Comedy takes the sting out of our darkest fears
by MATTHEW GAULT
Leave it to Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd to save the world from nuclear annihilation and make us laugh while they do it. In 1985, Ronald Reagan was president, Able Archer was two years behind us, the Berlin Wall still stood, and Rocky beat the shit out of Drago for killing his friend Apollo Creed.
That summer, Marty McFly went Back to the Future, Rambo rescued forgotten American soldiers, and Emmett Fitz-Hume and Austin Millbarge bumbled their way to saving the world.
The world remembers Rambo and Marty far better than they do Chase and Aykroyd’s two bumbling spies, but the spies were just as important because they made America laugh at something most can’t find the humor in — nuclear Armageddon.
Spies Like Us is a 1985 cult comedy starring Aykroyd and Chase as less than stellar secret agents on a mission with parameters they never receive. The film opens in the snowy mountains of the Tajik Soviet Socialist Republic, now the Republic of Tajikistan.
Soviet troops escort a mobile ICBM launcher into position, threatening America’s allies to the south as well as the free world. It’s the mid ’80s and the Cold War is waiting for the spark that’ll ignite World War III.
The Defense Intelligence Agency receives satellite images of the nuke, and decides to neutralize the Soviet threat. But the DIA has a problem — Soviet counterintelligence agents murdered their last pair of spies.
But General Sline — a hard-drinking, commie-hating, defense-budget-appropriating bastard — has a plan. The DIA will send in two teams of agents. One team will be their best and brightest, the other will just be a distraction.
Now they just need to find a pair of highly patriotic and idiotic federal employees who want to go an adventure.
Enter Fitz-Hume and Millbarge, played by Chase and Aykroyd, respectively. Fitz-Hume is a third-generation State Department employee. He’s lazy, lascivious, dumb and charming — and decides to take the foreign service exam to show up the guy who sits next to him at work.
Millbarge is a code breaker at the Pentagon whose boss steals all the credit for his work. He wants to take the exam to get some recognition and get time in the field. Too bad, then, that Fitz-Hume sits next to him on test day and gets them both in trouble with his typically Chevy Chasian shenanigans.
But the pair are in luck, as they’re just the kind of doofuses the DIA is looking for to distract the Soviets and keep them off the trail of their real agents. What follows is a solid hour and a half of comedy, slapstick and homages to the old road movies Bob Hope did so well and Family Guy resurrects once a season with mixed results.
The real charm of Spies Like Us, however, is its ending and the comedy genius of Aykroyd and Chase.
The 1980s were prime time for both comedy giants and they’re in perfect form in Spies Like Us. The genius of the film is that Chase plays an utter goofball like a straight man, and Aykroyd plays the straight man like an utter goofball.
Aykroyd wrote the script with director John Landis with Belushi in mind for Fitz-Hume, which would have been a different film. Chase’s restrained wackiness works so well in Spies Like Us that it’s easy to see why he was a comedy superstar for so many years.
Late in the film, the Soviets capture him as he’s making his way toward the ICBM. The guards take him into interrogation and one gets rough. He pulls a knife and threatens Chase. “Every minute you don’t tell us why you are here, I cut off a finger.”
“Mine or yours?” Chase asks.
“Damn,” Chase replies and he delivers the line so dry, as if he believes the interrogator would cut off his own fingers, that I couldn’t help but laugh. His subdued demeanor marked by moments of extreme lunacy makes the script work. I believe the over-the-top zaniness of Belushi would have hurt the movie.
The other reason Spies Like Us is such a treasure is the timing. In 1985, America was ready to laugh — needed to laugh — at the threat of nuclear war.
In the end — I’m going to spoil a 30-year-old movie here — Millbarge and Fitz-Hume make it to the ICBM with the help of one of the actual spies. They follow the DIA’s commands, but instead of disabling the nuke, they launch it.
Faced by what seems to be the end of the world, the American spies and the Soviet guards pair up for one last night of wild sex. Millbarge figures out a way to save the world at the last minute, however, and everyone goes home a hero.
The final scene depicts the Soviets and Americans sitting in a room laughing, drinking, canoodling and removing nuclear missile installations from a map while the world waits outside to learn the results of extended disarmament talks.
Think about that for a second. Tensions were high between the Soviet Union and the United States in ’85. Landis filmed the Tajik scenes in Norway and stationed their fake Soviet ICBM on top of a beautiful mountain.
The Pentagon’s satellites detected the movie set and actually considered it a threat until the movie producers and local authorities clarified the situation. It seemed as if fighting might break out at any moment … but the success of films such as Spies Like Us prove the public was sick of it.
The art — especially the pop-culture art — a civilization produces tells you a lot about what’s going on in that society.
Nuclear monsters and alien mind control permeated the drive-ins of the 1950s and early ’60s. Escapist fantasy series such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings made box office billions just as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan filled American televisions with nightly scenes of horror.
Spies Like Us came out the same year that Rocky wrapped himself in the American flag and beat up a Soviet superman played by Dolph Lundgren. Two years later, Christopher Reeve’s Superman hurled all the world’s nuclear warheads into the sun. The public was exhausted with the Cold War.
When the big, popular, money-making culture industry makes a current war into a comedy, that war is almost surely over. The Berlin Wall fell four years after Fitz-Hume and Millbarge laughed their way through nuclear disarmament talks. The Soviet Union imploded just a few years after.
There’s no causation here. The movies don’t cause social change, just foreshadow them. Bill Murray and Tina Fey tried to make comedy hay out of the tragedy of the Afghanistan war with mixed results. Jonah Hill is starring in a dark comedy about the Iraq war later this month.
What was once sacred and taboo no longer is. Attitudes are changing.