Movies for the Resistance: Dr. Strangelove

(Welcome to Movies for the Resistance, a weekly column intended to showcase films with particular pertinence for 2017. One of the fundamental purposes of art in general, and movies in particular, is to serve as a spiritual armory: bringing hope, timely lessons and shared experiences when times are dark. They can move us to positive political action, lend insight to the inexplicable, and sometimes just give us a moment to remember that we’re not alone. I’m hoping to embrace as many genres and subjects as possible here: nothing is out of bounds and the plan is to vary the content as much as I can from week to week. But all of them are chosen for the same basic purpose: to support, comfort and inspire as we enter a troubling new phase in our nation’s history. We’ll showcase a new film every Tuesday.)

Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Peter Bull, Slim Pickens and James Earl Jones
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Running time: 95 minutes
Rating: PG
Year of release: 1964


Dr. Strangelove remains a classic for a number of reasons, but when it comes to assessing its genius, I suspect its signature absurdity matters less than its chilling plausibility. Take away the arch tone and deadpan ridiculousness, and the scenario is all too real. Reality, of course, has become more absurd than even Stanley Kubrick could imagine, and while the particulars have changed, his surreal tone and casual approach to potential Armageddon feel timelier than ever.

In particular, the characters in Strangelove seem to have morphed into this dark new reality: not the crazed General Ripper (Sterling Hayden, in the best performance he ever gave), who goes off his nut and orders his bombers to attack the Soviet Union with no viable way of calling them back. He goes insane for depressingly insecure reasons – he can’t get it up – and his madness comes with a heaping dose of paranoia as the authorities close in. The inadvertent parallels to Trump aren’t hard to spot.

But things get much more interesting when one looks at the surrounding apparatus, and the way they enable Ripper’s mad scheme despite their multiple protestations to the contrary. The right’s focused – and frankly terrifying – efforts to discredit Robert Mueller speak to a craven adherence to power for power’s sake, and an eagerness for far too many people to sign up for such awfulness rather than acknowledge that it’s a problem. Others try to contextualize Trump in reasonably normal terms: relying on a system that is clearly failing and doing the absolute minimum to stem the tide without quite understanding how drastically the rules have changed.

Strangelove spotted them, one and all, and forever linked their complicity, collusion, and bumbling half-hearted protestations with the calamity they helped cause.

It starts with General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott), one of the advisors in the President’s War Room who shows a great deal of reluctance in reining Ripper in. When the time comes to condemn the madman, his responses are quite *ahem* turgid. (“Although I hate to judge before all the facts are in,” he says in a tone depressingly reminiscent of any GOP Congressman in the past 11 months. “It’s beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority.”) But when talking about Ripper’s actual scheme, he gets a sick gleam in his eye: one that comes from seeing your darkest and most forbidden dreams suddenly come true.

Turgidson is no less unhinged than Ripper in most ways that count. But his pecker works, and that gives him enough sense of realpolitik to hold his tongue (barely) when it comes to the potential end of civilization. Had things gone a little differently, he might have launched a similar scheme himself. As it stands, he’s the guy mumbling “stop… don’t” in the softest possible tones while waiting for the chance to let his true feelings shine.

Of course, they don’t have to be sympathetic to Ripper’s cause to add gasoline to the fire. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), ostensibly the voice of reason doesn’t exactly cut the image of a hard-nosed go-getter. He stands up to Turgidson well enough, but his authority comes from his position, not his character. Stammering his way through that first phone call with the Russian ambassador, he resembles nothing so much as a kid who wrecked his dad’s car and is now trying to explain why it’s not his fault.

THIS is the guy who’s going to get us out of a fix? This guy, or maybe some equally dippy like Group Captain Mandrake (also Sellers) who’s trying madly to talk Ripper off the ledge? Not likely. Though both decent men, their decency renders them unable to assert themselves in any but the blandest and most spoon-fed way. They, too, look eerily familiar of late, as politicians from both parties stammeringly explain why they don’t like him either, but they’re not actually going to DO ANYTHING about it due to some nebulous precedent that the other side discarded years ago. Impotence never had two more fitting champions.

And there’s that limp-dick thing again: one of the film’s less-than-subtle digs about the real reasons behind all those terrifyingly powerful guns. Kubrick all but shoves it in our faces from the opening credits on, and again: considering our current circumstances, the seemingly simplistic notion that we’re led by a bunch of overgrown dipshit teenagers obsessed with sexual performance becomes a simple statement of fact. (Any bets on who’s next in the “resigns for inappropriate sexual advances” bingo game?)

The Russian spy wandering casually through the War Room is a little too terrifyingly on the nose to discuss further.

And in the middle of it all — at the center of two gigantic shitshows both cinematic and all-too-terrifyingly real — we get a fucking Nazi.

We’re not supposed to. We were supposed to have either killed them all off or locked them up to ruminate upon their collective affront to humanity. But then somebody decides to keep one or two around because Perfectly Logical Reasons. And when we least suspect it, he comes gimping out of the corner with his crippled limbs and his wheelchair, grinning like a three-year-old who just discovered his own fecal matter and prattling on about male-to-female copulation ratios.

And the whole room – the entire room full of important people caught in the grips of a disaster – starts to listen to him.

As we’ve learned to our folly, that horrible pattern never goes away. Kubrick, at least, had the good sense to fire off a warning flare.

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