As an example of televisual construction, I found The Cold
War to be slick, well paced and competently constructed. Plus points indeed.
Paradoxically, however, it is these very points which, whilst making good television, do
not create good, or more importantly informative viewing. For as we are guided (and I
deliberately use that word in its full meaning) through a six year period, it strikes me
that in an attempt not to patronise their audience that producers impart very little
information indeed. There is a superficial quality to the content. As we move from image
to image, from voice to voice we are told the "what" but not the
"why". Why was Hiss convicted of perjury and not spying; who exactly
investigated Ethel and Julius Rosenberg and was there any doubt concerning their guilt; if
the cold war was "fought with fear", what specifics caused America and Russia to
look for "the enemy within"? Perhaps these questions have been set up or even
answered in previous episodes, or maybe the following episodes will address these issues,
but as The Cold War web site states that each episode "may be viewed in
itself", we should be given some answers to the "facts" on view and not
just a tidy synopsis of the era.
Although I do not find enough information within the limits
of the programme (and I do allow for the fact that they only have 50 minutes to say what
they have to say), as someone raised on film and television and who is now a student of
film, I do find The Cold War interesting, and in some ways disturbing, for other
reasons: namely the editing and juxtaposition of image and discourse. I say disturbing
because through composition the underlying message appears to be America = Good, Russia =
Bad. The programme clearly utilises its construction to weight the narrative being
We are told in the pre-titles sequence that both sides were
looking for "the enemy within": an equality of fear and intolerance is thus
established for both countries. This equality, however, is immediately shifted to one
side. The gulags and the photographs of their victims superimposed upon them (the
associations with Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps were hard to ignore) are
offered to the spectator as the representation of Russia and the methods resorted to at
the time. For America, on the other hand, we have J. Edgar Hoover pronouncing the evils of
communism and calling for a quarantine to keep it from "infecting this nation"
but at no point in this opening sequence do we see the results of this. What we have to
ingest, then, is Russian oppression without thought or compassion, and American judgement
and justice, which may or may not lead to punishment. From the very opening shots we are
requested to infer a case of "Oppression Vs Reason".
This subtle undermining of equality is then perpetuated
throughout the rest of the episode. In the second half of the programme, as we shift to
the Russian perspective we are bombarded with "Stalin as icon", the
"slavish cult of Stalin", "Stalin as Godlike"; we are
"informed" that Russia was one man who controlled and distorted the weak hordes
beneath him. America in this period is read as Eisenhower, Nixon, McCarthy, et al: America
is viewed as democracy and rationality, whereas Stalin becomes an iconic sign of communism
and we are given no indication of those who shared in the partys power. That
communism was not one man but a social movement, a system just as democracy is a system,
is at no point made clear.
The most interesting and telling edit takes place when the
programme shifts to Russia. "Abroad", narrates Branagh, "communism was
gaining force". The image for this disembodied voice is footage of an atomic
explosion, so that Russia once more becomes "threat", and "communism
gaining force" comes not to refer to it as a political and social movement, but as a
war machine and a threat to the West. This is in stark contrast to the opening shot of the
American sequence where the image we are offered is one of the American flag fluttering
happily in the breeze. At no point do we see the Russian flag in such a manner, and at no
point are the Stars and Stripes referred to as an icon worshipped in American schools, as
Stalin is referred to as an icon in Russia. Thus, The juxtaposition of image and discourse
offer an interesting insight into the convictions behind the programme, namely that
America = Good and Russia = Bad.
All in all Cold War is a slick programme which
generally moves well through its allotted time frame, and this episode was a well paced
overview of the period 1947-1953. At the same time, however, I still feel it has
superficial qualities regarding its information content, and its use of image and
discourse is disturbing in its weighting.
When viewing this documentary, as with all history-based
visual material, I tried to read it from two perspectives; on one hand, I watched it as a
participating viewer, assessing its qualities in terms of composition, content, and my
general enjoyment in watching it, while on the other, I tried to analyse it from the
position of an informed historian, judging whether the material presented was used
effectively, and stated a particular argument successfully.
