General Jack D Ripper: ‘Mandrake, have you ever seen a commie drink a glass of water?’
Group Captain Mandrake: ‘Well, no, I can’t say that I have’
Three weeks after the US Presidential election, it is still hard to come to terms with the fact that the American electorate (or at least that part of it living in the key swing states) has elected someone as utterly deranged and psychopathic as Donald Trump, as President. These are scary times and so far the indications on policy, the extreme right wing appointments, the failure to divest himself of his business interests, and the crazed tweeting by the President Elect suggest that a Trump Presidency is going to be every bit as bad as our worst fears during the election campaign.
There are few (if any) films I can think of that have anticipated or explored the threat to the American political system posed by a President himself. The closest examples that come to mind are John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece satire of political conspiracy theories, The Manchurian Candidate, (notionally at least) about the attempt by the Chinese communist government to control the US Presidency by getting an obviously McCarthy-like figure on the Republican ticket for election (a film of such bewildering brilliance and complexity, that I am bound to return to it at some point). And Bob Roberts, Tim Robbins’ these days sadly forgotten satire about a charlatan charismatic right wing folk singer running for senate. In both cases though the threat does not come from a President. If you want art that tackles that frightening subject and which feels more relevant by the moment, you should read Philip Roth’s extraordinary novel The Plot Against America.
Instead cinema’s treatment of American politics has tended to fall into three camps. There are those films that show candidates running for election, often focusing on the potential corrupting effect of office (for example Robert Redford’s idealistic senate-aspirant in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate and in its own way the remarkable documentary about Bill Clinton’s first presidential election victory in 1992, The War Room). Then there are those films which are biopics of actual presidents or presidents to be (including the usually bombastic Oliver Stone’s excellent portrayal of the most Shakespearean president of all in the eponymous Nixon, to the best example of all such films, John Ford’s The Young Mr Lincoln, which attempts to root Abraham Lincoln’s later achievements as President in his work as a small town lawyer in Springfield, Illinois).
Finally, there are those films which show a President facing an existential threat of some kind, whether a potential coup (as from the military in John Frankenheimer’s excellent conspiracy thriller Seven Days In May) or from the threat of destruction in Fail Safe or this week’s Cine-East film presentation, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb).
The first thing that jumps out about this third group of films (at least those I have referenced – I guess more popcorn-y fare like Independence Day and Tim Burton’s excellent Mars Attacks! also fit into this category) is that they (like The Manchurian Candidate) are artistic responses to the Cold War and in particular the potential threat of nuclear annihilation. And that is very much the case with Dr Strangelove,which even starts with a voiceover full of foreboding about rumours of a new Soviet doomsday weapon over documentary-style footage.
The film was made, of course, in the immediate aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, probably the moment when the world came closest to nuclear armageddon, as a result of a stand off between then President John F Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev. This was the era of paranoia in the US about a missile gap developing with the Soviets and the Soviets’ then lead in the space race which prompted Kennedy’s much lauded speech pledging to put a man on the moon (by the way does anyone else think that doing something just because it is ‘hard’ is ridiculous?). The fear of nuclear war was real and ever present.
Kubrick is under-rated as a comic director, I think. It is not the first thing that one associates with him as a director. Yet Barry Lyndon (my second favourite of his films) is very funny indeed and there are wonderfully realised comic moments, amidst tragedy, in films such as Full Metal Jacket and even The Shining. But no film Kubrick directed plays it for laughs as directly as Dr Strangelove does, it is satire of the broadest kind, employing Peter Sellers in three goon-ish roles, including the titular nuclear weapons’ scientist, Dr Strangelove.
No film with characters with names such as General D Ripper (Sterling Heyden), Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) and General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) is playing it for anything other than obvious laughs. And in some ways this is Dr Strangelove’s weakness – the full Sellers’ Strangelove Nazi routine for which it is most famous really hasn’t aged that well, and feels to me like a well-shot but over the top TV sketch routine from one of those smug Footlights-y shows like That Was The Week That Was that are always raved about by men of a certain generation and an even more certain education. Yeah, we get it, Strangelove has a reflex reaction, which makes him raise his arm in a Nazi salute, independent of his will: that’s how much of a Nazi he is. The Nazi-est Nazi left standing – the perfect recruit to design weapons of mass destruction. Sellers is better in his other roles: the officious British RAF officer seconded to US bomber command, Group Captain Mandrake, and the sensible President Merkin Muffley (another desperately unsubtle attempt at a comic name). Indeed in the third of these roles, Sellers even actually acts pretty well.
Yet, the true genius in this film (and my there is plenty) is found elsewhere. It is in the target of its satire – both deterrence theory itself and the paranoid military mindset to which we entrust its maintenance and thereby the survival of the human species. For this we have to thank two brilliant examples of comic acting in particular from Sterling Heyden and George C Scott, neither of whom, very much unlike Sellers, are really known for comedy (though an additional nod goes out to Slim Pickens as the whooping and a-hollering Texan Pilot who goes down with his bomb).
Heyden’s unhinged performance as the rain-water drinking Air Force General who sends his bombers to attack the Soviet Union and then seals the air force base in order to prevent the recall code, which only he has, being used because politicians can’t be trusted with the bomb, is matched move for move by Scott’s sex-obsessed Chief of the General Staff. Even on the brink of an attack that will result in retaliatory nuclear devastation to the United States, Scott’s Turgidson is more concerned about the weapons edge that the Soviet Union may have and that the Soviet ambassador, who has been brought in by the President to assist with negotiations with the drunken Soviet Premier, seeing ‘the big board’ in the War Room (in which, famously, ‘there will be no fighting’). Scott’s performance as Turgidson is a prescient first act for his greatest role 6 years later as the half-genius, half-megalomaniac General George S Patton in Patton.
The inter-locking measures that have been put in place are designed to ensure that the certainty of total nuclear devastation will prevent nuclear weapons from ever being used. So the fact that nuclear bombers cannot be recalled unless a special code is used, which even the President does not know, is designed precisely to ensure that the Soviet Union is certain that any attack will result in an irrevocable counter-attack. It will therefore never attack. So it is with deterrence theory. But it does not allow for the mad man at the helm; the rogue general who launches a pre-emptive attack. It is a game-theorised system which depends on rational actors in all roles. Yet, as Dr Strangelove shows, the very possibility of death on a genocidal level and the willingness to believe that your enemy is capable of it, can only result in mad men rising to the top. The very thought of it is insane, so is only implementable by the insane. There were good reasons why deterrence theory at the time that Dr Strangelove was made was known as MAD (mutually assured destruction).
Further, the reason General Jack D Ripper launches the bombers in the first place is that he is convinced that the Soviets have poisoned the water in the United States through fluoridation. In his mind the attack is retaliatory not preemptive and therefore justified. Just like, you might say, the belief that millions of rapists and murderers are flooding across the Mexican border into the United States justifies a wall along the border and 11 million deportations. The fact that it is not actually true is neither here nor there, when it is believed by so many to be true.
So at two steps removed what Dr Strangelove is about is what happens when mad men are put into positions of power, which it suggests is all but inevitable in the then prevailing conditions of the Cold War. What though Dr Strangelove still allows for is a rational and peace-minded (if, by design, ineffectual) President trying to pull things back from the brink. It is the military and the scientists who work with them who are the mad men. Its critique is then one of what another General, President Dwight D Eisenhower, famously warned of, in a speech at the end of his presidency only 4 years before the film’s release, the all-encompassing power of the ‘military-industrial complex’.
What it did not predict though was the far more terrifying prospect: that Dr Strangelove himself could be elected President.