Written by Jessica Wilton
USA, 1985. 114 min. Amblin Entertainment/ Warners Bros. Pictures. Cast: Sean Astin, Josh Brolin, Jeff Cohen, Corey Feldman, Kerri Green, Martha Plimpton, Jonathan Ke Quan, Joe Pantoliano; Cinematography: Nick McLean; Editing: Michael Kahn, Steven Spielberg; Written by: Steven Spielberg, Chris Columbus; Directed by: Richard Donner
To truly appreciate The Goonies, you must imagine yourself transported back to 1985. Pediatric asthma was on the rise, shoulder pads were in, and pirhana-like business execs were poised to devour whatever survived of the sixties and seventies. The collective anxiety of Americans was overwhelmingâ€”we were afraid of terrorists, Russians, and stockbrokers. We were nervous about computers and robots. AIDS had just been identified, and Reagan reelected. It was a nerve-wracking time in a prosperous nation, a time when we needed Stephen Spielberg. He knew just what was needed to soothe our collective angst: pirate treasure, booby traps, ethnic jokes, and three stooges gags.
This recipe may not have worked as well for adults, but I was eight years old in June of 1985. My parents listened to a lot of NPR, the content of which I understood just well enough to recognize that horrible things were happening somewhere. I remember once asking my mother what a sniper was, prompted by a news item. She defined the term for meâ€”someone who shoots people from far away with a special gun. I slept on the floor behind my bed every night for a week, and made a point of staying clear of windows. Eventually my mother explained that snipers donâ€™t target eightyear- old girls in the suburbs, that there needs to be some greater political or financial purpose. I went back to sleeping in my bed, but I was still terrified. This, for me, defines the 1980â€™s, a decade I measure in degrees of panic.
This anecdote does, in fact, apply to The Goonies. As a child of the eighties, I think I speak for many in my generation when I say that this movie is more firmly imprinted on my memory and carries greater emotional weight than the ones our parents always assumed we loved, like E.T. and Disney movies. I, like chief Goonie Mikey Walsh, was an asthmatic who often wished I could take the reins from my parents and solve their problems with pirate treasure. Spielberg and director Richard Donner (the man responsible for Superman, another key piece of my formative years) allowed me to live that dream over and over again on cable pay channels. Judging from reviews, the film was all but inaccessible to adults, but, like any good product of mass culture, it still expressed the concerns of the adult world. In a way, the gender anxiety, economic imbalances, class conflict, and racial tension in The Goonies served as a betterâ€”albeit far less reliableâ€”point of worldly reference for the 1980s child than NPR did. And, it was far less frightening.
That a film like this could be used as a road map for negotiating the complexities of adulthood was, of course, a double-edged sword. For instance, this was a difficult time in which to get a grip on gender roles. Much as they were in the professional world, women and girls in this film are allowed into the boysâ€™ club, with restrictions. Female characters in The Goonies are either maternal and incompetent (like Mrs. Walsh) or maternal and monstrous (like Mama Fratelli). Or, in the strangest variation, Andy and Stef are prematurely maternal and sexualized. In the filmâ€™s class war, the girls even eclipse the pirate treasure as the objects of desire on several occasions.
In the fight for Andy, the boys score their first key victory in the wishing well scene. When the group arrives at the bottom of a well, Andy steps onto Troyâ€™s bucket (Troy is the youngest, representative of the wealthy development that threatens the â€œGoondocksâ€, and can pull Andy to safety), but Mikey delivers a heartwarming speech, inspiring Andy to drop her upper-class affiliations, step off the bucket and become a Goonie. Later, chased off the pirate ship and away from their treasure, older brother Brand finally kisses Andy. Now that Andy, in a way, belongs to Brand, he is willing to forget the treasure theyâ€™re leaving behind. The film is as much constructed around possessing Andy as it is around the search for treasure. Andy goes from the quintessential privileged and popular girl, riding in Troyâ€™s convertible, to a card-carrying Goonie, standing proudly with the others in the final shot, dressed in the same police jacket and black cap as the rest. This final shot lends a sort of symbolic official status to the group, and to their incorporation of the cheerleader.
Popular 1980s entertainment was also a potent but unreliable source for information on race relations. The Goonies, like a lot of the hits of the moment, was also chock full of the exuberant, cartoonishly offensive racial stereotypes of American culture at the time. In this respect itâ€™s similar to the Cindy Lauper video for the filmâ€™s anthem, â€œThe Goonies are Good Enough.â€ Lauperâ€™s video focuses on the antics of 1980â€™s pro wrestlers like the Iron Sheik and Rowdy Roddy Piper, while The Goonies riffs on stereotypes of Asian Americans (Data loves gadgets and refers to himself in the third person), Jews (Chunk overeats, wears plaid pants, and is the butt of everyoneâ€™s jokes), and Italians (The Fratellis are a close-knit family of bumbling criminals). Our country was more diverse than ever, and it was an exciting, if confusing, time for makers of pop culture. Over time, they would learn to be more covert with their stereotypes. The Goonies, while somewhat outlandish in its assignment of â€œethnicâ€ traits, was at least an honest reflection of the decadeâ€™s preconceived notions.
It doesnâ€™t end there. The notion that all our heroesâ€™ houses might be foreclosed upon on the same day, in order to raze them and replace them with a golf course, tells us that real estate developers and country club folk were about to ruin all that was good and authentic about America. The visual and spiritual unity of the kidsâ€”they tend to huddle in a tight pack and cling to each other, and they follow leader Mikey with a sort of blind faithâ€”shows a pack mentality common to many eighties films. This need for unity is symptomatic of a historical moment when technological advances and social conditions had people more worried than ever about isolation and loneliness. In a way, these things left the movieâ€™s young audience with a deeper, more intuitive understanding of our world than we could ever get from our parents or teachersâ€”or public radio.