“The blue Tron team delivers the red team the drubbing the Americans were never able to deliver the Soviets . . .”
In 1980 the American Olympic ice hockey team, comprised mostly of collegiate players, became the top story of the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, upsetting the heavily favored Soviet team and going on to win the gold medal in the so-called “Miracle on Ice.” American fans eager for a chance to reassert their athletic dominance over the Soviets were left unsatisfied by the summer games later that year. In protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the United States and 64 other countries boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Naturally, the Soviets went on to garner the majority of the medals, taking 195 in total, 69 more than their closest competitor, the East Germans. Taking this as a historical context, one can make the case that despite the fanciful conceits, state-of-the-art (at the time) special effects and imaginative storyline, Tron — released in 1982 — is in fact a fable about American Olympic wish fulfillment, with the good guys (blue America) defeating the bad guys (red Soviets) in tests of physical prowess (the “games”).
To read Tron as a fable about U.S.-Soviet aggression is hardly difficult. The story is fundamentally one of two competing societies: one blue, the other red; one good, the other evil; one individualistic and decentered, the other collective and centralized; one profit-driven, one power-driven; one religious, the other atheist; one American, the other Soviet. American audiences, long steeped in Cold War mythology, would have instantly recognized the binarized world of the Reagan Administration in the stark color scheme and straightforward protagonist/antagonist split offered up by the movie. With Reagan’s infamous pronouncement of the Soviet Union as the “evil empire” coming the very month before Tron‘s premiere, it would have been hard for audiences to have read the malevolent Master Control Program (MCP) — with its spinning red face, foreign (albeit British) accent, and socialistic desire to make all the independent control programs and subroutines in the system “part of me” — as anything but the cinematic representation of that Communist menace.
The blue/red America/Soviet split is everywhere encoded in the film. The film’s central conceit is that Flynn has had his intellectual property stolen by the evil executive Ed Dillinger, making the movie fundamentally a story about one man’s quest to claim his rightful slice of the American pie. Moreover, the film pits American free market ideals against Soviet command and control aspirations. The key scene in this regard comes as Alan Bradley is explaining his Tron program to Dillinger after his Group 7 Access has been suspended. Dillinger, concerned about the security program, inquires whether it will be part of the MCP, to which Bradley replies that it will run “independently.” At this, Dillinger flashes a fake smile and a “Sounds good” which is phoney enough for the audience to be clued in that Dillinger is no believer in maintaining the system as a free market. The film even pits American religious sentiment against the supposedly godless depravity of the Soviets. In the cyberworld, programs who believe in the users are derided as “religious nuts” and prodded with electric pain sticks by the security programs designed to guard them. This is another not-so subtle clue to the viewer which side she or he is supposed to be on. In one scene the MCP even talks of striking the Pentagon. The red side, represented by Dillinger and the MCP, is clearly a threat to the American way of life, defended by Flynn and Tron.
As in the Cold War, the showdown between these two societies comes not as a direct military confrontation between two competing armies but a sort of electronic Olympics in which the gladiators of each side compete in athletic events to determine supremacy. In the face of the Mutually Assured Destruction principle, the desire to destroy the enemy has to be sublimated, transformed into a patriotic cheering-on of sides in contests of skill and physical strength. Denied this in Moscow in 1980, the audience for Tron is given their desire for such a spectacle in the computer-generated cyberworld of the film.
Indeed, the audience is treated to a number of games which in no way advance the plot of the story, but somehow lie at its very heart. These games include a vertical version of jai alai in which the object is not to fall off the playing field itself, a discus-like event in which the frisbee is used both as a weapon to de-rez opponents and a shield against opponent’s attacks, and a light cycle race where racers try to destroy opponents by steering them into the light cycles’ own impenetrable wake. These games are not merely incidental to the action. The MCP attests to their importance early on when he insists that Flynn, having been digitized and brought into the cyberworld, be killed in the games. Later, when Sark moves to kill Flynn for having refused to murder his opponent in the jai alai game, the MCP again commands “I want him in the games until he dies playing.” Perhaps fearing a head-on confrontation with a powerful user, the MCP allows the games to become a stand-in for the battlefield.
As a substitute battlefield, the militaristic nature of the games are evident. Each event is a direct competition between two players or teams. The end result of every match is death for the loser and survival for the winner. Even the soundtrack suggests the militaristic overtones, with a military drum roll accompanying Flynn’s entrance and exit from the jai alai field. The film gives every indication that these games are more than trivial diversions; they are the measure of two competing systems. And in every case, the good guys (the blue Americans) defeat the bad guys (the red Soviets). All the more puzzling, then, that the MCP insists on the confrontation being decided in the games and not by a simple de-rezzing, but this is the logic demanded by the underlying element of Olympic wish fulfillment in the story. The MCP staking everything in the games acts as a substitute for America’s inability to do the same in the 1980 Summer Olympics. Audiences are able to watch the blue Tron team deliver the red team the drubbing that the Americans were never able to deliver the Soviets.
The final showdown between good and evil on the mesa is yet another test of athletic skill. Tron defeats Sark in the discus event, ripping a hole through his helmet and his cranium with one deft throw. The MCP transfers his powers to Sark in a last-ditch effort to stop Tron, but Flynn uses the opportunity to hurl himself into the MCP itself, taking control of it (as symbolized by its color change from red to blue). With one final display of Olympian effort and athleticism, Tron hurls his disk into the narrow wedge at the base of the MCP, thus destroying it and ending its reign of tyranny over the virtual world Tron inhabits. The audience is treated to a penultimate scene in which the landscape of Tron’s cyberworld transforms from a stark and barren wasteland to a shiny and multi-faceted vista as the red input/output lines throughout the system are turned blue in the allegorical equivalent of the raising of Old Glory over the Kremlin.
The conceit is clear. The Americans, if given a chance to compete in the 1980 Olympics, would have trounced their Soviet foes. How could they lose, after all, being on the side of good, truth, and capitalism? And for those that find the whole idea of Tron being born of stifled American Olympic fantasies too great a leap, they need only consider director Steven Lisberger’s filmography. His 1980 animation feature Animalympics was timed to be released with the 1980 Summer Olympics. Due to the American boycott it was a commercial failure and Lisberger was left to go back to the drawing board for his next project, which just happened to be Tron.