Looking for Dr. Strangelove

Will there be an iconic black comedy for the War on Terror?

Consider the following. the Soviet ambassador has just informed the American president and his advisors that their inadvertent attack on his country will trigger a worldwide nuclear holocaust due to the irrevocable effects of a Communist Doomsday Machine: a series of buried nuclear devices controlled by computer and scattered around the world, each jacketed with a deadly radioactive contaminant known as “Cobalt-Thorium G.”

One of the president’s advisors, a former Nazi—Peter Sellers reportedly based his portrayal partly on both Werner von Braun and the young Henry Kissinger—confronts the ambassador on the obvious point that deterrence requires disclosure:

STRANGELOVE
Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday
machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret!
Why didn’t you tell the world, eh?

DE SADESKI
It was to be announced at the Party Congress
on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

This exchange from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in addition to several others in the film, reveals the script’s core comic premise: the chasm that exists in an era of nuclear holocaust between the mundane, petty, foolish nature of human motives set against the cataclysmically devastating consequences of our actions.

StrangeBody

It’s hardly a new idea. The lampooning of human pretention and pomposity goes back at least as far as Aristophanes, and forms one of the central conceits of comedy. It dovetails with the observation that laughter provides a safe release for the constant if unconscious anxiety we feel due to existential dread and societal shame. Our pretensions are masks we wear to rise above, or at least deny, our fears. Comedy pulls away the mask so that, at least for a moment, the sources of that dread and shame can be revealed, addressed, confronted.

The trick, to the extent there is one, is to walk that fine line between addressing the sources of our fears and merely stripping them bare. The reason many horror films devolve into inadvertent self-parodies can be traced to a mishandling of this tipping point between sympathetic revelation and naked exposure.

It is, admittedly, a difficult line to walk, a fact made all the more apparent when one returns to the comic premise of Dr. Strangelove, the potentially disastrous gap between human desires and their consequences, and considers it in the context of the War on Terror—specifically, several events connected to that conflict that took place in late 2015/early 2016:

• The October 31 downing of a Russian Metrojet airliner over Egypt, killing all 224 passengers and crewmembers aboard. The Islamic State (Daesh) claimed responsibility for the crash, but Russian authorities initially refused to admit that fact. Finally, on November 16, they conceded that evidence of an explosive device was found among the debris.
• The November 12 twin suicide bombings conducted by Daesh in a bustling Shiite neighborhood in Beirut that claimed the lives of over 40 civilians.
• The coordinated Daesh attacks on Paris the next day, November 13, that claimed the lives of over 130 people at a soccer stadium, a theater, and several street-side cafés.
• The coordinated Daesh attacks, on March 22, of the Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek subway station, that killed 32, and injured more than 300.
• The still unexplained, hour-long attack by a U.S. airship on a marked medical facility run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan—a facility whose coordinates were known to U.S. forces. Over 20 patients and medical staff were killed—mutilated, decapitated—in the attack, some during strafing runs as they tried to flee the hospital.
• The supposedly inadvertent revelation on November 9, during an otherwise boring speech by Vladimir Putin concerning Russian military readiness, that among the weapons being considered for deployment is an underwater thermonuclear drone with a range of 10,000 kilometers. The purpose of the warhead would be to create “areas of wide radioactive contamination that would be unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for long periods of time.”

The Russian drone system (assuming it isn’t a ruse) should be seen in the larger context of the capacity for deadly error the Kunduz air attack represents, as well as the blurred lines of opposition in the Middle East, with nuclear powers backing opposing proxies across multiple, baffling lines of conflict. Never before has the old maxim that “one man’s revolutionary is another man’s terrorist” been more on point.

And when the ancient bloodlust of civil war gets amplified by the rhetoric of religious absolutism and cultural superiority, then seasoned with the tactics of terror, the potential for truly horrific consequences can only escalate.

As the images from Beirut and Paris demonstrated, there’s nothing comedic about a terrorist attack. Or, as my wife re-marked as I was re-watching the film Four Lions (discussed below) on the Saturday morning after those attacks: “This doesn’t seem funny right now.”

But the images from November 12 and 13 pale before those from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the dread we feel now troubles us no less than what Americans felt during the Cuban Missile Crisis. If suicide bombings conjure the specter of total war, where the battlefield is everywhere and non-combatants don’t exist, how much more so does the prospect of a nuclear strike?

What is it about Dr. Strangelove that elevates it to the level of iconic statement whereas, at least at this moment, a similar attempt to satirize the War on Terror would for many feel superficial, even offensive? Can we—should we—even consider creating a black comedy addressing terrorism?

