In 1984, the small town of Calumet, Colo., was invaded by the Soviet Union, with help from Cuba and Nicaragua, and it was an attack that showed no mercy, as teachers and students were mowed down by the Evil Empire. It was up to a rag-tag group of high schoolers -- calling themselves the Wolverines -- to fight back.
I'm talking on-screen, of course, for 1984 was the year of "Red Dawn," and while the 1980s may not have had a Vietnam, they had a "Red Dawn." For American males born pre-1981 or so, the effect of watching a team of Soviets parachute into the Midwest and brutally kill teenagers was, well, a bit unsettling.
I was about 6 when my brother and I watched gun-nut John Milius' right-wing swirl of violence and fear-mongering, and I can vividly recall being haunted by the sight of a dead teen, head resting on his hand, staring out the window as paratroopers mowed down his classmates.
That and a young, not-yet-"winning" Charlie Sheen's mullet were enough to keep me awake for at least a few nights, as did the fear that my parents might find out we watched it.
Author David Sirota's fascinating, thrillingly clever "Back to Our Future" brought "Dawn" back into my noggin with a vengeance. The film and its effect on a wide-eyed generation of kids is perhaps the finest example of Sirota's theory, one summed up nicely in the book's subtitle: "How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now -- Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything."
Sirota is ideal for this task. The regular Huffington Post contributor and best-selling author is smart, politically astute, and unafraid to be very, very bold; despite its title, "Back to Our Future" is no "I Love the '80s"-style bit of nostalgia. It's a bracing, often very funny study of how the world of 2011 was molded by the Reagan era.
It was, of course, the decade of Rambo, "Top Gun" and "The A-Team," but in "Red Dawn," Sirota sees something far more powerful -- and infinitely more sinister:
"When I rented Hollywood's first PG-13 production, and I saw the teen heartthrobs protect America by racking up execution after execution, I didn't know the movie would also become the Guinness world-record holder for violent acts depicted per minute in a film. All I did was cheer."
As the author breaks down in compelling detail, "Red Dawn" was as strong a military recruitment tale as G.I. Joe action figures. There remains, he believes, a tangible "'Red Dawn' effect. Contemporary missions are named after the film (and various other militarist fantasies from the '80s), tapping into the hard-wired psyches of 'Wolverines who have grown up and gone to Iraq,' as Milius recently called the eighties generation."
Sirota's section on that fantasia of blood-red conservative values married to action film tropes was my favorite, but it's but one example of how strong a writer and deep a thinker he is.
Just as important to his argument are the two Michaels: Michael Jordan and Michael J. Fox. The latter brought to life "Family Ties' " Alex P. Keaton, "a portrait of eighties ambition whose coat-and-tie wardrobe and Reagan worship were a big middle finger to his parents' Woodstock generation"; Marty McFly, the protagonist of the film that gives the book its name; and the leads in "The Secret of My Success" and the ball-dropping adaptation of Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City." Sirota draws a line from Alex P. Keaton to the "generational combat" that fuels the politics of today.
Meanwhile, Michael Jordan's "Just Do It" philosophy, the author explains, can be seen to lead directly to Glenn Beck and reality TV. (It is worth noting that Sirota's probing eye finds much to criticize among both political parties, as well with our current administration. That being said, if you own a copy of the former governor of Alaska's "Going Rogue," you're likely to come away irritated.)
While it's his political studies that are likely to gain the most headlines, Sirota also finds room to explore the "Huxtable effect" and even include such '80s-oddities as the robot from "Rocky IV," the endless-life code of Nintendo's "Contra," Hubba-Bubba, He-Man, and Dungeons and Dragons.
As someone born just days after the U.S. Olympic hockey team's "Miracle on Ice" and was fitted with his first pair of eyeglasses on the night America entered the Gulf War, I found "Back to Our Future" as involving as any text -- fiction or non -- that I've come across this year. Whether you buy each of Sirota's assertions is unimportant, for even his wildest theories are blindingly intelligent conversation-starters.
It is, after all, clear that the decade retains a tight hold on the present. Teen-fave Hot Topic sells "Ghostbusters" T-shirts. The world's biggest pop star, Lady Gaga, mind-melds Madonna's 1989 "Express Yourself" with her own post-prejudice sexual dynamism, resulting in her "Born This Way" smash. Gordon Gekko recently visited cinemas again. And the late Michael Jackson ranked as 2010's eighth-best-selling artist.
In other words, one would be hard-pressed not to see the relevance of David Sirota's "Back to Our Future."
Oh, and interestingly, a new Rambo was released in 2008, a remake of "The A-Team" was burped up last summer, rumors are flying of a "Top Gun 2," and, fittingly, a remake of "Red Dawn" sits on the shelf, awaiting release, ready to scare, embolden and indoctrinate a new generation.
Christopher Schobert is a staffer at Buffalo Spree and a local freelance critic.
Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now - Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything
By David Sirota
Ballantine Books304 pages, $25