Jul 8, 2020
Movies that Predicted Trump: Escape from New York (1981)
As the 1980s began, John Carpenter’s career was at its height. He won critical acclaim with Assault on Precinct 13. This gave him complete creative control over his follow up picture Halloween. The enormous success of that movie virtually re-invented the horror genre for the next decade. At the same time that film was in theaters, Carpenter was also scoring with the made-for-TV movies Elvis and Someone’s Watching Me.
All of this gave Carpenter enormous clout and led to the director getting a two-picture deal with Avco-Embassy Pictures. The first film made under this deal was The Fog, a ghost story that reunited many of the people Carpenter made Halloween with, including that movie’s star Jamie Lee Curtis. That movie became another success for Carpenter.
Happily, his next picture for Avco, released the same year as fellow classics For Your Eyes Only, The Great Muppet Caper, the underrated Dragonslayer, the werewolf one-two punch of The Howling and An American Werewolf in London, and the year’s box-office champ Raiders of the Lost Ark, also became a became a hit, and that picture was Escape From New York.
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The film takes place in 1997 and begins with Curtis’s voice informing us that by 1988 the crime rate in the U.S. became so great that the government turned the Big Apple into one big maximum security prison. The island is surrounded by a 50-foot containment wall and any bridges and waterways leading to the island are now full of mines. The police keep watch on the island for any prisoners attempting to escape.
In addition to the increased crime rate that necessitated turning an entire city into a prison, the U.S. is at war with both the U.S.S.R. and China. Shortly after a scene where police violently stop an escape attempt, Air Force One is en route to a summit with leaders of those two countries, but is seen coming too close to New York.
As it turns out, Air Force One has been hijacked (irony alert: 1997 itself would give us a movie with the same plot) and the hijacker (Nancy Stephens) at the controls informs the authorities on the ground with dialogue that convinces me this is be an ideal entry in our Movies that Predicted Trump series:
Tell this to the workers when they ask where their leader went. We, the soldiers of the National Liberation Front of America, in the name of the workers and all the oppressed of this imperialist country, have struck a fatal blow to the fascist police state. What better revolutionary example than to let their president perish in the inhuman dungeon of his own imperialist prison?
The President himself (Donald Pleasence) is led to the jet’s escape pod, with his briefcase and a bracelet designed to track his movements. He escapes in his pod just before Air Force Once crashes into Manhattan.
The police, led by commissioner Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef) go in to retrieve the President. But they’re met by a thug named Romero (Frank Doubleday) who informs them to get the hell out and that the President will be killed if they attempt another rescue.
Back at headquarters, Hauk, after discussing matters with the Secretary of State (Charles Cyphers) decides that the best way to solve this crisis is to enlist the aid of a recently arrived prisoner. Said prisoner is S.D. “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former Special Forces Lieutenant and the youngest man to be decorated by the President, before being imprisoned for attempting to rob a Federal Reserve in Denver.
Both Plissken and Hauk engage in banter which serves to remind us why Russell and Van Cleef are so awesome. Hauk explains the situation, and says that Plissken is the ideal choice because of how he expertly flew into Leningrad in a stealth glider. He offers Plissken a full pardon if he goes into the death trap that was New York City and retrieves the President.
Plissken, repeatedly asking Hauk to call him Snake, says he doesn’t give a shit, even when Hauk informs him that the President was carrying a cassette tape containing vital information for the summit the Chief Executive was heading to. But Hauk soon ensures his cooperation after he injects Plissken with miniature explosives that are set to detonate at the end of the 24 hours Plissken has to complete the task. Plissken, the bad-ass he is, tells Hauk that he’ll kill him when he returns.
Our hero is next seen flying to Manhattan on a stealth glider where he lands on top of the World Trade Center. As he makes his way down to the city itself, we see many shadows darting in and out, along with the wreckage of Air Force One. Plissken also encounters a girl (Season Hubley), but before he can ask her anything, they’re ambushed by thugs. The girl is killed before Plissken can make his escape.
