patsy.
"I felt that (Soviet leader Mikhail) Gorbachev does represent today what Kennedy did then," Davis said. "The parallels are there. When you turn things around, you threaten people."
Former television correspondent Ike Pappas, who covered SALT II for CBS, plays himself, this time covering the sweeping arms control treaty negotiations that set the stage for the assassination attempt. Pappas said his experience as newsman makes him think that the basic plot has some basis in reality.
"Gorbachev in real life is certainly on a course that will end the Cold War as we know it," Pappas said, adding that he finds it believable that people might attempt to assassinate leaders about to sign an arms treaty.
"Let's not kid ourselves," said Carroll, agreeing with Pappas. "There are people right here (in Washington) who believe that some day we have to fight the Soviet Union and any give (that) we see is strictly tactical. . . . Then when we are lulled, they will show their true colors. Dr.Strangelove lives. There are people who think in those conspiratorial terms."
Turmoil in the Soviet Union is a daily headline and producer Camhe cited recent remarks by Gorbachev, reported in July in the Christian Science Monitor--that he faced serious opposition from the military to his program of cutbacks--as evidence for the possibility of a Soviet military conspiracy against Gorbachev.
"It kind of validates what we are saying," she said.
Because the film is so topical, it is sure to be criticized by conservatives who feel that national security concerns are dismissed cavalierly and that the military comes off as a paranoid hotbed of fringe conspirators--just as the Rambo films were criticized by liberals as portraying an outmoded image of Communism and depicting Soviets as sadistic villains.
The liberal tinge to the film is no accident. "Andy Davis and I have similar political points of view," said Camhe.
Camhe said that test marketing of the film has shown that Hackman has a tremendous draw among the crucial 18- to 25-year-old male market. And the film makers are hoping that baby boomers will be drawn by the topicality and political interest.
But Camhe also has her eye on an audience thousands of miles away in the Soviet Union.
"I was thinking of how they purport to be progressing in censorship," she said. "They let 'Little Vera' out. Will they let 'The Package' in? I feel that Gorbachev will love it."