The answer to that question lies in how willing we are to place blame for the blood-shed at our own feet. To see, in the mutilated bodies of the helpless, evidence of what Conrad called man’s “miserable ingenuity in error”—his arrogance, his seemingly limitless capacity for denial, his fetish for power, his fascination with war, his intoxication with paranoia and race hatred, his infinite capacity for dehumanizing others (the better to lay blame), his preference for the certainty of death over the ambiguities of life.

Not just that, but to see in all that miserable ingenuity the crudest, most primitive human motives: the desire for abundant food and easy sex, the craving for praise and admiration, the desperate need to appear tough and strong (not impotent)—and, most insidiously, the equation of violence, even cruelty, with that toughness and strength.

To embrace a darkly comedic aesthetic for the War on Terror, we will have to join Nietzsche in recognizing that history is indeed repeating itself, but the cycle for tragedy is past. This time, we’ll need to welcome farce.

Is that possible? Is it wise? Is it time?

 

THE SINGULAR LOGIC OF THE FORM

Though the folly of man may be as old as the species, the genre known as Black Comedy is, indeed, arguably new.

Though some scholars trace its roots back to Shakespeare’s “dark” comedies, such as Measure for Measure and A Winter’s Tale, the treatment of man and his existence as “absurd” can be found once again as far back as Aristophanes, with other practitioners including Chaucer, Cervantes, Molière, and Swift.

But it wasn’t until 1940 that Andre Bret- on published Anthologie de l’humeur noire, which concerns itself with the comedic treatment of the shocking, macabre, and horrific.

Although Black Comedy, in accordance with Breton’s thesis, is often defined in terms of its content, there is also a structural approach to the form, which screenwriting mage John Truby explores in his discussion of moral argument in The Anatomy of Story.

First, Truby differentiates Black Comedy from Satire (e.g. Emma, The Graduate, State and Main), which is a comedy of beliefs or norms, especially those on which a society or subculture is based; and Farce (e.g., The Importance of Being Earnest, Loot), a type of broad satire that de-emphasizes character to stage complex plot turns and usually offers no character an escape from the stifling hypocrisy or inanity at the story’s core.

In contrast, Black Comedy ensnares its characters within a system that isn’t just restrictive or hypocritical or quaintly odd—it’s destructive or insane.

As in Satire, the hero in Black Comedy embraces the ethos of the system, striving to succeed within it, but unlike Satire he fails to have a revelation into the wickedness at its heart. That insight is instead given to the audience, or to a secondary character (a “Sancho Panza”) with whom the audience identifies, and who manages somehow to escape the wholesale madness or devastation that consumes everyone else.

Which returns us to Kubrick’s masterpiece, one of the greatest examples of the form.

 

THE WICKED GENIUS OF STRANGELOVE

It’s noteworthy that Kubrick’s first intention was to produce a serious drama about the threat of nuclear annihilation. The idea had consumed him since completion of Lolita, and he’d buried himself in research—in particular, Herman Kahn’s On Thermonuclear War, which argued elaborately and at length (in the austere language of game theory and operational research) that a nuclear confrontation was not only survivable, but winnable.

Meanwhile, real-world tensions were escalating: the Bay of Pigs, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis. The last of these particularly fascinated Kubrick, especially the almost blasé fatalism expressed by so many Americans—as though to say: of course this is how the world will end. Oh well.

Then a strange transformation took place. Increasingly, Kubrick began to see the monstrous absurdity of the logic, and ultimately decided the best approach to the material was a comedic one. He recruited Terry Southern, whose sex-satire Candy had been a scandalous success, to co-write the script, and Southern provided the savagely dark, almost surrealistic humor Kubrick wanted.

The names Dr. Strangelove, Merkin Muffley, Buck Turgidson, and Jack D. Ripper are typical Southern touches, as was the description for how the American President should address the Soviet Premier in their phone conversations (“like a progressive nursery school teacher”). He and Kubrick both contributed to the layering of sexual innuendo throughout the film, from the opening credits, where a B-52 enjoys a conspicuously coital refueling while “Try a Little Tenderness” plays in the background, to the final scene, where Slim Pickens rides the phallic bomb to its circular, vaginal target, creating a climactic “wargasm”—a term coined by Herman Kahn himself.

Coincidentally, as they were shooting, word came of another film based on very much the same idea, an inadvertent nuclear attack (though this one is caused by a computer malfunction, not human lunacy).

The film was Fail Safe, a realistic drama much like Kubrick had originally considered, with a name director (Sidney Lumet), and an Oscar-worthy cast (Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau).

