Film & TV

How America Got Its Groove Back

Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge (Warner Bros.)
Clint Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge and the rebuilding of American military confidence.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the U.S. military was in a deep blue funk. Veterans of that era told me, after I joined the Army in 1989, about the lax discipline, low morale, and rampant drug abuse that prevailed in the Jimmy Carter era and its immediate aftermath. Clint Eastwood showed us how and when that began to change when his Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway flipped over a dead Cuban soldier he had just dispatched on the island of Grenada and started going through his pockets. Was he looking for ID? A booby trap? Intel? No, just a long, tasty Cuban cigar. Light up a Cuban, then light up a Cuban. Smoke one, then smoke the other. America had its groove back. The world was on notice that our military was once again prepared to kick butt and take cigars.

The Eastwood film, which he also directed, is Heartbreak Ridge (currently streaming on HBO), by far the best meaningful military movie of 1986 (Top Gun came out six months earlier) and one of the best of all time. Its climax is a dramatization of the Grenada invasion of October 1983, designed to reverse a hardline Communist junta backed by Cuban troops that had seized power and taken hostage hundreds of American medical students at St. George’s University. Alas for the Communists, President Reagan was in no mood to allow any hostage crises to drag on, nor particularly inclined to cede U.S. military decisions to the United Nations General Assembly, which denounced the invasion in a 108 to 9 vote.

The invasion was ridiculed as unnecessary at the time, then quickly forgotten. But it helped repair the psychic damage of the catastrophic Beirut barracks suicide bombing in which 241 U.S. troops were killed earlier in the month. Small as it was, it nevertheless helped re-establish America as a country that was winning again. In conjunction with the smashing success the following year of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the concurrent ubiquitousness of the iconic American-flag-and-Levi’s cover of Bruce Springsteen’s album Born in the USA, the successful military action provided a fillip of patriotic fervor that helped supercharge Reagan’s 49-state landslide, which was primarily the product of a surging economy. America was in this moment the most unified it has ever been in my memory. We may never witness such national cohesion again. 

Heartbreak Ridge is the chronicle of one small but important step on the way to Morning in America. On the surface it has a hackneyed theme: Grizzled, hard-as-nails sergeant whips the lackadaisical, poorly trained troops of Recon platoon into shape. What elevates the film are its dead-on verisimilitude about 1980s military culture, its lightly-worn insights into the larger issues at stake, and its precision-lathed dialogue, which is smart but never smarmy. People speak with a marvelous economy of language without ever sounding like screenwriters, notably in an exchange during which Highway’s former battle buddy Choozoo explains how Highway distinguished himself in an agonizing Korean War battle when both men (now Marines) were in the Army. Reminiscing, Choozoo says, “It ain’t in any of the history books. Just a little piece of war. Hell, the place didn’t even have a name; just a number. [Fellow soldier] Stony Jackson took one look up and said, ‘Ladies, if this hill doesn’t kill us, it’ll surely break our hearts.’”

But Highway, like the military, has fallen on hard times. As the movie opens, he is in lockup for drunken brawling, and we’re meant to understand it isn’t his first time there. What ails him is what ails the country: He’s a veteran of two dispiriting Asian wars, in Korea and Vietnam, and America can’t seem to win anymore. It seems afraid even to try. Moreover, his long absences from home have cost him his wife (Marsha Mason). His plan to win her back involves studying women’s magazines and trying to decode the female psyche after previously giving the matter little thought. There is a classic Eastwoodian tension here between the pull of traditionalism and a forward-thinking interest in innovation. Highway doesn’t expect her to come back to him, he knows he has to adapt. Not coincidentally, as a military leader, his motto is “Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.” All of this is building up to the incident that inspired the movie: U.S. soldiers on Grenada called in an airstrike by improvising with what was available: a pay phone and a credit card. Screenwriter James Carabatsos, a veteran of the Army’s First Cavalry Division, was so tickled by this detail that he built outward from there.

Highway, like the military, has fallen on hard times.

The battle for Grenada was brief, but it was the right thing to do for those medical students, for the island (which thanks to the U.S. would restore democratic elections the following year), and a world ever-watchful of American willingness to use its might. Heartbreak Ridge, without pushing the point, and without indulging in the shallow MTV showmanship of Top Gun, illuminates how important Grenada was in the restoration of the military’s trust in itself. As the battle wraps up, Highway observes to Choozoo, “I guess we’re not 0-1-1 anymore.” Like so much else in it, the ending of the film is elegantly understated: Eastwood’s Highway gets off the plane back home, sees his ex-wife sitting in the bleachers as part of the welcoming committee, and she waves a tiny American flag at him. Without saying a word, she joins him, and they walk away together.

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