AN ARMY OF PHANTOMS
American Movies and the Making of the Cold War
By J. Hoberman, The New Press, 432 pp., $29.95
IN 1946, AN FBI informant in Hollywood warned his superiors of two productions that reeked of communistic propaganda. One was a war-vet drama that associated criticism of Russia with "anti-Semitism, Jim Crowism [and] Ku Klux Klanism." The other was a Christmas fable that featured a "demeaning" portrayal of bankers. These threats to the American way? William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives and Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life.
And so it was that at the onset of the Cold War, a movie was never just a movie. Each production was a pawn in a global struggle, enlisted and armed to penetrate the public consciousness. J. Hoberman's new book, An Army of Phantoms: American Movies and the Making of the Cold War, tells the story of that febrile period in our national life, from the end of World War II to the reelection of Dwight Eisenhower. Between those bookends were the fall of China, the H-bomb, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the Korean War, McCarthyism, and the rise of suburbia. But that wasn't all Americans saw. Laconic cowboys, marauding private eyes, dastardly spies, aliens from outer space, and troubled delinquents were appearing on movie screens every night. Those images and what they tell us about Americans' private yearnings and public fears are the subject of Hoberman's new book
"If one movie is a manufactured fantasy," Hoberman writes, a decade's worth is a "stream of consciousness that insinuates itself into a shared national narrative." As film critic for the Village Voice since the 1980s, Hoberman has been our finest interpreter of that stream of consciousness. In The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties (2003), to which An Army of Phantoms serves as a prequel, Hoberman wrote, "A movie is an idea that accumulates meaning as it is conceived, produced, exhibited, and reviewed" The communal experience shapes who we are: "Enthralled by a common illusion, a populace might well believe itself to be a nation."
An Army of Phantoms proceeds with the briskness (and, at times, the bombast) of a "March of Time" newsreel. Hoberman ticks off major events on the world stage and holds up the celluloid mirror. "Friday morning September 23, 1949, one day after The Red Danube opened in San Francisco," reads one typical passage, "President Harry S. Truman dropped a bomb: America's nuclear monopoly was over. The Soviet...