Man Powering the Flux Capacitor: Cold War Rhetoric in Back to the Future

“Are you telling me you invented a time machine?!” exclaims teenager Marty McFly in one pivotal moment in Back to the Future, a 1985 movie love-letter to the baby boom generation. McFly has it partially right: Doc Brown’s souped-up De Lorean is more than a simple gateway to forever. It is an excursion down public nostalgia and a desperate fantasy to make right everything that went “wrong” with the twentieth century. In going back to the past, director Robert Zemeckis makes a direct cause-and-effect scenario that leads right to the present, the rip-roaring days of the 1980s.


But for McFly, his teenage wonder years are grounded in the flypaper of failure. His father is stuck in the quagmire of lower-class subsistence, his mom is an overweight, boozing slob blubbering over the lost good ol’ days, his sister is kind of a tramp, and worse of all, his life lacks the material abundance that signifies the American Dream. He has a girl, but he can’t shower her with the riches she deserves because his father’s a flop (Marty has no ambitions of his own—no job, no nuthin’— but the film excuses this by blaming dad, which is the crux of the whole movie). Worse of all, his parents never left high school: his father is still picked on by the class bully, the muscle-bound Biff.

This bothers Marty, and no wonder. The 1950s were supposed to be the hallmark of the American Dream. President Ronald Reagan had said so in his constantly referencing the Nifty Fifties as the apex of postwar living. Most important to this nostalgic re-creation of the 1950s was Reagan deliberately use of heated language to bring in a new morning to America after the glum Carter days. The “evil empire” of the Soviet Union and his “Star Wars” arms race was stuff right out of the Red Scare. The invasions of Grenada, Nicaragua, and other pocket-sized nations, coupled with increased military spending all reflect hyper-masculine virility reminiscent of the 1950s, retooled to fit the times.

For the McFlys, masculinity is the key here. His dad, George, is definitely not manly in his stooped back, narrow chest, dweeb tweed clothes, and his guffawing at lame night TV. George grew up in the 1950s, but was obviously a sissy. Social and political experts of the early Cold War, from Benjamin Spock to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., warned Americans about the “softening” of the domestic, suburbanite, “gray flannel” man: the weak-willed, effeminate, loser who is susceptible to commie brainwashing or, worse, homosexuality. Indeed, when Marty goes back in time, he sees his teenaged father-to-be: spineless, a bookworm, wears glasses, and unable to stand up to the school bully, Biff. The only reassurance we have that George isn’t a stereotypical “pansy” is that he’s a peeping tom…and Marty himself. “Jesus, George, it’s a wonder I was ever born,” comments Marty, after watching the elder McFly flub, a crack aimed directly at his dorky dad’s ability to man up. For Marty, going back to the 1950s allows him to channel that machismo into his weakling father. In order to do this, Marty literally whitewashes everything that will challenge white, male patriarchy in later decades. Given his monumental task, no wonder the time machine’s flux capacitor has the shape of a Y.

The first thing he does is get rid of juvenile delinquency. He arrives on November 5, 1955, and witnesses Biff and company harassing his puny future father. After getting over his pre-prenatal humiliation, Marty coaches George to be a man, not a nerd. Assimilating into mainstream manhood was paramount for this new timeline: the delinquency embodied by James Dean and his fellow self-exiles lead directly to the ‘60s youth activism and the flower children disillusioned with the Cold War consensus. Fittingly, then, Marty arrives one week after Dean’s Rebel without a Cause premiered on October 27th of that year. While Nicholas Ray’s teen angst movie made its way in the big cities, it had not yet penetrated the traditional small town Hill Valley of McFly’s (and the audiences’) fond recollections. Social deviants had not yet found a voice and delinquency was simple-minded bullying: young Biff is not a social misfit crying out against adult hypocrisy, but just a plain, old-fashioned jerk. As a result, Marty has a chance to stymie delinquency before it gets out of control by channeling pent up teen angst into socially acceptable means. By punching out Biff, George not only grows up, but his anger gives way to a Hollywood ending as he gets his girl and embarks upon a path of fame and fortune.

