1985 was the year I escaped into movies. And it was a good year to escape from. I was eleven, and there were only two things I was scared of: nuclear war, and losing one of my parents. In 1985, one of those things happened. And since I’m not writing to you from an underground bunker filled with powdered water and assault rifles (although that would be pretty cool), you can probably guess which of the two I’m talking about.
My dad was almost fifty when I was born. He’d served in the army during World War II. He was part of that Greatest Generation of men who smoked two packs a day, drank liberally at the Legion, and never saw a doctor. On my 11th birthday he went to the hospital because he couldn’t breathe. By the fall, he was back home. He was dying.
I happened to be at home during that time, too, with a case of mono so bad my whole body was swollen and I was delirious with fever. Over the next six weeks, as I recovered, Dad and I propped ourselves up on couches in the den and binge-watched movies on Pay TV.
I was the youngest child by so many years that my family treated me like another adult. Nothing was dumbed down for me, nothing was kept from me. I had no bedtime, and no restrictions on what I could read or watch. I know that my family did this out of love, and out of respect for my intelligence and curiosity. But an unfortunate side effect of having no little-kid filter was that, while I was fully aware of what was going on in the world, I had no tools with which to process it. I had a visceral, almost debilitating fear of what would happen if the U.S. and Russia launched their nuclear missiles. Sure, I knew that if I needed clarity on something I could go to one of the many adults in my life, but, in the case of the Cold War, no one could adequately explain what was going on because so much of it was completely absurd.
In the mid-80s, Cold War tensions were high. Not a week went by when we didn’t hear about nuclear testing, or have a regularly-scheduled program interrupted by Peter Jennings, who would somberly describe yet another plane hijacking or hostage taking. When Reagan, Thatcher, and Gorbachev weren’t busy playing chicken with warheads, they were metaphorically whipping out their junk to see whose was biggest (unsurprisingly, it was Maggie’s). Every once in a while, Gaddafi or Khomeini would do something crazy—you know, just to keep things interesting. Then there was Apartheid. And acid rain. And the recession, and famine in Ethiopia, and random mass shootings, and the AIDS epidemic. It’s no wonder coke was the drug of choice in the 80s; we were running out of time and there was soooo much to talk about.
My Dad was a burly, barrel-chested guy. He’d been an amateur boxer and hockey player before he met my mother. But, sitting there on the couch beside me, he was sunken and grey. His favourite actors were John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Charles Bronson. Manly men. His favourite movie was Gunga Din, a 1939 war movie about three unruly British sergeants holding back a murderous horde of thugs in 1880s India. Fighting alongside them is their water boy, Gunga Din, who dreams of making a better life for himself. Dad loved watching underdog movies. It’s the only time he ever cried.
Before I spent that fall watching movies with my father, there were three films that had profoundly affected me: Testament, The Day After, and The Big Chill.
The first two are about people trying to survive the fallout of nuclear war. The third is a yuppie classic about a bunch of affluent white people who get together after a friend’s suicide to figure out what happened to their stupid hippie idealism. The Big Chill appealed to me because I took some weird satisfaction in seeing a group of adults struggling with their collective existential angst the same way I did. The other two were training films of sorts. Testament was a remarkably subtle portrait of a woman trying to keep her family and sanity intact after nuclear war upends her comfortable suburban existence. The Day After is an explicit play by play of a nuclear attack on a small American town. It was so terrifying that after it was shown on TV my school held an assembly to calm down all the kids who were freaked the fuck out (and it wasn’t just us fragile children; the network had 1-800 phone lines set up with counsellors to talk down hysterical viewers). After seeing those films, I didn’t feel so alone.
But that didn’t last long.
My dad died on February 11, 1985. At home, right there in the room where we’d watched all those movies together. Which movies? I couldn’t even say. There’s a lot that I don’t remember about that time. And other things I recall as clearly as if they happened yesterday. I remember Dad’s Legion buddies filing past his coffin to place poppies inside. I remember bagpipes. I didn’t cry. Not once. I remember all the adults telling me to “take care of your mother.” I was left on my own to find a way to take care of myself.
So I did.
I won’t bother familiarizing you with the Rocky franchise—the first five minutes of every Rocky film does that for you. Rocky IV is “the one with the Russian” (as it is colloquially known). Rocky is retired, but agrees to coach his best friend Apollo Creed in a friendly exhibition fight against Ivan Drago, a giant hunk of Caucasian granite and the pride of the Soviet athletic training system. After being stunned by the spectacle of James Brown singing Living In America, Drago recovers and proceeds to pummel Apollo. Rocky has an opportunity to throw in the towel, to save Apollo’s life, but he doesn’t do it, and Apollo is killed. After a requisite period of mourning and soul-searching (which involves driving his Bugatti around town to Robert Tepper’s synth-heavy song No Easy Way Out) Rocky decides to fight Drago himself...in Russia.
I will defend Rocky IV. To the death. I once came close to throwing down fisticuffs with someone who dared to say that Rocky V (the Voldemort of the Rocky franchise) was better than Rocky IV. I had to be physically restrained and removed from the room (please note: this was sober, and at a child’s birthday party). I don’t labor under any delusions that Rocky IV is a “good” movie. It’s not. I know this objectively. I knew it in the fall of ’85, when my brother took me to see it at the small movie theatre in our hometown. I knew it when I begged him to take me several more times. I knew it wasn’t good in the way I knew Amadeus was good, or that Ghostbusters was good. But I didn’t need Rocky IV to be good. I needed it to make me feel good. I needed it to give me some hope, however contrived.
Rocky IV was an antidote to Testament and The Day After (and even to The Big Chill). I wasn’t worried about trying to survive radiation poisoning anymore, or about whether or not adults would get their heads out of their asses long enough to keep the world from imploding. The Italian Stallion gave me back my power.
My love for Rocky IV is, at its essence, very simple. It’s about wish fulfillment. Rocky didn’t just win the fight—he managed to capture the hearts and minds of our Godless communist enemies. And on Christmas Day no less! He didn’t just show up and win, either. He had to work hard, without his family, with the KGB on his ass. He trained in a goddamned barn! No one believed in him, no one thought he could win. But he did. Of course he did. And at the end of his triumphant victory, as his world-changing speech concludes, he gives a shout out to his kid, and tells him he loves him, and his kid mouths back the words: “I love you.”
Waterworks. Every time.
It doesn’t matter that Rocky IV is rife with cliché, full of cartoonish stereotypes, and laced with horrible (and somehow unforgettable) dialogue. It features the granddaddy of all sports montages, set to the jingoistic fist-pumper Burning Heart. It has one of the cheesiest slo-mo sequences in film history, where Duke shouts “Noooooooo!” as Apollo falls to the floor. It has a creepy love story between Adrian’s ingrate brother Paulie and a sexy robot. The acting is almost as embarrassing as the blatant product placement. It even features a fake Gorbachev! But I don’t care. I love it—not in spite of those shortcomings, but because of them.
There’s a freedom that comes from facing your biggest fear and living through it. Especially at a young age. 1985 was the year that I realized no one - kids or adults – knows anything, and I took a perverse comfort in that. Things that mattered before my Dad died suddenly seemed petty or insignificant. Other things became more important. The impact of it changed my emotional DNA. I became guarded. I refused to let anyone see me hurting. Movies got me through that year, though—and through subsequent years that weren’t much easier. Like my Dad, I don’t cry unless I’m watching a movie. And like my Dad I’m a sucker for underdog movies. It’s the only time I let myself indulge in unapologetic sentimentality. I’m a natural born cynic, and those movies taught me that my cynicism is borne from hope.
I love Rocky IV’s earnestness. I sincerely think Sylvester Stallone was as frustrated and frightened as the rest of us, and that he genuinely wanted to make a difference. So he tried. The only way he knew how: by making a movie about punching people while listening to Survivor.
I truly believe Stallone hoped Rocky IV would change the world. Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t. But it sure changed mine.