Plissken tracks the President’s bracelet signal to a theater, where he encounters a cabbie (Ernest Borgnine), as well as the bracelet now being worn by a drunk. Our hero tells Hauk that the President must be dead, but Hauk tells him to keep his ass in New York and keep looking.
The cabbie, who recognizes Plissken from stories of his exploits, agrees to take him to see Harold “Brain” Hellman (Harry Dean Stanton), who has the ear of the Duke of New York (Issac Hayes), the top crime lord in the city.
Brain and his girlfriend Maggie (Adrienne Barbeau) tell Plissken that the Duke plans to bring all the gangs in the city together. This plan involves using the President as leverage and a map that Brain has of where the landmines are on Queensboro Bridge.
Plissken, Brain, Maggie, and the cabbie locate the Duke’s hideout: Grand Central Station. After finding the President, Plissken is captured, getting a knife in his leg in the process.
With his time running out, Plissken, now with a limp, soon finds himself in a boxing ring fighting a muscleman. Plissken kills his opponent while Brain and Maggie kill Romero and free the President. They rejoin Plissken and head for the World Trade Center with the Duke’s men on their trail. But Plissken’s glider is destroyed, forcing our heroes back onto the street. Fortunately, the Cabbie arrives with (what else?) his cab to take them across the bridge. The cabbie also produces the President’s cassette tape, having retrieved it from Romero earlier. Snake keeps it as they flee.
Our heroes navigate the mine-laden bridge but their cab hits one, blowing the vehicle in half and killing the cabbie. Brain soon joins him after stepping on another mine after he and the rest of the party proceed on foot. Maggie insists on staying with him as Plissken and the President continue on. She stands in the middle of the road, shooting the approaching car of the Duke until he runs her down.
Plissken and the President reach the perimeter wall. Hauk, with a big-ass walkie talkie that was state of the art for 1981, has men waiting for them. The President is raised on a rope thanks to the guards. The Duke arrives, taking shots at the wall, killing several guards and causing Plissken to take cover. But the President shoots enough bullets into the Duke to kill him before Plissken is retrieved.
On the other side of the wall, Hauk insists that Plissken produce the tape, which he does before the explosives are deactivated, with seconds to spare (of course, with a film like this, would there be any more spare time?)
Later, the President is preparing to speak on television. A pardoned Plissken asks him how he feels about those who died to ensure his ass would get out of New York. But the President barely pays them lip service (remind you of someone?).
Plissken is pissed but that doesn’t stop Hauk from congratulating him on his work and offering him a job, saying, “We’d make a great team, Snake!”
Plissken’s response? “Call me Plissken!”
The President goes live, offering his apologies for not being able to attend the summit, but saying that the cassette he’s about to play will hopefully help the U.S., China, and the U.S.S.R. live in peace. Alas, the tape instead plays a swing number from the cabbie’s private collection.
The movie ends with Plissken walking off, destroying the summit cassette.
Carpenter originally wrote Escape years earlier and basically kept it in a drawer until Halloween’s great success and the subsequent deal with Avco gave him the clout he needed to dust it off.
The film itself, like the aforementioned Raiders, became a smash which introduced audiences to a new hero who would get a sequel in Escape from L.A., which reunited both Russell and Carpenter (who previously did Elvis together, and would also work on The Thing and Big Trouble in Little China together). In addition to its great cast, Escape from New York has nice, appropriately seedy production values. This is especially amazing considering that not one frame of the movie was shot in New York, but rather St. Louis, Missouri.
I’ve read some reviews which state that the movie ends on a downbeat note, as Plissken destroyed a cassette with information that could have saved the world. But I honestly think that, while the Chinese and Soviets were not expecting to hear the music being played at the end, they would appreciate nice music as much as the next person. Hauk may agree with me, as neither he nor any of his men are seen detaining Plissken as he limps (not runs) away while destroying the tape at the film’s end.
The hijacker’s claims and the President’s indifference at the end are possibly the biggest indications as to how the film predicted Trump. There’s also a wall that surrounds the Big Apple, which now reminds me of a similar planned wall on the Mexican border that Trump would love nothing better than to waste our tax money on.