Vintage Cable Box: “Deal Of The Century”, 1983

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“For I do not do the good that I want. But the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me.”

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“Deal Of The Century”, 1983 (Chevy Chase), Warner Bros.

An uncomfortable satire that crosses the line between ludicrous and oddly prescient, “Deal Of The Century” is a cold war romance about America’s obsessive love for military firepower. The first images in the film we see are an advertisement for the Peacemaker, a stealth-like drone craft capable of untold destruction and designed (it seems) specifically to neutralize conflicts in small Central American territories. The advertisement is disturbing not only for the child singing, “Someone To Watch Over Me”, but for the images of infants cradled in their mothers’ arms. Breaking down the demographics, Vince Edwards (with an imposing hawk-like profile) presides over a conference with advertising executives on how to sell this sleek instrument to the public and (more importantly) to nations in the market to buy.

In what is obviously a comment on consumer culture, we focus on slick arms dealer Eddie Muntz (Chevy Chase), as he peddles his wares. He eyes a lusty Sigourney Weaver in a bar; a fellow American lost in San Miguel, a fictitious sovereign Republic led by flighty fascist dictator, General Cordosa. His pitch to shady mercenaries is not unlike the approach of a used car salesman, but he prides himself on selling quality merchandise. Although Muntz considers himself an independent businessman, there is a disturbing bit of foreshadowing which predates the Reagan Administration revelations of selling arms to both sides during Nicaragua’s Iran–Contra affair. Caught in the middle of a helicopter fire-fight during a sale, Muntz is wounded, and loses his money and his merchandise. Design flaws are discovered in the Peacemaker’s offensive program (it appears the drone can suffer water damage and go hay-wire), which causes havoc at a demonstration for representatives of the Pentagon.

While recovering from his injuries, Muntz meets destitute broker and Peacemaker salesman Wallace Shawn, who promptly kills himself.  Muntz steals his $300 million contracts, and takes up his assignment to meet with General Cordosa.  Coming back to the States, Muntz’s friend, former Air Force pilot Ray (a diffident Gregory Hines), picks him up at the airport.  In his absence, Hines has become a born-again Christian who swears off selling weapons and embraces pacifism.  Weaver, revealed to be Shawn’s widow, seeks out Chase in an effort to steal back the contracts.  Edwards approaches Muntz and Weaver to gain their assistance in selling off his Peacemakers to General Cordosa. Muntz appeals to Ray to go in with him on one last job.  Ray is conflicted, and in a momentary fit of rage after a minor collision with an angry couple, he torches their car with his latest acquisition, a military-grade flamethrower.  By itself, this is a brilliant scene.

Ray begs Muntz to reconsider selling the Peacemaker to Cordosa because of the destruction it will cause.  Muntz likens his job to that of selling a product and nothing more, so Ray, in good conscience, cannot allow this sale to happen.  Ray steals a fighter jet and attempts to destroy the Peacemaker himself.  Unfortunately, the movie fails as a comedy, because of the deadly serious nature of the source material (a thought-provoking screenplay by Paul Brickman).  Director William Friedkin shoots the film as a drama with humorous moments.  The material is too moody to aim for the techno-terror style of the same year’s “WarGames” or the farce of Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb”.  There’s a lack of warmth to the enterprise.  Though Weaver and Chase are attractive enough, they lack chemistry, and their romance feels forced, as if it were shoe-horned into the narrative.

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Chase is intensely interesting as a man with no politics, with no compunction about selling weapons of mass destruction to opposing sides in a conflict, and no religion, when he comes into conflict with Hines and his burgeoning spirituality. It’s downright eerie how all of these weapons are now being used in common practice. Every day, we hear stories of drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the loss of innocent civilian lives, women and children in the fiery fray. While the film, as a satire, doesn’t comment on the morality of using drones, it does poke holes in the supposedly “fool-proof” design of such weaponry. “Deal Of The Century” (for me) would’ve been much more effective as a straight-out black comedy than a meandering, unbalanced political satire about the mixed morality of capitalism and the destructive consequences it can foster.

Support the troops, not the drones.  Happy Memorial Day!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.

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Vintage Cable Box: “WarGames”, 1983

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“Mr. McKittrick, after very careful consideration, Sir, I’ve come to the conclusion that your new defense system sucks.”

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“WarGames”, 1983 (Matthew Broderick), MGM/UA

The entirety of John Badham’s thriller, “WarGames” is encapsulated in the personal anguish of John Wood’s programming genius Stephen Falken, who had tried (and failed) to make his computers understand the concept of futility (citing an analogy to the game Tic-Tac-Toe); that eventually we give up, and thus would never knowingly annihilate each other. When underachiever and computer savant David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) accidentally breaks into a supercomputer known as W.O.P.R. in order to play what he thinks are video games that turn out to be real nuclear war simulators, he launches our military’s path to World War 3.

After David is arrested by Government authorities who have tracked his computer activities in Seattle (not coincidentally, an early nerve center for computer programming), he meets Falken’s colleague, John McKittrick (played by reliable eighties prick Dabney Coleman). David “Macgyvers” his way out of custody, hooks up with his girlfriend, Jennifer (amiable Ally Sheedy), and sets out to track down Falken to get his help shutting down a program which is on a countdown to global thermonuclear war.

“WarGames” was made in 1983, at the height of U.S. and Soviet paranoia. I remembered hearing all sorts of terrifying news reports about the nuclear arms build-up, stockpiling weapons of mass annihilation and people like Reagan and Brezhnev playing “chicken” with warheads. These were real fears. It was the end of the Cold War and ultimately the Soviet Union would relent, but if you think about it, there still are hundreds, nay thousands, of missiles still out there, just waiting to be detonated.

Check out my Imsai
“Check out my Imsai!”

Granted, an extremely frightening scenario, “WarGames” is incredible fun. It is clever; using philosophical arguments (arguments that could never be made by real computers) to communicate the need for wisdom in the higher ranks of command where our defenses and nuclear capabilities are concerned. It is a sobering idea to consider that we exist at the whim of a perpetual military arrogance: that the better bomb brings swifter peace. That sense of ludicrous tragedy exists in Falken’s character.

John Badham, as a Hollywood outsider, had an eclectic career of iconoclasm. A couple of months before “WarGames” premiered on HBO and Cinemax, his “Blue Thunder” (also made in 1983) debuted. Another fun movie about technology run amok, but it is technology at the hands of amoral military operatives. Later, he would direct “Short Circuit” (also with Ally Sheedy) about a cute robot that goes nuts (figuratively), “Stakeout”, and the under-appreciated “Nick of Time” with Johnny Depp.

“WarGames” was an “unofficial” brat-pack movie for it’s inclusion of Broderick and Sheedy in the cast, but this was before “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”. “WarGames” is a “Dr. Strangelove” analog for Generation X, notably contributing to my generation’s despondency and apathy when it came to all matters apocalyptic or nihilistic, and where our parents’ generation relied on love, faith, and hope to solve all of these incendiary problems, we turned our backs and used indifference and sarcasm to keep us sane and make us realize that Tic-Tac-Toe would eventually save our lives.

Be sure to check out Mark and Christopher’s discussion at VHS Rewind!

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird). We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images. We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates. About $25-$30 a month. Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties.