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6 Rocky movies that explain American politics

The champ explains it all
The champ explains it all
John Salvino

Rocky. America. The two are inseparable. And as America is fundamentally a nation built on civic ideals rather than shared blood, any series of films that so intimately ties itself to these United States must in its way be a treatise on those ideals. Thus, study of the Rocky films turns out to be a key way to understand the politics of this land of ours.

Here are six Rocky movies that explain American politics.

1) Rocky

The original Rocky is the quintessential American aspirational story focused on the notion that all anyone really needs in life is a fair shot. Sure it might look to outsiders like you're a washed-up never-was prizefighter. But given the opportunity to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, you can absolutely hold your own. All you need is strong motivation and a great trainer. This is a central axis of political conflict. Left-wing intellectuals are often very worried about economic inequality. But polls and focus groups invariably show that a message focused on opportunity resonates more with American voters, which is why President Obama swiftly dropped inequality talk from his 2014 State of the Union Address.

Call it the Rocky principle. A film in which the heavyweight champ easily bests the unknown contender due to a mix of his superior physical gifts and vastly superior training resources would have flopped. A much less realistic film in which sheer grit and determination are all it takes is a classic.

2) Rocky II

Fundamentally, this is a film about America's culture of excessive work. Around the world, the general trend is that in more affluent societies people work fewer hours per year. Higher wages, in other words, lead to both higher incomes and more leisure time. But the United States is anomalous. Despite being richer than almost every other country on the earth, Americans work longer hours than the Canadians, Japanese, English, Swedish, or French. Indeed, over 20 percent of the population works over 45 hours a week despite clear evidence that these kind of long working hours are severely detrimental to one's health.

The movie, meanwhile, divides neatly into two parts. In the first part, generally disliked by fans, sad-sack Rocky struggles with life after boxing when a severe eye injury forces him from the ring. In the second, beloved part, Rocky's wife Adrian wakes up from a coma, changes her mind about the wisdom of fighting with a damaged eye, encourages her husband to give it his all, and then we immediately cut to a famous (and awesome) training montage. Everything that happens once Rocky decides that professional success is more important than his personal health and well-being is amazing. The message that this kind of attitude should be valorized somewhat less so.

3) Rocky III

While the first two Rockies both feature Sylvester Stallone as a white hero facing off against a black antagonist, Apollo Creed is never a villain. By contrast, the third film's James "Clubber" Lang cuts a much more sinister figure. And perhaps as a consequent, it's drenched in a much more toxic implicit racial politics. The scene where Lang taunts Rocky at his retirement press conference, for example, is a very worthy successor to Birth of a Nation and other racist archetypes in American film:

It is true that Creed's reappearance in the film, this time as Rocky's ally and trainer, superficially dulls the racial tension. But the crude parable through which Creed takes Rocky out of his white working class Philadelphia setting in order to teach him speed and rhythm in his old gym in an African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles is, in its way, worse. As David Denby put it in his original review, Creed "literally trains him to fight like a black man" — the only way to even the odds while preserving ultimate victory for America's Great White Hope.

Mainstream America's problematic relationship with black masculinity, needless to say, continues to plague us to this day with the shooting in Ferguson and subsequent protests just an unusually salient example.

4) Rocky 4

There are some subtle Cold War themes in this film.

5) Rocky 5

This is, at the end of the day, the liberal Rocky. Perhaps not coincidentally, it's also the least-popular of the Rocky films. The franchise, at heart, is deeply conservative and the effort to offer a contrary take didn't resonate with fans. The theme, fundamentally, is about the contingent nature of success — all Rocky's boxing prowess and hard work are insufficient to help him avoid financial ruin. Anyone, as this story illustrates, can fall on hard luck. That's the fundamental case for a social safety net.

But the film also illustrates a more specific policy point. Rocky's monetary difficulties stem in large part from a medical condition that prevents him from boxing and earning further income. But the sympathetic setup also requires that he not merely have squandered previous earnings on reckless spending. Instead, the film posits that an unscrupulous accountant lost all of Rocky's savings on unsound property speculation. Certainly anyone who lived through the great crash of 2007-2008 can sympathize with the story of boom and bust real estate markets. What you might not know, however, is that if you have a 401(k) plan through your employer the people designated to help you plan for retirement have no obligation to dispense advice with your best interests at heart.

They do not, in other words, have what's called a fiduciary obligation to make a good-faith effort to give you good advice. Instead their responsibility is to their employer — an employer whose bottom line may be enhanced by steering you into high-fee investments you don't need. The US Department of Labor recently decided it might be smart to promulgate a rule changing this, to prevent you from getting Rockied by your employer-based retirement plan, but the rule-making keeps getting delayed due to opposition from industry and its lackies in congress.

6) Rocky Balboa

A film that demands a reading against the grain, Rocky Balboa is fundamentally a saga about baby boomer self-deception and self-regard. Rocky's gritty determination to get back in the ring at the age of 59 and face the heavyweight champion of the world is admirable. By the same token, there's something nice about older workers' finding ways to hang on in the American labor force over the past fifteen years:

But the idea that the old, long-retired former champ could actually go blow-for-blow with a current star athlete is completely ridiculous. About as ridiculous as the apparent belief of older Americans that the Medicare benefits they have or are scheduled to receive soon have already been paid for by their past tax benefits. This is how we get the fundamental paradox of contemporary American politics. The political party most dedicated to preaching a gospel of steely self-reliance derives a huge share of its support from older people — the very people who receive the most government assistance. Basic conflicts over the allocation of resources are commonplace in politics, but the element of ideological self-deception — the belief that Rocky could stay in the ring with the champ — makes compromise and pragmatic dealmaking unusually difficult.