THE Soviet Union has been complaining about a number of American films dealing with the Soviet Union, and recently there have, in fact, been quite a few of them: ``Red Dawn,'' ``Rambo,'' ``Rocky IV,'' ``White Nights,'' and ``Spies Like Us.'' Clearly these movies have been touching something in the minds of the young American audience, and we, like the Soviets, should ask what it is. Without question, these films do contain deeply anti-Soviet scenes that rightly offend the Soviets -- and that should shame Americans. And yet, if one looks at these films as a whole and tries to understand their overall themes, they create a very strange impression.
In ``Red Dawn,'' the Soviets are strong enough to capture Colorado, but not strong enough to cope with eight high school students. In ``White Nights,'' the KGB is painted in very black terms, but at the end it gives in to third-world public opinion. (And the main memory from the film is the great beauty of Leningrad.) In ``Rocky IV,'' the Soviet crowd at the fight, with the Politburo watching, roots for Rocky against Drago in the closing rounds.
Moreover, ``Rambo'' and ``Rocky IV,'' unlike ``Star Wars,'' are extremely negative about technology and do nothing to glorify the present military buildup. (And in ``Red Dawn,'' it doesn't even prevent a takeover of Colorado.) ``Rambo'' ends with the hero destroying a large American computer with his machine gun. ``Rocky IV'' has long scenes in which the Russian is trained with high technology, while Rocky has a simple, peasantlike training program. And American backwardness defeats the high-technology Russians! One almost suspects Stallone of being a KGB plant with the mission of destroying faith in President Reagan's SDI program.
There is no ambiguity at all about the lesson of ``Spies Like Us.'' The American military sends spies to the Soviet Union to capture and launch a Soviet missile so that the American space defense can shoot it down. The space defense fails, and the American military does not tell the President why a Soviet missile is coming in, for they are indifferent to nuclear holocaust. This is strong stuff. Only cooperation between simple Russians and simple Americans saves the world at the end.
In its own way, each of these films is conveying the message that Russians are not 10 feet tall, that they are not an insuperable threat. This is the same theme of the many commercials with a Russian theme, all of which belittle the Soviet Union rather than treat it as threatening. We clearly need a middle ground between the image of a Soviet totalitarian juggernaut of the past and the image of an impotent Soviet Union of today, but the popularity of the films and commercials is saying that the sense of threat that drove the United States in the late 1970s is disappearing.
Indeed, except in ``Rambo,'' the Russians somehow become more sympathetic at the end. ``Rocky IV'' carries this to its ultimate conclusion. The old Russian menace in the person of Drago is inhuman, and it is totally committed to victory. At the beginning of the fight, the Western commentator says that Drago is ``a man with an entire country in his corner.'' By Round 12, however, the Russian boos for Rocky have turned to cheers. Drago represents what has been terrible in Russia, and the Russians are cheering for its defeat.
After his victory, Rocky drives the point home. He tells the Russian crowd: ``When I came here I didn't know what to expect. All I seen is a lotta people hating me and I guess I didn't like you too much neither. During this fight I seen a lot of changing in the way youse felt about me and the way I felt about you. . . . If I can change and you can change, everybody can change.'' Mikhail Gorbachev, who had been watching suspiciously, rose and applauded vigorously. The Politburo followed.
The United States is in transition. The 25-year-old moviegoer was born in 1960, the 15-year-old in 1970. Their parents were members of the Eisenhower and Vietnam generations, respectively, and passed on very different values to their children. Moviemakers have to mix their themes to appeal to a diverse audience, but they know which audience is passing out of the theaters.
For all these reasons, the Soviets should not get so uptight about what these films show about the American mind. They should take ``Rocky IV'' to heart. There has been an alien, Drago-like character to the Soviet posture in the past, and Russians should applaud its defeat. Even Rocky is willing to meet the new Russians halfway.
Let's hope that Mr. Gorbachev is watching and understands. His arms control proposals have shown an old-fashioned understanding of good public relations at best. His speech at the 27th party congress this week comes on the 30th anniversary of Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and will give him an unprecedented opportunity to speak to the past -- and, therefore, to the future. The speech will either be a historic occasion or a historic blunder.
Jerry F. Hough is professor of political science at Duke University and a staff member of the Brookings Institution.