Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Make Communists the Villain Again

Americans are beginning to get sick of Hollywood taking orders from Beijing.
November 15, 2019
Make Communists the Villain Again
A promotional image of President Nicolás Reyes in Jack Ryan Season 2 on Amazon Prime (Credit: Jennifer Clasen via

Rocky IV is a fantastic movie. There was the great American hero, a patriot with stellar ethics, avenging his mentor and friend against a cheating Soviet commie. Even though the Cold War is over (or in a temporary ceasefire, depending on your assessment), Americans still love that movie. Even today, kids who didn’t grow up with it watch and enjoy it.

So, why has the Hollywood seemingly come to the conclusion that American triumph over communist dictators is not a market seller?

Last year, First Man created a controversy for not portraying the lunar flag assembly in the movie. Apple+ (a new streaming platform) is out with a highly speculated new series, For All Mankind, an alternate history in which the U.S. lost the moon race to the Soviets. Apparently in the Earth 2.0 of For All Mankind, the heroines of the series would wind up changing history by pushing for women’s rights, as though this was a binary choice. And, Ted Kennedy becomes President! Hollywood producers have decided, it seems, that America’s most iconic Cold War victory is no more a source of national pride. 

And then there is Amazon Prime’s Jack Ryan series. While conservatives have long-loved Clancy novels, the show isn’t one loved only by conservatives: the new Jack Ryan series has appeal for Americans of all political stripes.

Jack Ryan, played by John Krasinski, is a fantastic lead. He is a Marine veteran, a recipient of a Purple Heart, a Ph.D. in economics, and very patriotic. He is handsome and morally righteous and and has great ethics. He is a loyal man and a patriot who puts his life on the line for the good of the United States, even if he has trouble following orders sometimes.

South America has a complicated political history, especially when the U.S. gets involved. It was curious that the writers made the electoral opponent of the incumbent right wing authoritarian figure a left-leaning social justice warrior, but it’s better than a full-on communist, I suppose. 

Why not just make the bad guy Nicolás Maduro? Hugo Chávez? Or some fictional combination of the two?

Are we not allowed to depict communists as villains anymore? 

* * *

President Trump is a grievance candidate. His supporters have grievances, some imaginary, and many real ones. One long standing grievance of the right is that “the media are out to get us.” While it’s not entirely untrue, the three legs of this well-used stool involve not only traditional news and opinion media, and especially Hollywood entertainment media.

Only in the last couple decades as 24-7 cable news—which we know is often bad content yet still watch anyway—has the focus been less on Hollywood and more on the news. And there’s a reason for that: cable news channels and their streaming operations generate probably six long movies’ worth of content, every. single. day. 

And not only are what’s talked about on cable amplified on social media, the cable news networks cover each other, adding to the arms race. But as people go to theatres less often and silo themselves at home with streaming and the ideologically sound news source of their choice, an echo chamber where controversy selling for eyeballs and screen time thrives.

Whether you agree or disagree with the popularly-held belief among Republicans that the media are out to get them, it doesn’t really matter. You and I aren’t going to fix the problems of media and confirmation bias, which has grown along with our diet of news, opinion, and entertainment.

But we can talk about it. In a civil manner like adults. (Unlike what you might see on Facebook or Twitter.)

Here’s my pitch: Many, if not most, Americans don’t like that the United States’ greatest Cold War achievement, the moon landing, for which Americans spent a lot of monetary and non-monetary capital, is now just “a human achievement.” That certainly didn’t feel like just a human achievement when they planted the U.S. Flag on the moon. Americans celebrated a victory against the Soviet Union at a time when many thought the communists were beating them at every turn. Those viewers do not like that communists cannot be villains in the Hollywood of 2019. (Spoiler: Human and American achievements are more often complementary than at odds.)

One of the more reasonable speculations about this sudden removal of celebration of America in Hollywood is that executives are trying to appeal to the Chinese market. And worse, to comply with Chinese censors, who not only are gatekeepers for the Chinese market, but for an increasing amount of money to fund these films. 

Most Americans still don’t like communists. While I doubt that Jeff Bezos is concerned about Amazon Prime subscriptions in Venezuela, there’s that uncomfortable reality that the Chinese market may really be the invisible red fist pushing down hard on the scale.

Remember that echo chamber we talked about a little while back? It’s getting worse and will likely continue to get worse in the short term. You probably don’t remember who was up in arms about the First Man controversy, other than that it was, for a day or two, a thing we talked about.

Republican statesmen and stateswomen used to be responsible and restrained. Donald Trump is not like that. I am not one to condone his attacks on the media. The man has a talent for weaponizing pretty much anything he wants, but we don’t have to give him any unnecessary help. Do you really think President Trump is interested in fixing the problems in our media and the divisive current state of American society?

Hollywood should be wary of cuddling with China. Americans are beginning to take notice of American corporations who do that, and not just because of the President’s ham-handed attempts at a trade war. From the NBA and Hong Kong, to South Park, Disney, and Winnie the Pooh, we’re seeing a bipartisan uprising of Americans against the Communist baddies.

Everything has a cost. The cost of the Chinese market is diminishing popularity at home. Hollywood would be smart to stop giving Trump and Republicans ammunition on this front. Maybe, just maybe, if we can all enjoy some Clancy-esque victories over Communism together, that’s a start. And if Hollywood still wants to stick it to Trump, make it over the Russians.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri studied Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. He’s an immigrant from Iran and writes the Substack newsletter The Russia-Iran File.