The American Way (1986) — Revolutionary messages across the airwaves

ZombieDog’s rating: Popcorn Revolution!

ZombieDog’s review: Aesthetics is the branch of philosophy that deals with beauty. In more accessible terms, it deals with what is good art and what is bad art. The discussion of what is beautiful dates back to at least Aristotle (384 BC-322 BC), probably further. Attempts to define it were often easily dismissed, if not considered completely wrong. Even current day theories of art don’t fully describe what art is. More accurately, and for our purposes, the difference between good and bad art.

This website is, at least in part, dedicated to bad art. Therein lies the paradox. If there’s something to be appreciated or even admired about bad art, then what’s the difference between opposite ends of the spectrum?

Cult movies and B-movies are a distinct grouping with describable characteristics. Many of these qualities could involve being off-center, drug-related, low-budget, or just something surprising. These general terms don’t really capture the true quality of cult or B-movies though. In truth, discussing these movies without discussing counterculture does them a disservice.

The counterculture was probably the biggest influence on what became considered a cult film. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is truly a response to the musicals from the ’50s, yet rejects almost everything that they stood for. The film celebrates topics such as sexual experimentation and murder, and it even takes pleasure in smashing norms. That movie is about as far from the archetypical wholesome teenager movie Beach Blanket Bingo as you can get. Which is in the end is strange because Rocky Horror was only made 10 years after.

A willingness to smash norms or simply rebel is captured fully by The American Way. For a film that is 35+ years old, it holds up amazingly well. Much of the subject matter is remarkably relevant. The movie is about a group of soldiers that have been tasked with psychological operations during Vietnam. After the war ended, they kept up their mission but now in the skies of America. They broadcast the real news on their TV station “S&M TV.” The powers that be have had enough of being embarrassed, and a new candidate for president has made it her mission to put an end to the airborne group’s activities.

This is both generic and accurate, although it doesn’t really tell the whole story. The movie stars Dennis Hopper (the captain), Michael J. Pollard (you know him when you see him guy), along with Al Matthews (Gunnery Sergeant Apone from Aliens) as Benedict. Additionally, there’s about a dozen other working actors who all had long careers to my surprise.

The obvious center piece of this movie is Hopper. Even at the release of this movie, he had already contributed significantly to the art of cinema with films such as Easy Rider (1969), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Blue Velvet (1986). Love him or hate him, Hopper commands your attention when he’s on-screen. He has an intensity about him that is present even when he is sitting still. This underlining rage is what makes him mesmerizing to watch, and it was present when I first saw him in The Twilight Zone. Even though The American Way is a cookie-cutter revolution us-versus-them plot, it crosses over into something special because of the actors, guerrilla style filmmaking, ’80s rawness, and video editing.

There is a political aspect of this film though that’s not what the movie is about. Notably, there is a strong sense of individual freedom that the movie addresses. Several movies of the time communicated the same emotion, and the one that comes to mind that most accurately expresses my idea is 1990’s Pump up the Volume. That one starred Christian Slater as an angsty high school student who by night became pirate radio DJ playing the music that the mainstream radio wouldn’t play and dropping truth-bombs about high school life. Flash forward 30 years to when everybody can have their own TV station, radio station, newspaper what have you. Where the world is full of opinions and there is no longer us versus them it’s “click, like, and subscribe.”

I’m not going to say if this is good or bad because I personally believe it’s just different. Things change, and I personally enjoy the freedom of being able to express my thoughts and opinions. I seriously doubt if there’s anybody out there who gives a crap. Besides, do what you love, don’t hurt anybody, and hope for the best.

This is not to say I don’t think something has been lost. The revolutionary spirit that this movie embraces is missed, at least from my perspective. When was the last time you saw a teenager coming-of-age movie that dealt with sex and drugs in both the comedic and serious way? What was the last stoner comedy you watched? When was the last movie that took any chances whatsoever made? The purpose of art is to offend, along with support, and define, to push the boundaries of what is acceptable along with what is not, to purposefully risk catastrophic failure in the attempt to express an idea.

The American Way is a film of a bygone era yet has a spirit that is hard to ignore. I seriously doubt that this movie had any budget at all, and I suspect Dennis Hopper got paid with a bag of weed and a case of beer. Undoubtably, every actor in this movie is giving it their all. That alone makes worthy of your time, even though there is more. Culty goodness oozes from every pore along with that very distinctive ’80s style of chaos. The film may be difficult to find, however with all passions the search is part of the love.

I spent a fair amount of effort trying to gather as much information as I could about the movie and failed miserably. I came up blank. Wikipedia had the same general information as IMDb and also had what it called a “stub.” This is an open call for information on the movie. It recognizes that the page is incomplete and asks anybody with knowledge to chime in. Personally, I think this lack of information makes the film better. In multiple interviews Hopper himself talks about his use of drugs and alcohol during the making of movies. He even talks about this exact time period when he would drink large amounts of alcohol and top it off with massive amounts of cocaine.

I can only imagine what it would be like to be trapped inside a movie set with somebody tweaked to the gills. I guess I don’t have to imagine, as this movie captures it perfectly.

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