Chevy Chase had a great year in 1985. He appeared in the cult slacker hit movie, Fletch. Then he reprised the role of Clark Griswold (written as Griswald) in National Lampoon’s European Vacation. He had a cameo in Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. And then finally he ended the year with Spies Like Us.
Ironically, the movie is directed by John Landis, who recalled the infamous Chevy Chase/Bill Murray fight just before airtime on Saturday Night Live in which Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi had to rush in to separate the two. Chase who had left SNL was returning to host. Reportedly, him and Murray got into a war of words backstage that erupted into a war of fists. Landis said Murray was screaming at Chase calling him, “Minimum talent!”
Spies Like Us was the first of two back-to-back movies the “minimum talent” Chase did with Landis, so something must have changed. It didn’t hurt that Murray was living in Europe considering whether or not to return to filmmaking after the failure of his pet project The Razor’s Edge. Regardless of what people say about Chase, he did command the 1980s with so many memorable movies.
Just like Ghostbusters, Spies was intended to be a vehicle for Aykroyd and Belushi before it was put in turnaround at Universal. Aykroyd had wrote the script with Dave Thomas, of SCTV fame. After it was picked up at Warner Brothers, Lowell Ganza and Babaloo Mandel were brought in to rework the script with Aykroyd. Released during the middle of the Reaganeighties, it was an in-your-face satire of the Reagan Administration and how they were willing to destroy whatever they could to show off to the Soviet Union.
The TV movie The Day After, aired in 1983, was critical of Reagan’s policies while the 1984 conservative movie Red Dawn pictured an alternate world in which the Soviet Union and other communist countries invade America. Looking back on both movies now and what we know about how crumbling the Soviet Union was after Leonid Breshnev died, it wasn’t much of a threat. Even Rambo: First Blood Part II used the communist as the bad guys. And let’s not forget Rocky IV.
With all that going on, Landis was able to turn Spies into the Dr. Strangelove of the era while also make it a homage to the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope Road movies. Hope appears in a cameo. There’s even been some comparisons made of how Steve Forrest, who plays Air Force General Sline, looks like Sterling Hayden, the mad General Ripper in Strangelove. Forrest had also co-starred with Reagan in the movie Prisoner of War. And Spies makes a point to show that Reagan at one time was an actor as it has Chase’s character Emmet Fitz-Hume, watching Reagan sing with Gene Nelson and Virginia Nelson in She’s Working Her Way Through College.
The plot involves Fitz-Hume as an envoy at the U.S. State Department who is paired with Austin Milbarge, a civilian code-breaking engineer working at the Pentagon, after they are discovered cheating on a Foreign Service Board exam. Well, actually, Fitz-Hume cheats with a fake arm in a cast and an eye patch for cheat notes, but Milbarge gets caught up in it. Facing demotions or terminations, they are recruited by Mr. Ruby (Bruce Davison) and Mr. Keyes (William Prince) top officials with the Defense Intelligence Agency who along with Sline and Army General Miegs (Tom Hatten) have faced a setback after two GLG-20 Foreign Operatives were killed.
Sline tells the DIA officials to continue an operation with four operatives, two who will complete a task and the other two to act as a diversion. With Ruby and Keyes using Fitz-Hume, a diplomat, and Milbarge, a code-breaker, as “expendable,” they can drop them in the middle of enemy hands so the other team will succeed. Parachuted over a military base, Fitz-Hume and Milbarge are rushed through a series of trainings that should cause permanent injury if not death as they are subjected to comic endurance tests, which involve testing their G-Force and even putting them in flame retardant suits and having Army personnel shoot them with flames.
They are then dropped in a crate in Pakistan where they are met by KGB operatives posing as American officials. They are able to get away but are then detained by freedom fighters. But luck is on their side as Jerry Hadley (Charles McKeown) who claims to be a doctor with the London College of Medicine mistakes them, and their clothing, for two American doctors that are expected to arrive. Fitz-Hume is immediately smitten with Karen Boyer (Donna Dixon) a fellow doctor and she talks him into performing an appendicitis operation on the brother of the leader of the fighters. But when he awakens and dies of shock, the fighters chase them away in an ambulance.