Due to the marketing and build-up for this particular series,
I was expecting a very impressive documentary, and in general, Reds did not
disappoint. From the standpoint of an interested viewer, the documentary was well
composed. The opening pre-credit sequence - a tracking shot of a long-abandoned,
snow-covered Russian gulag, superimposed by photographs of those who we are given to
assume perished there - establishes a feeling of solemnity that is furthered later in the
programme when dealing with the Soviet repression of dissent. The cut to Hoover and the
opening of the American story of the period of anti-Communism is awkward but quickly
establishes the episodes desire to present the era from perspectives either side of
the Iron Curtain.
The dramatic impact of the images and accompanying soundtrack
is furthered by Kenneth Branaghs narration, which brings gravity and seriousness to
the events and maintains the tradition of classical-actor-voiceovers in documentaries,
following on from Laurence Olivier (The World at War) and Michael Redgrave (The Great
In terms of the content of the programme, I was impressed by
the quantity of archival footage and stills that had been accumulated, and I was
particularly pleased that the producers had tried to achieve a balanced view, comparing
and contrasting the American witchhunt against anti-Communists, with the Soviet repression
of bourgeois idealism.
From a historians viewpoint, I rate this programme as a
good documentary, in keeping with the series remit of providing new information and
perspectives, although it does have its weaknesses. Whilst there is an attempt to balance
American and Soviet action during the period, in terms of dealing with internal
subversion, there is a bias toward the "American way" being correct. Although
damaging to society, the actions of HUAC are presented as cleansing America from a
dangerous minority, whereas Stalins total repression and genocide depicts him as
callous monster. Although both of these generalisations are arguably true, the programme
alludes to providing an unbiased account and at times this objective becomes lost.
Certain areas that are brought up lack detail and
elaboration, but in a fifty-minute programme that sets out to cover a global issue over a
period of six years, this is a necessary sacrifice.
Generally, I found Reds an informative and valuable
contribution to the archival record of the period. Although it does contain weaknesses, it
succeeds in portraying the fear of subversion in both nations that accelerated the Cold
War from initially, a conflict of ideologies, to the brink of global annihilation. The
programmes producers succeed in making Reds engrossing viewing, and in this
respect, they have succeeded in making this period of history accessible to those to whom
it might otherwise not be of interest.
In terms of imparting general historical information about
the Cold War to a non-specialist audience, I initially thought that the building up of the
programme around a balance and impartial comparison between America and Russia during the
same Cold War period would provide a particularly useful as well as innovative structure
to an already well-covered topic. I particularly liked the documentaries heavy use of oral
testament which allowed a more emotional feel for the time rather than using just talking
head historians rambling on about endless facts. This emphasis on first hand accounts from
all kinds of people from all walks of life, as well as from a variety of involved
countries, really encouraged the audience to experience the period.
However as the episode developed I found that what quickly
evolved as its overriding message of "Them (Russia and the East) versus Us (America
and the West) became at first a distraction and then just painful. When I learnt that the
series consultants used were purposefully selected on the grounds that they would be made
up of a variety of historians from the UK/USA/Soviet Union in a rare effort to portray
objective views of the Cold War, I was intrigued to see the end product. But instead of
seeing well-rounded coverage made up of the pairing of the USA and the Soviet Union,
narrating and portraying each countries experiences in an equal manner, the USA ended up
once again being predictably played as the victim with Stalin and his USSR as the
aggressor. In other words Cold War history seemed to be being closed off to absolve the
USA and blame the Soviet Union.
It appeared that every time a negative aspect of America was
revealed, the documentary would balance this with an even more negative aspect of Russia.
Any fear and evil in America was shown as being constructed by one man, McCarthy, whereas
the documentary created a sense that Russias same fear and evil was embedded in the
entire communist system so that too many were blame. It is strange that while the
programme refuses even to acknowledge any fundamental differences between the USSR and USA
which might lead to a more accurate and less superficial understanding of the Cold War, it
at the same time works hard to create this constant division between them in every other
So what I was led to believe would be an innovative and
refreshing documentary that even had new material and documents to play with, ended up
being another divided and confrontational account which just managed to sell a particular
version of the Cold War and a very traditional one at that.