Kubrick sued to stall the release of Fail Safe (on the spurious grounds that it was based on the same book, Red Alert, that Kubrick had optioned, a transparent lie), and the litigation provided Kubrick the time window needed to wrap up production. He knew that if the prestigious—and serious—alternative to his film came out first, Strangelove’s chances for success were virtually nil.

It is instructive to watch these two films back-to-back. Both are shot in stark black-and-white. Though the humor in Strangelove is often slap-stick, the delivery is as deadpan as in its far more serious companion piece. Without question Fail Safe is disturbing and haunting. But is it any more so than Strangelove? Was it any more successful at waking people up to the utter insanity of the deterrence strategy known as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)?

 

FROM BRAZIL TO THE BRINK

There have been to date, perhaps unsurprisingly, only a few truly noteworthy films (and only one TV show) depicting terrorism in a darkly comedic fashion:

• Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), an Orwellian and eerily prescient view of a fascist secu- rity state erected in response to a terrorist bombing campaign
• Armando Iannucci’s In the Loop (2009), a wickedly funny and relentlessly obscene film that focuses on the intelligence “assistance” the British provided to the U.S. in the march toward war in Iraq
• Chris Morris’s Four Lions (2010), a savage look at a small group of buffoonish, disaf- fected young Muslim men living in South Yorkshire who decide to serve jihad as suicide bombers
• Roberto and Kim Benabib’s The Brink, an HBO comedy series based on the highly unstable, wildly unpredictable personalities driving relations between two nuclear powers—the United States and Pakistan—in the age of terrorism

Although Brazil and In the Loop have achieved a kind of cult status, none of the four offerings, despite being trenchantly funny in spots, are considered the equal of Strangelove, which even shortly after its release was recognized as a truly great work. The reasons for this second-tier status are unique to each project.

Brazil either enjoyed or suffered from what many might consider the quirks of its mastermind, Terry Gilliam. The film is a visual splendor, perhaps distractingly so, and the plot can feel a bit erratic, even unhinged. It was also arguably before its time.

The ending, after teasing the audience with the possibility of a daring escape, is so savagely, intimately cruel that audiences reacted with some aversion. And yet that was the point—the faceless, bureaucratized indifference of the totalitarian state, brutal in its methods, sanctimonious in its rhetoric, omnipotent in its reach. But it’s one thing to wipe out the entire planet—that’s reassuringly democratic—quite another to torture to death our charmingly hapless, love-besotted hero (played by Jonathan Pryce).

To its inestimable credit, the film made its point in the face of hostile opposition, which dampened its chances for the immediate recognition and success enjoyed by Strangelove. It was released in 1985, when the Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Brighton Hotel bombings were still vivid in people’s minds. (Though Brazil never mentions the Provisional IRA, audiences had no problem making the association.) And years before Guantanamo, it portrayed as few films have the seductive nature of unchecked power in the face of random danger, and the willingness of the otherwise comfortable public to turn a blind eye to the government’s worst excesses—including torture.

In the Loop appeared in a much more favorable, which is to say skeptical, environment. Opposition to the U.K.’s involvement in the Iraq War ran high, and awareness of the deceit and duplicity behind U.S. justification for the invasion was widespread. The cast had also enjoyed a previous working relationship via Iannucci’s TV series, The Thick of It, which featured many of the same characters. The comic timing of the delivery and the sheer brilliance of the writing elevate the film above virtually all other recent comedies, political or otherwise. I never tire of watching this film, and laugh out loud each time.

But it shares with Brazil a somewhat hazy depiction of the other side. Instead, both films focus almost solely on the stupidity, venality, hypocrisy, and folly of the home team.

Ironically, Four Lions suffers from the exact opposite problem. Written and directed by Chris Morris, who has worked extensively with Iannucci (both are currently involved in the U.S. political satire Veep), the film has outrageously funny moments of both snappy dialogue and slapstick physical comedy. But it is also strangely ambivalent, even incoherent, in thematic terms.

The five would-be terrorists consist of three stooges of uniquely depicted cluelessness; one swaggering, bullying but equally stupid Brit, a convert to Islam; and a middle-class husband and father with a reasonably good mind and heart: Omar.

The bumbling of the stooges and the mindless, incoherent ranting of the bully generate the majority of the humor, creating less of a political statement than pure farce. And the British counter-intelligence forces make no appearance until two-thirds of the way through the film, making the story at times feel like an exercise in shooting imbeciles in a barrel. Though the duplicity, racism, and incompetence of the security forces does make an appearance in the film’s third act, it never balances out the idiotic missteps made by our five (anti)heroes.

Omar in particular remains an enigma, partly because he’s forced to play two incompatible roles: the brains of the plot, and yet also the “Sancho Panza” character, capable of recognizing the folly of the plan. He has both a lovely, seemingly liberated (for Islam) wife and a darling son with whom he shares a touching admiration—all of which seems starkly at odds with the bitter alienation or sheep-like passivity we expect from someone willing to blow himself up for his cause. He also has a decent job at a security firm, and gets along well with his British co-workers. As a consequence, Omar’s motivation for his extremism always feels assumed, rather than demonstrated. The dots never really connect, making his crucial but inconsequential turn toward sanity at the end less devastating than it should be.

It’s clear Morris spent a great deal of time researching the project, and the special features available with the DVD reveal poignant interviews with Muslim youth in Britain suffering from racism, suspicion, and relentless surveillance. It’s therefore somewhat baffling that, in choosing who to lampoon in his satire, he chooses primarily the wildly misguided underdogs, not the brutes and hypocrites in power.

Finally, The Brink: The show enjoys a great cast and crisp writing, and understands the reckless threat presented by unstable leaders in possession of nukes, but suffers from the limitations of its medium: TV.

Black Comedy, in its portrayal of a misguided hero following the pitiless illogic of the destructive system he embraces, necessarily and inevitably leads to a climactic moment of destruction. But a TV series, spread out over several seasons, must endlessly postpone that moment.

Also, even though no character’s foibles are spared, there’s a certain lack of ruthlessness in various depictions that suggests the Benabib brothers see the show more as Satire than Black Comedy. Someone will do the right thing, or enjoy a redemptive “marriage,” even if the insanity persists.

 

A STRANGELOVE FOR THE WAR ON TERROR

By examining what went right and what fell a bit short in each of the preceding efforts, we can begin to determine what needs to be included, and what should be omitted from the hypothetical Black Comedy we’ve been considering from the start, one that might expose the madness at the heart of the War on Terror the way Strangelove exposed the insanity of the Cold War.

First, the self-righteous arrogance motivating each camp—the absolute conviction that the other side is evil—needs to be probed with equally unsparing clarity. (Think of the bumbling bozos of Four Lions up against the faceless storm troopers of Brazil, not just at the end of the story, but throughout.)

Second, the brutal methods employed by each—torture, drones, Guantanamo, beheadings, suicide bombings, female slavery—need to be portrayed along with the smug, legalistic, vacuous justifications used in their defense. This requires understanding that terror as a tactic doesn’t arise in a vacuum, but that’s also a slick excuse for sadism. (Think of the sad and terrible deaths in Four Lions and Brazil propped up by the blathering idiocies of In the Loop.)

Third, the sanctimonious hypocrisy whereby “our” dead are sacred but “their” dead are simply the consequence of war needs to be shown for the self-serving calculus it is. We recoil with horror at be-headings, but death by drone, though far less personal, is no less final. To show that honestly will require an unsparing eye not only toward the dead in Paris but those in Beirut, the Egyptian desert, and throughout the Middle East—in uniform or not.

Finally, the all-too-human foibles of the players needs to be recognized and brought forward, from their obsession with their pets to the stink of their feet, from their fondness of cheese to the lurid kinkiness of their dreams.

All of this needs to be depicted through the lens of the self-congratulatory grand ideas and sacred beliefs that allow our leaders (and by extension, us) to dehumanize those who oppose us, hate us, terrify us.

The story may need a Sancho Panza, capable of both humanizing the costs and recognizing the causes of the horror—say, for example, a nurse for Doctors Without Borders—but who remains powerless to stop it.

Maybe a nuclear option, with human stupidity, confusion, or error triggering the holocaust, should bring our troubling tale to a close. Then again, perhaps the images from Beirut and Brussels—or whatever other tragedy occurred since—are too fresh, too vivid in our minds. Perhaps the atrocities of Daesh are simply too hideous, too barbaric, too inexcusable to deserve equal time. Perhaps the better tactic remains realistic drama, which allows us to honor those who risk their lives and strive to do right, films that serve as contemporary incarnations of Fail Safe: The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, American Sniper, Lone Survivor.

But films like that, by honoring the legitimate sacrifices of good people, let our policymakers—and us—off the hook. Such films can almost become a pornography of honor, with the violence on our side always portrayed as righteous, and the grief we feel always interpreted as a testament to our virtue.

Maybe, instead, we should try something else. Maybe we should rip off the masks of pretension and let the furies of mockery howl—the better to reclaim our humility.

Is that possible? Is it wise? Is it time?

 

Illustration by Thomas McCafferty