10 Life Lessons I Learned Watching '80s Movies

by Gavin MacFadyen
Originally Published: 

The biggest hits of the 1980s prepared me for life as an adult more thoroughly than I ever could have realized back when I was rocking acid wash jeans and a Don Johnson pastel blazer.


1. Wall Street (1987)

Wall Street taught me to be wary of the stock market, high finance and executives in very expensive suits. No one who grew up immersed in the Bacchanalian greed of 1980s business as portrayed on screen was surprised by the financial meltdown of 2008. Gekko’s proclamation that “greed is good, greed works” has become an iconic quote symbolizing both an era and a point of view that many aspire to even today.

The strangest thing about Gekko’s ethos is that many have adopted it as a mantra when I am pretty sure Oliver Stone meant for the reaction to be more of revulsion. What the movie has done is made us more acutely aware of the machinations behind the movement of money from one computer screen to another and at least want to look behind the curtain—even if we are still unable to fully tear that curtain away.


2. Footloose (1984)

Some rules are made to be broken. Kevin Bacon rolling into a Bible Belt town in middle America set loose an assault on outdated values and misplaced taboos. Dancing was the big sin in Footloose, but it represented much more than that. From this movie, I learned that questioning established protocols and ways of doing things is healthy and allows us to evolve—both as individuals and as a community.

It doesn’t mean tearing down each and every thing that stands in the way of what you want to do—many rules are there for good reason and should be respected. But in every arena of our lives there may be room for growth and adjustments. We can do away with those guidelines that hurt or oppress others.


3. Field of Dreams (1989)

The magic in Field of Dreams was not the cornfield being turned into a baseball diamond or even Kevin Costner’s long-lost dad emerging for a game of catch. To be sure, these were all hanky-worthy moments that reminded us of a shared mythical past that we idealize in our memories. The baseball motif may have transported us all back to a place of safety, love and belonging, but it was Burt Lancaster’s character that really hit a home run for me (see what I did there?).

Lancaster played Moonlight Graham, the old doctor who, as a young man, had one half-inning of baseball where he never even got to swing a bat or catch a ball. He simply stood in the outfield. When the inning was over, so was his baseball dream, and he returned home to his small town and took up medicine. Costner can’t fathom how being so close to a dream and seeing it slip away is something that a person can recover from. He thinks that most men who got to live their dream for only five minutes would be devastated. Doc Graham replies, “Son, if I’d only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes…now that would have been a tragedy.”

Regrets are wasted energy and misplaced sadness. The person we are today is the result of a million moments in our lives that pass unnoticed. If we cherish what we have now, then we realize that we only have it because of both our successes and our failures. They combine together to shape our lives. Once we realize that both play a part in our personal evolution, then we can begin to accept even the disappointments as welcome parts of our lives.


4. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

We work longer and harder than ever before, and a 9-to-5 workday is no longer standard. Nowadays, people start earlier, stay longer and are never out of reach of the office. So, taking a break is important. No matter how wrapped up we become with daily obligations, there is always time for a personal day. Ferris Bueller knew that, and his day off in Chicago with friends is something we should all emulate occasionally. The best news is that it hardly requires the elaborate planning and subterfuge that Ferris had to go through.

Dedication to a job or a duty is admirable, but living to work is not what we set out to do as children, when playtime was considered essential to personal growth and psychological well-being. It’s worth reminding ourselves that indulging that repressed free spirit is the surest way to keep happy in a world that increasingly demands our time and attention.


5. Silkwood (1983)

Long before Erin Brockovich, Meryl Streep gave us Karen Silkwood. Her attempts to expose safety violations at the plutonium plant where she worked led to her death under suspicious circumstances. She was a whistleblower long before that term was in vogue. From the movie, I learned that, just maybe, huge corporations do not have our best interests at heart and a wary, vigilant eye must always be trained on those for whom profit is more important than people.


6. Elephant Man (1980)

The lesson is obvious and everyone should have learned it by the time they get to first grade, but it never hurts to have it reinforced: People should never be judged on their outward appearance. We all know it and yet we all do it. In Elephant Man, the disfigurement was so severe that the film skillfully delayed the audience’s first exposure to John Merrick by filming him in shadow, in silhouette and with a cloth sack over his head before he was revealed. Yet, by doing so, they allowed for the person underneath to shine through. Merrick’s gentle personality and intelligence were allowed to make the first impression.

Most of us rarely encounter such severity of disfigurement in our daily lives, but what about those people who are just slightly different? What about the candidates for a job who come in and interview? Do we favor those who are more overtly representative of classic beauty? Studies have shown that both men and women who fit that definition earn, on average, more than the rest of us who are not so blessed. They advance more quickly in their professions, are more likely to be chosen by a voter and are even deemed more trustworthy.

It is a trite and simple lesson, but it is one we should all remind ourselves of: what is on the outside shouldn’t matter. The real person lies underneath, and often, when we open ourselves up to that, we uncover true beauty.


7. War Games (1983)

Long before there was the Internet, social media, selfies or sexting, I belonged to a generation that had already developed a healthy wariness when it came to technology that was dehumanizing. When Matthew Broderick wanted only to play a game with his beloved computer, he set in motion a chain of events that should remind all of us that even the best machine can be dangerous without a controlling human element to guide it.

The computer in War Games was operating independently of the humans around it. They were powerless to shut it down until a fine bit of Tic-Tac-Toeing at the end exposed the futility of nuclear war. Now, when technology is omnipresent in our lives, we have all sometimes been guilty of ceding control to the World Wide Web, our smartphones and tablets. No matter their fun or convenience, they were meant to be tools to make our lives easier. Even if the stakes in our own lives are not quite as dire as nuclear annihilation, it wouldn’t hurt to just go without the tech from time to time and indulge in some actual human connections.


8. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Long before it became easy for all of us to make a call whenever we wanted, the little visitor from the stars took us along on his quest to do one simple thing—phone home. E.T. was a story about the simplest and yet most significant truth about life: the need to return to a place where you belong. Especially in a world where migration across the country for work has become commonplace, it is important to be reminded that there is always one single place from which we all come. It is where we were formed, where we learned our first truths about life and love and that always lives in our memories.


9. The Big Chill (1983)

The friends we made in early adulthood will inevitably go off in different directions, both personally and professionally. But, far from being a melancholy happening, what it does is solidify those very special relationships that are long-term and longstanding. Few other friendships we make in our lives will compare to the ones we grew up with. What makes them so special is that they are enduring across years and even decades. They do not need to be renewed because they can always be revisited. Who hasn’t felt the comforting familiarity of meeting again with a friend we made in our youth and finding that there is no awkwardness or hesitation? We pick up exactly where we left off.


10. Die Hard (1988)

Perhaps the most important lesson of all: office Christmas parties rarely go well.

This article was originally published on