Rewind: ‘The Man With One Red Shoe’

The first in an occasional series in which I consider what a movie from the past says about art and politics now.

I’m not really sure where I got the idea that The Man With One Red Shoe was a good movie. I imagine it’s mostly because it’s part of the narrative of the rise of Tom Hanks into that mid-career period before stuff like The Terminal where it seemed like he could do absolutely no wrong. But it’s not very funny, either as a comedy about a naif, or as a comedy about the intelligence. In some ways, it feels like the same “Oh, goodness! There’s a dead body in the closet!” joke, repeated over and over again, though the choreography in a scene where a bunch of CIA agents accidentally sap each other is a nice bit of physical comedy and reasonably entertaining.

I think the problem is largely that, while The Man With One Red Shoe is based in a specific sort of conflict, as a CIA director tries to ward off a coup by embarrassing his departmental rival, the specific circumstances the CIA is in are actually rather general. The movie came out in 1985, a couple of years after Ronald Regan’s “Evil Empire” speech. And while the movie’s villains are meant to be stupid for thinking that Hanks’ naive violinist is actually a Soviet spy, the movie stops short of insisting on the goofiness of faceoff between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the way, which is what the conflict between KAOS and CONTROL did so effectively in Get Smart.

And though the initial scene involves drug smuggling, there’s nothing about the humor that’s particularly derived from the War on Drugs. The movie comes out just a few months too early to be based on the big Associated Press investigation of the CIA’s involvement in the Contras’ cocaine trafficking, but clearly the possibility that the federal government might be running drugs was in the wind, and it might have been a specifically funny route to try out. Instead, there’s a “we get everyone in a shipyard high” joke, and the movie’s on to the next one:

When it comes to both fear and laughter in movies about intelligence and national security, specificity is useful. And political specificity can lend a particularly sharpness to that bite.