McFly not only gets rid of any cause for teenager to rebel against, he also whitewashes civil rights agency. Hill Valley isn’t segregated per se, but it isn’t much of anything else. It is Marty McFly, the film revels, who inspires the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, not Elvis Presley, who bumped and grinded his way into parents’ anxieties—and certainly not the African-American blue players whom Presley hung out with in Tennessee. Indeed, Marvin Beery, then moonlighting among the extras in the background, calls his cousin Chuck Beery, telling him to listen to “that new sound you’ve been looking for,” and then holding up the telephone receiver so Chuck can plagiarize McFly’s rendition of Johnny B. Goode. In case audiences don’t get the racial revisionist shift in musicology, McFly ends his jam session by telling the prom goes that they may not like “his” music, but “your kids are gonna love it.” They do—and we do, but at the expense of African-American culture, as black performers are relegated to minstrels aping the white music Marty single-handedly started. As for the other African American in the cast, soda jerk Goldie Wilson, well, we learn he grows up to become mayor. This is social progress of sorts, until we learn that Wilson will be the mayor of dysfunctional households like the McFlys—a sorry state of affairs Marty has to correct.

For baby boomers in the 1980s—then in the early stages of midlife—the nostalgia for an idealized, idle age of innocence before Vietnam, Watergate, and all the nonsense that ruined America, was strong. President Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric recalled such simple days, but in Marty McFly’s America, this ‘50s atmosphere erases the arms race (no ducking and covering for these teenagers), racial discrimination, and even the nascent women’s movement: his mom, Lorraine, a lusty, busty teen in the ‘50s (“It’s not like I’ve never parked before,” she says, before taking a swig), finds fulfillment thirty years later as a sporty lady of leisure: fit, toned, and perky, not the nagging shrew in the abandoned timeline. Indeed, that Marty himself has not changed when he alters the past—once he future Mom and Dad kiss, he no longer feels the pangs of nonexistence—suggests that this is the way life is supposed to be. He has simply “restored” his father to correct path…which is aligned right up Reagan’s vision of American strength and manliness in the 1980s.

McFly’s fifties era exists only in the American Dream, built by Hollywood’s factory system. Hill Valley circa 1985 is an extension of this. As Doc Brown, the resident mad scientist, sarcastically notes, if Ronald Reagan is President in 1985, is Jane Wyman (then Reagan’s wife) First Lady? Jerry Lewis and Bob Hope esteemed cabinet secretaries? In a way, yes: for a movie filmed largely on the back lot of Universal Studios—soon to be a prominent spot on the visitors’ tour tram—childhood in the 1950s became crystallized as a movie motif of soda fountains and awkward first dates. This is the version Reagan references and what viewers choose to remember, not the grisly aftermath of the succeeding decades.

“If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything,” George McFly tells his son in the film’s opening. Coming from a failed man in masculine demeanor and materialistic wealth, this upbeat altruism was originally a mockery of the spirit of 1950s Yankee ingenuity. But by the end, it is the McFly household’s cherished motto. Now an accomplished science-fiction writer, George is the appropriate character to voice this axiom. After all, it was he who experienced this one-eighty-degree turn in revamping his manhood to fit the times. In doing so, his optimistic one-liner is a sci-fi narrative in itself: one that erases the counterculture, the Vietnam syndrome, Watergate, and the disenchantment with national institutions in the intervening decades. In going back to the future, Marty McFly takes Hill Valley America right into the past. And Ronnie Reagan, the General Electric Theater host whom young Doc Brown thought a laughable prospect for president, wouldn’t have it any other way. Great Scott!

Peter Lee

Peter Lee

Peter W. Lee is a doctoral candidate at Drew University, where he focuses on American history and youth culture. His dissertation examines the construction of boyhood through American films in the early Cold War. Among his most recent publications are chapters in The Ages of the Avengers, Children in the Films of Alfred Hitchcock, and The Journal of the West.
Peter Lee