Sometimes lessons are not taught in the positive affirmative manner, but in the negative manner where one learns from false assumptions or incorrect behaviors. The embarrassment of communicating incorrectly understood information to others can motivate someone to improve their actions or behavior to prevent the events from happening again. Other times we can learn valuable lessons through the humor of our or others mistakes and the following satire that comes. We must look into humor and satirical situations to find the truths needed for life.
Spies Like Us (1985) is one of those 1980s comedies and satires that takes on the military and diplomatic world, but under all punchlines and childish humor there are several lessons for viewers. This has been a movie this author has loved since childhood and helped put a whimsical spin on the Cold War. The activities stars Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase encounter provide young impressionable minds like this author’s a false sense of what the world and the military was like. Now that the years have passed, the jokes have a deeper richness and the situations are a hyperbolic version of some scenarios that the author has witnessed in their time in the military.
The movie is your typical Cold War satire that follows the Industrial Military Complex in the United States that is worried about the U.S. position against the Soviet Union. Austin Millbarge (Aykroyd) and Emmett Fitz-Hume (Chase) are selected to be GLG-20s (spies) to act as decoys and distract the Soviet Union’s KGB while the real GLG-20s infiltrate the Soviet Union to conduct their mission. Millbarge and Fitz-Hume, who are utterly unqualified for the task, are hurried through military-like training and are pushed into the field with little instructions but that they are going to Pakistan.
Following their arrival and subsequent immediate engagement with KGB operatives, the two fools bumble their way across the border into Afghanistan where they meet United Nations doctors who are supporting the Mujahideen fighters. “We’re Americans,” Fitz-Hume shouts from their stolen Jeep as the next scene both are being hung by their feet as the Afghans figure out how to kill them. Our heroes then attempt a failed surgery in an attempt to mix in with the doctors; thus the famous movie quote.
The two follow two others that they realize are spies into the Soviet Union to meet their contacts on the Dushanbe Road. They exchange dry and hot desserts with snowy and cold mountains. Meanwhile their handlers who are working with an Army and Air Force 3-star generals are preparing for something in their Drive-In Theater turned military bunker all amazed at the $60 billion costs (that was a lot of money in 1985 dollars).
Our heroes with the remaining real GLG-20 arrive at their target in the Soviet Union, a Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. They receive orders to execute that lead to them launching the ICBM with a target of the U.S. mainland as the Drive-In Theater Command Post transforms into a large laser platform that will destroy the inbound missile. The entire mission was designed to ensure the U.S. military demonstrated and was determined to use their nuclear stockpile therefore utilizing an underutilized weapon.
One may overlook this movie the lessons for the military life; satire and comedy tend to be the last place academics look for conversation. Behind the punchlines are scenarios that point to ridiculous behaviors that remind the learned watcher of behavior not to duplicate. The following exchange between their civilian handlers and a command post NCO is a great example of how NOT to communicate with headquarters:
“A collect call from Pakistan for Mr. Ruby from a Mr. Fitz-Hume. What? It’s person-to-person collect. They said their contacts tried to kill them. And they told you this over a public phone? No Sir. The AT&T operator told our operator.”
OPSEC FAIL. We all though know that one person that has communicated something sensitive over insecure pathways.
“That’s how I welcome new Trainees,” U.S. Army COL Rhombus tells Fitz-Hume and Millbarge. “What’s wrong with a handshake? It’s my job to get you prepared to go out into the field for combat. I must know right away what I’ve got to work with. I have made my decision.”
“What’s it say?” asks Fitz-Hume. “Pu**y,” replies Millbarge.
We have all been through training where the instructor just pencil whips the progress reports. We have all been through training that we clearly felt like we should have failed, but somehow we make it through the process. This sequence is the complete opposite though of proper instruction and we should not duplicate in our organizations. The characters keep a good attitude and do not quit; this is always the biggest challenge to students, their own mind.
“Every minute you don’t tell us why you’re here, I cut off a finger,” says one of the KGB operatives to Fitz-Hume. “Mine or Yours? Yours. Damn You have 30 seconds. You gonna hum the theme to Jeopardy? We start with the little one. All right. All right. I’m an American agent. And? And, uh… And uh, They sent me here to assassinate your premiere. I knew it.”
Clearly not what one should do during an interrogation. The author will let the reader attend SERE training at Fairchild AFB, WA to figure out how one should respond during an interrogation.
The over-arching theme in the movie has to do with adaptability and how if one needs to succeed in their mission or outlook, they must adapt to the challenges. Notice that even though they are bumbling fools, they use their skill sets to get them out of threatening situations. In fact, Millbarge’s technical skills are used at the end in developing a solution for the missile and his background allows him to identify the two other GLG-20s. Their flexibility in reading a book on surgery when attempting to conduct surgery demonstrated limited success, but they were trying to succeed. Being adaptable in the face of challenge will allow good or bad guys the opportunity to succeed; this movie demonstrates that the good guys did it first.
Spies Like Us is a punchy movie with many quotable moments. The chemistry between Chase and Aykroyd punctuate all the satirical commentary about the Cold War and the international political order of the 1980s. In the end, the movie is a warning to the viewers regarding the industrial military complex, ambitious generals, and the Ace Tomato Company and how, if unchecked, they will threaten the international order.