What have we learned since the Cold War? Not much, apparently.

Above: Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone as eternal enemies in Creed II. Below: real-life competitors-turned-friends Joe Louis and Max Schmeling.

I finally watched the movie Creed II, which I had looked forward to for a while, since it’s essentially a sequel to the iconic Rocky IV of my childhood. If you haven’t seen either of these movies, let me summarize: in Rocky IV, the American boxer Rocky Balboa fights the Russian Ivan Drago during the Cold War. In Creed II, Rocky and Drago as old men serve as mentors to younger versions of themselves — in Rocky’s case, the son of his deceased friend and former competitor; in Drago’s case, his own son.

I saw Rocky IV as a kid but didn’t fully appreciate it until I got older. Why? Because the film, made in 1985, became a testament to American hysteria over the supposed Soviet menace that was prevalent before the USSR collapsed. The Russians are depicted in the film as technologically advanced and frighteningly efficient; the Americans, on the other hand, are poorly equipped and developmentally behind, but in the end triumph with sheer will and grit. A montage from the film is now famous for its ridiculousness: a svelte, clean-cut Drago trains in a gleaming facility complete with electronic gadgets and scores of lab coat-clad observers, while a bearded, woolen-looking Rocky pulls logs through the snow in what appears to be the Siberian wilderness. This seven-minute segment alone deserves to have a place in the syllabuses of college students seeking to understand the perverse psychology of the Cold War.

Of course, after the Cold War ended and Westerners got to look under the hood of the Soviet Empire, they realized they had it backwards. Yes, the Soviets had indeed managed to put a satellite in space and a man in earth’s orbit before the Americans. And just like the Americans, they had built enough nuclear weapons to kill all human life on earth many times over (impressive!). Of course, as the Iron Curtain was pushed aside, the world realized it was the Soviets who were struggling to keep up, not the other way around.

How does one follow up a film like Rocky IV, which so perfectly captured the erroneous thinking of the age? How do you make a sequel to a film that missed the truth so badly, its enduring legacy is as a farcical monument to national self-delusion? Apparently, by pretending that nothing happened.

Creed II is so remarkably lacking in self-awareness, so stubbornly committed to ignoring the past thirty-plus years of history, it worries me about what it says about American audiences and where we are as a nation.

In the film, we’re shown that Rocky and Drago haven’t talked since the 80s; indeed, they are still enemies. Drago’s son’s character shows no emotions other than anger and determination. The Russians are cold, determined, and unforgiving. And finally, Rocky’s mentee Adonis Creed decides to train in the middle of the desert — a dryer, warmer version of the aforementioned Siberian wilderness, I suppose — with virtually no modern equipment, despite his being a multi-millionaire and the reigning heavyweight champion of the world.

The fact that the producers of this film stuck so closely to the original Cold War-era formula gives me chills about what apparently must resonate with American audiences today. Are we really still so nationalistic and provincial? Do we not wonder how those from other countries live, love, dream, fear, etc? (It is telling that the American protagonist in the film has a whole story arc involving his struggles to find himself as a husband and father, yet his Russian opponent’s character is nothing more than an angry, muscular, hyper-competitive human plot device.) In some ways, the film seems to have gone backwards. In Rocky IV, at least, a triumphant but bloodied Rocky speaks to his Russian audience in an emotional appeal to unity and understanding. (The Russian audience in the film gives him a standing ovation.) Even American audiences in the 80s, I suppose, while deeply patriotic and fearful of their Soviet enemies, must have had a sense that this whole thing was nonsense.

Here’s what would have actually happened with the passage of time, had these characters been real: Rocky and Drago probably would have become friends, occasionally meeting up and reflecting on the sheer stupidity of the Cold War while simultaneously reliving the glory of their boxing youths. Drago would have made a second home in the West somewhere, maybe in the US. Rocky would have become popular in Russia (he had already won them over) perhaps making a cameo appearance in Moscow every now and again and appearing in media events commemorating the famous fight. Drago’s son after showing talent early on would have been exposed to the international boxing community, traveling the world for tournaments and such and meeting other young boxers from various countries along the way.

You don’t have to look to fiction for examples of this type of resolution among competitors once their national backdrops shift around them. There are plenty in history. One example is Lithuanian basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis, who was never able to compete in his prime against pros in the US, thanks to his country’s being in the Soviet orbit. He finished his career in Portland, Oregon with the Trailblazers, though by that time his career was winding down (he was still awesome). Years later, his son went to Gonzaga University and is now the starting power forward for the Indiana Pacers.

The point is, time goes on. Nations change. People move forward. And thank goodness.

The all-time greatest example of this in sports goes back decades earlier, and is, incidentally, about boxing: the relationship between the African American Joe Louis and the German Max Schmeling. The latter was held up by Hitler as an example of the inherent athletic superiority of the so-called Aryan race. Yet after Louis beat Schmeling in a famous rematch in 1938 and Nazism was defeated a few years later, the two developed a close friendship that lasted into their old age. That shouldn’t be surprising; Schmeling was never interested in being a symbol of Nazism in the first place — indeed, he bristled at its ideologies, and at one point helped shelter two Jewish boys from the horrors of Kristalnacht — and once the artificial barriers of race and nationhood were put aside, the two must have had a lot in common.

Why movies sometimes refuse to keep up with the beautiful humanity of real life is puzzling. Sports is filled with countless examples of human spirit triumphing over fear and ignorance. Do filmmakers simply assume this won’t sell?

Perhaps they just figure that sticking to a tried-and-true formula is the safest approach, even if that formula is decades old. But part of me wonders if there is something uglier lurking beneath the surface, a smoldering sense of nationalism and obsession with “otherness” which manifests itself in our art, just as it does in the form of travel bans, concrete walls, and military parades. Maybe Creed II, a generation from now, will be seen as a historical artifact of an era when American nationalism was starting to make its triumphant comeback. Or perhaps it will serve as evidence that, decades after the end of the Cold War, we’d all learned so little. Either way, let’s hope that I am wrong.

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One thought on “What have we learned since the Cold War? Not much, apparently.

  1. Great post! I’m glad you’re blogging again. We can’t really blame the “masses” for buying the propaganda that the Soviet Union was such a force to be reckoned with. US powers that be knew I’m sure what the reality was but the Cold War was also an arms race and lots of money was being made as a result. We in the US aren’t immune to propaganda. It’s not as if every country in the world uses it except the US.

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