The Reagan Administration Labeled a Film “Propaganda.” It Won an Oscar.

From a Washington Post story by Matthew Hays headlined “The Reagan administration labeled a film ‘propaganda.’ It won an Oscar.”:

When the nominations were announced for the 55th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 17, 1983, speculation focused on which film would take the Best Picture Oscar: Would it be the audience-favorite cross-dressing farce “Tootsie,” or would the Academy’s notorious anti-comedy bias hand the trophy to the critical darling biopic “Gandhi”?

But within days, that debate would be upstaged when Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department declared that a nominee in the Best Short Documentary category, “If You Love This Planet,” was “foreign political propaganda,” meaning that anyone who arranged a screening of the film would have to register their names with the FBI. Critics immediately compared the move to McCarthyism and said it would intimidate people from showing the film.

The documentary had been produced by Canada’s National Film Board (NFB), and it captured a lecture by Australian physician and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott, who, in the bluntest terms, described the medical implications of a nuclear war. The idea that a nuclear war might be winnable, as some members of the Reagan administration had been arguing, was “a lunatic-type statement,” Caldicott said.

To brand the film as propaganda, the Justice Department used the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law written to counter Nazi messaging, which allowed the department to apply the label to foreign-produced material intended to sway the American public. In addition to “If You Love This Planet,” two other Canadian documentaries about the dangers of acid rain received this label in 1983.

When the film’s director, Terre Nash, learned of the designation, she worried the documentary would be disqualified from the Oscars. “Honestly, I thought we were sunk,” she said. “This seemed the worst news imaginable.”

But as often happens with attempts at censorship, the labeling backfired. Within 48 hours of the Justice Department’s announcement, Nash said, a “media firestorm” set in. “Entertainment Tonight” ran a lead segment on the news, and newspapers around the world covered it. Editorials in The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian condemned the Justice Department’s action. “Why should the Justice Department need, want or be given a list of those to those whom the film is shown?” asked The Post’s editorial board. “What country is this? What decade?”

The Canadian environment minister, John Roberts, said the move was something he expected from the Soviet Union, not the United States, and the Canadian government requested that the propaganda label be removed.

All the attention translated to publicity for “If You Love This Planet.” Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) hosted a screening for fellow members of the judiciary committee. “It is one thing for the right wing to say ‘Let Reagan be Reagan,’” Kennedy said. “But it is a very different thing for them to say ‘Let Reagan be Orwell.’”

Ted Koppel interviewed Reagan adviser Roy Cohn on “Nightline” about the controversy. Cohn angrily defended the administration, growing so agitated that his earpiece fell out. “This felt completely surreal, watching Roy Cohn denounce my film,” Nash said. “I knew if we infuriated Cohn, we were doing something right.”

The controversies surrounding “If You Love This Planet” in some ways overshadowed its merits as an artful and intensely emotional film. The 26-minute documentary (which streams on the NFB’s website) is an intentional provocation of nuclear-war anxieties, which were then running high. In her research at the National Archives, Nash had found 16mm footage the American military had taken of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which detailed the extensive burns they suffered. The footage had been quietly declassified in 1980, and Nash edited these disturbing images together with Caldicott’s lecture. Nash also included an old newsreel narrated by Ed Herlihy, who joyfully welcomed the arrival of atomic bombs in the American arsenal, along with President Harry S. Truman’s announcement that the bombs had been dropped in Japan.

Nash had never made a film before, but after hearing Caldicott’s lecture at McGill University in 1981, when she was a doctoral student, she felt she had to capture it. “I knew exactly how I wanted to edit it, how I wanted it to look,” said Nash, now 74 and still living in Montreal. Even though she had no track record, Nash benefited from the NFB’s Studio D, a program to give opportunities to more women filmmakers.

In what was becoming something of a staple for documentary films of the time, Nash included clips of Reagan from his B-movie acting career, including scenes from his 1943 film “Jap Zero,” in which he surmises Japan’s military strength with golly-gee naivete.

The NFB marketing team initially objected to the Reagan clips, telling Nash she could not attack the American president in that manner. She responded that she was not attacking Reagan, but rather addressing the issue of nuclear warfare. After a six-month standoff, she won, and the clips stayed.

Nash is convinced it was these clips of Reagan that led to the Justice Department’s labeling the film propaganda. “I’ve no doubt this is the main reason they took issue with the film,” she said.

Boosted by all the headlines, “If You Love This Planet” won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary. Nash couldn’t resist: In her acceptance speech, she thanked the Justice Department for drumming up so much publicity for the film, to laughter and applause from the audience. “Gandhi” was the night’s big winner, taking eight Oscars, including Best Picture and the Best Actor award for Ben Kingsley. “That night, it seemed the Oscars were celebrating peace and human rights,” Nash said. “Ben Kingsley turned to me and said, ‘We need to make more movies like this.’”

After the Oscars, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which had been reluctant to broadcast “If You Love This Planet” on national TV, relented and did so. “They had said the film was biased,” Nash said. “I wondered what the other side of this argument was. Being pronuclear war?” Actress Margot Kidder urged her friend Pierre Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, to see the film; he was reportedly so shaken by it that he invited Caldicott to introduce a screening of the film for his entire cabinet.

But the strange political life of “If You Love This Planet” was not over. California state Sen. Barry Keene (D) filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department, arguing that the propaganda designation amounted to censorship and violated the First Amendment. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court; in April 1987, in a 5-3 decision in Meese v. Keene, the court ruled in favor of the Justice Department.

In 1990, the U.S. Senate held hearings on issues surrounding free speech, and Nash was asked to testify. She gave an impassioned speech against censorship, recounting the story of “If You Love This Planet” and its labeling as propaganda.

Forty years after it won the Oscar, the film and its warnings remain relevant, amid Russian threats to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war. “The situation now is extremely dangerous,” Caldicott said in an email from her home in Australia. “For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis the two nuclear superpowers are confronting each other militarily, [Vladimir] Putin has his nuclear arsenal on a high state of alert as has almost certainly the US. Any small error could launch the global holocaust.”

Matthew Hays is a Montreal-based author who teaches media studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University.

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