Eventually, they discover that Hadley and Boyer are “spies like us” as they are told by Ruby and Keyes to go to the Pamir Mountains to continue the diversion. Ruby and Keyes have traveled from Washington D.C. to the Nevada desert where Sline and Miegs have falsely misappropriated $60 billion to build W.A.M.P, a military bunker and strategic operations under the guise of a dilapidated drive-in theater. The goal of W.A.M.P. is a Star Wars-like pulse laser that will be able to destroy nuclear warheads in space. What makes this more comical is that the Reagan Administration had formed the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983 for a similar reason. However, it was very criticized.
A movie like Spies Like Us, released on Dec. 6 in 1985, was able to mock the policies of the government, but I think the jokes went over the heads of too many people and critics were harsh. Reagan had won with 49 states in 1984 and was deemed loved by many even though his policies and their effects are still being felt to this day. It was evident to anyone who was following the news that government red-tape and the military industrial complex was getting out of hand by the time this movie was released. It’s only gotten worse in the 36 years since its release. When the pulse laser fails to destroy the warhead, Sline refuses to call the White House saying that “a weapon unused is a useless weapon.”
Unbeknownst to even Boyer, their objective has been to set off the nuclear rocket toward its target in America. The movie uses the old adage of “Just following orders” to show that government agents and operatives are so much about “bleeding red, white and blue,” they don’t realize they are the bad guys inadvertently. At the same time, the Soviet Union rocket crew are portrayed sympathetically. Like the Americans, they are just spokes in the wheel. In the end, the Soviet crew works with Boyer, Fitz-Hume and Milbarge to manually override the guidance program and set the rocket into outer space where it explodes.
More important, two male Soviets are portrayed as gay but the movie doesn’t use their sexual orientation as a joke. Fearing the world is about to end, Fitz-Hume makes a comment to Boyer about “going out with a bang,” which she accepts. The Soviets decide to spend whatever time they have together being intimate. And when two male Soviets look at each other, it’s played just the same as the Soviet male and female going off together in their own tent. This leaves Milbarge with a young attractive Soviet played by Vanessa Angel.
This portrays a changing opinion of the Soviet Union by the mid-1980s as more Americans began to see those living in the USSR as people rather than enemies. This might have been what turned some people off. The movie still made $73 million on a $22 million budget. Its popularity among Gen Xers and Millennials who were alive during this era has grown. It doesn’t have the punch Strangelove. Sline is more serious than Ripper was. But there’s some harsh truth that many military officials were willing to create a nuclear holocaust “to preserve the American way of life.” You see that more nowadays with how some people are willing to throw up “American Exceptionalism” as a way to prove that America was never wrong and everything was done for the greater good in the end.
Actually, it’s a movie that is more smarter than people give it credit for. There’s constant references to the Ace Tomato Company, a produce company in the D.C. area. This is referring to a supposed rumor that the U.S. government used its ties with United Fruit (now known as Chiquita) as a front in Central America to work with the right-wing contras in their fights against left-wing Marxist and Communist organizations.
You can also see a recurring joke in many Landis movies for “See You Next Wednesday,” a line spoken in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Mostly, it’s been used as fake movies or pornos. Here it’s used in a military campaign poster. In that same scene, Col. Rhumbus (Bernie Casey) who puts Fitz-Hume and Milbarge in training, as a framed picture of Malcolm X in his office. Some of these gags are hard to see the first time or may have gone over the heads of younger viewers.
As most 1980s movies goes, this is one of my favorites that I can watch over and over and still find something enjoyable about it. Landis and Chase may have had their true colors revealed and Aykroyd has even gotten a little weird at times, but this is still one of their best movies working together. If anything else, this movie introduced me to Paul McCartney who performed the end credits song, “Spies Like Us.”