Commentary – The Russians are coming

Tom Henihan
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War around 1991, Hollywood has had to go to great lengths to find a compelling nemesis that offered a creditable but entertaining threat to the US.

Russia was indispensable as a backdrop against which America could define itself. Russia was also a magical, stock apparatus from which the Hollywood film industry could perpetually reconfigure the same old tale.

Without Russia as America’s archenemy, Hollywood was at a loss: it had to reach into the cosmos to find hostile, alien life forms, plumb the unfathomable depths of the sea to rouse serpents and dragons that had been sleeping for millennia. It invented constructs with artificial intelligence and mechanical limbs, went to war with zombies and chimpanzees and conjured up the apocalypse, but nothing could replace the enigma of the Russia countenance, the otherness of the accent. To America and Hollywood, Russia was the other side of the proverbial coin and nothing could adequately replace her.

Now, with the shenanigans in Washington, the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn for having discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador and the intrigue concerning Russian meddling in the last election, the menacing specter of Russia has returned. Russia is back in the picture and I am sure Hollywood is pleased, dusting off the old espionage template and ready to call action.

But even if Russia is back things are not quite the same. In an environment where Americans seek political asylum in Russia and Russia is getting the heads-up from people in the White House, the template, like NAFTA, is going to need a little tweaking.

The storyline is no longer as graphic, no longer as black and white, good and bad or as explicitly American and Russian as it once was. We no longer have the intrepid agent unwilling to come in from the cold, dressed in fedora and trench coat, casting a long shadow along a narrow, dimly lit street.

The script may still call for treacherous scientists and technicians working the graveyard shift and obscure, almost invisible civil servants, but the principal characters now live above ground and mingle openly with the establishment. In some instances, they are the establishment.

The terminology has also changed. The words spy and informant are now seldom used and it may prove challenging to create a dashing or glamorous character called a whistleblower, hacker or even less flattering, a leaker.

With the new storyline comes a new cast of characters to play, some bringing real dimension to the drama such as the serious minded, conscience-driven outsiders Alexei Navalny, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, and the somewhat dubious Julian Assange. We still have the archetypal strong man: the murderous, narcissistic and unholy Russian cliché, Vladimir Putin and of course, for comic relief the orange-complexioned, crazy-haired clown president, Donald Trump.

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