There seems to be an increasing awareness of something we Americans have known for some time: that the ten most dangerous words in the English language are, “Hi, I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.”
—Ronald Reagan, July 28, 1988
The Reagan Revolution of the 80s turned pop culture into a battlefield between Capitalism and Communism. Despite the fact that neither the U.S. nor the U.S.S.R. practiced a pure version of either – hundreds of thousands were on Social Security and Medicare in the U.S., and Levi’s had already made it past the Berlin Wall – everyone knew which they preferred. America glorified Freedom (see Rocky IV, Rambo II, Iron Eagle, Red Dawn, etc); Russia glorified The State.
Compare this with movies like Erin Brockovich and A Civil Action, barely two decades later. When the EPA accuses a corporation of environmental wrongdoing, we the audience immediately suspect the corporation. The cultural stage has changed.
Keep this in mind for Walter Peck’s first appearance in Ghostbusters.
Walter Peck: I’m Walter Peck, from the Environmental Protection Agency, the third district.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Great, how’s it going down there?
Walter Peck: Are you Peter Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes, I’m Doctor Venkman.
Walter Peck: Exactly what are you a doctor of, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Well, I have a PhD in parapsychology and psychology.
Walter Peck: And now, you catch ghosts?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yeah, you could say that.
Walter Peck: And how many ghosts have you caught, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: I’m not at liberty to say.
Walter Peck: And where do you put these ghosts, once you catch them?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Into a storage facility.
Walter Peck: And would this storage facility be located on these premises?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Yes.
Walter Peck: And may I see this storage facility?
Dr. Peter Venkman: No.
Walter Peck: And why not, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Because you did not use the magic word.
Walter Peck: What is the magic word, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: …Please.
Walter Peck: May I please see the storage facility, Mr. Venkman?
Dr. Peter Venkman: Why do you want to see the storage facility?
Walter Peck: Because I’m curious. I wanna know more about what you do here! Frankly, I’ve heard alot of wild stories in the media and we want to assess any possibility of dangerous and possibly hazardous waste chemicals in your basement. Now you either show me what is down there, or I come back with a court order.
Dr. Peter Venkman: You go get a court order, and I’ll sue your funny ass for wrongful prosecution.
Walter Peck: You can have it your way, Mr. Venkman.
We can view this scene through two lenses.
What is Seen and What is Unseen: Do the creators of Ghostbusters – Aykroyd, Ramis, Reitman – have a particular bone to pick with the EPA? I would say no. Despite Ivan Reitman’s son Jason adapting Thank You for Smoking to the big screen twenty years later, none of those three have demonstrated any notable arch-libertarian bias.
Let’s not get hung up on Walter Peck’s EPA credentials. Let’s consider him as a type: the officious government bureaucrat, getting in the way of small business. This type would resonate powerfully with an 80s audience – the same audience that cheered Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy’s rags-to-opulence story one year earlier, or tuned in every week to see Michael J. Fox quoting Milton Friedman. America sympathized with the idea that not every regulation made life safer, and that not every official had your best interests at heart. Combine the cynicism of All the President’s Men with the extravagance of Dallas and you have an audience that distrusts the blunt hand of the law.
Ghostbusters only validates this viewpoint, when Peck’s meddling shuts down the storage facility and unleashes a supernatural apocalypse on New York. If the intrusive State had only let the Hard-Working Entrepreneurs do their job, none of this would have happened.
This is the easiest interpretation – partly because it’s the 80s, naturally, but partly because Peck’s an asshole. William Atherton has a long and glorious history of playing assholes – this guy, the nosy reporter in Die Hard, a jerk scientist in Bio-Dome. You have to hate Peck, and the EPA in turn. I imagine that when he’s not shutting down the last line of defense between New York City and the gates of Hell, he’s keeping kids from playing in protected marshland or shutting down bikini car washes for waste-water runoff.
But that’s not the only way to view the scene.
If You’ve Done Nothing Wrong, Then …: Why doesn’t Venkman want to let Peck see the storage facility?
Venkman has every right to be cynical of Peck’s motives. He probably feared that Peck would continue asking questions and start inserting himself into the process. He’d ask to see it again later, maybe take some readings, and become a general nuisance. He’d get in the way of their jobs.
And yet – note that Venkman’s tone escalates from amiable to confrontational in a heartbeat. “I’ll sue your funny ass for wrongful prosecution!” Whoa! Okay, Doctor. Or … you could just let him see the storage facility.
(TV edit; “ass” was too strong for television back, um, whenever)
Rights of the private businessman aside, Peck clearly has some legal authority here. He threatens to get a court order and then does, returning with a city engineer in tow. And a cop (technically, since the EPA is a federal agency, that court order should have been enforced by a U.S. Marshall, but whatever). Peck may be an asshole, and we can justifiably question what purpose this investigation serves. But he’s not coming out of the dark here. The law’s on his side.
So why doesn’t Venkman want Peck to see the storage facility?
For one, we’ve already seen that Venkman has near pathological problems cooperating with authority figures. When he’s kicked out of the only university that’s ever employed him (as Stantz points out, Venkman has “never been in the private sector”), he responds with glib sarcasm: “But the kids love us!” On top of that, he has a casual disregard for others’ property: how much of the destruction in the hotel ballroom was necessary, and how much, for Venkman, was fun?
Maybe Venkman’s a malcontent – a troublemaker first and a ghostbuster second.
On the other hand, maybe he has reason to hide the storage facility from the EPA. Maybe it’s generating toxic levels of waste heat. Spengler and Stantz already know that the grid’s near to capacity:
So Peck could have latched onto something serious.
Whether Peck and the EPA represent the Chinese finger trap tying up the invisible hand of commerce, or whether they’re the well-meaning bureaucracy that exposes the Ghostbusters’ incompetence, the movie leaves for us to decide. Either way you slice it, this movie remains an intriguing cultural artifact of the 80s – a decade when, in a conflict between the EPA and a corporation, the audience might land on the corporation’s side.