The overall layout of the programme treated the issue in two
parts: America, and the Eastern Bloc countries. In doing this, the argument of
the programme becomes simplified into one of only two sides, a right and a wrong. The
major support for this point, was, in my opinion, the transition from the American half of
the programme, to the Russian, where it was narrated that, "In the
dissent was suppressed." In my mind, what was being implied was "Never mind what
youve just seen, if you thought THAT was bad, take a look at the evil empire!"
It seemed as if the viewer was meant to forget or ignore the U.S. policies of the era,
merely because it never executed quite as many people as Russia I would also like to ask,
at this point, where the U.K was during the Cold War? If I am to believe this documentary,
then Britain played NO part in the Cold War. Please excuse me while I go and re-write the
On a more positive note, I must say that the archive footage
used, was impressively wide-ranging, covering the era and issues from some interesting
angles. I was impressed by the lack of historians interviewed; too many documentaries rely
on historians for their views on an era, views which are naturally biased by whichever
school of history they subscribe to. In this documentarys use of people who were
involved with the various incidents, the viewer is given a more personal insight into the
events, rather than an official view. This also has a greater impact upon the viewer, and
is used to elicit sympathy for certain stances
While the programme could be accused of being iconic, I felt
that this was, to an extent, necessary, in order to cover the main points of the era,
before diving into the less well known events. For a general audience, whose knowledge of
the period may be sketchy at best, these iconic figures (Stalin, Ike, McCarthy) and events
(May-Day Marches, HUAC hearings) become essential inroads from which the greater history
may be explored. However, as someone with a general knowledge (of no great degree), of
these events, I did find the documentary limited (certainly on the U.S side) to events and
people of whom much has already been made. For a documentary that boasts of how much
footage it has, how much money was spent, how many interviews were obtained, I found that
it seemed to reveal little that was new or groundbreaking.
Despite these criticisms, I did find the programme enjoyable
and informative, though the extents of these traits, I believe, are dependant upon ones
previous knowledge, as well as the condition that one does not watch too
critically, as it is the closest of readings that sees the holes and seams of the
With such an array of money, talent and experience behind it,
The Cold War naturally comes across as a very slick, entertaining and
well-constructed example of documentary filmmaking. 'Reds' was on the whole very viewer
friendly - visually varied, reasonably paced and apparently researched in great detail. I
would make the point that the episode in question was at various points somewhat
superficial; however, this is much to do with this viewer's prior knowledge of the topic.
Editorial decisions have to be made, of course, and on the surface, this would appear to
be a reasonable introduction to the subject.
I felt, however, that at times during the episode, audience
accessibility was achieved through a rather excessive use of the icon, both as subject and
visual narrative aid. Thus, we saw stock use of an atom bomb exploding, and also the
waving of flags and marching footage in order to highlight a political or military point.
More worrying was the use of iconic figures to explain away
historical events. McCarthy appeared as the usual scapegoat for the Communist Witch-hunts
on the one hand, and although more reference was made to an 'evil empire' on the other,
Stalin was still available as a focal point for blame for events within the Soviet Union.
Also worrying was the decided imbalance of perspective that
came across in this episode. The claim of the producers (to be found on the website) that
the series aims to be 'universal, not partisan' seemed to be far from upheld in the
programme itself. Whereas the climate of fear and the associated witch-hunts and
persecutions within the United States were dealt with, the viewer was left with a clear
impression that what was occurring within the Soviet Union was much worse, and that
therefore Communism was a genuine evil. Any fabrication that may have been present in the
cases brought in the United States against alleged Communist traitors and spies remained
ambiguous; with the Soviet trials the fabrication of testimony and the consequences for
the victim were made repeatedly clear. The narrator's reference at one stage during the
programme to the Soviet Union as being "behind the barbed wire" clearly pointed
to a specific narrative perspective, belying the claim of universality.
The Cold War, on the evidence of 'Reds', is a highly
accomplished and polished piece of documentary filmmaking, ably presenting a loaded
argument under the guise of being an unbiased informative account.