Friday, December 03, 2004

Gentlemen, You Can't Fight in Here! This is the War Room.

I stumbled across this 1963 review of Dr.Strangelove, and it's fascinating to see how it reviewed at the time. Now, I happen think Strangelove is perhaps the best satirical movie of all time and to a certain extent the NYT's reviewer Bosley Crowther saw the movie's value, too. Crowther's conclusions about the film, however, prove far more conservative than mine--perhaps indicative of how much more respect was expected of your average American for the government at the time:
As I say, there are parts of this satire that are almost beyond compare.

On the other hand, I am troubled by the feeling, which runs all through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander in Chief.

It is all right to show the general who starts this wild foray as a Communist-hating madman, convinced that a "Red conspiracy" is fluoridating our water in order to pollute our precious body fluids. That is pointed satire, and Sterling Hayden plays the role with just a right blend of wackiness and meanness to give the character significance.

But when virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane—or, what is worse, psychopathic—I want to know what this picture proves. The President, played by Peter Sellers with a shiny bald head, is a dolt, whining and unavailing with the nation in a life-or-death spot. But worse yet, his technical expert, Dr. Strangelove, whom Mr. Sellers also plays, is a devious and noxious ex-German whose mechanical arm insists on making the Nazi salute.

And, oddly enough, the only character who seems to have much common sense is a British flying officer, whom Mr. Sellers—yes, he again—plays.

The ultimate touch of ghoulish humor is when we see the bomb actually going off, dropped on some point in Russia, and a jazzy sound track comes in with a cheerful melodic rendition of "We'll Meet Again Some Sunny Day." Somehow, to me, it isn't funny. It is malefic and sick.
My thought: yes, Kubrick's movie was uniform in its satire reserving little sympathy for any of the parties involved. That's because it's a satire. And the stuff that bothers Crowther is the same stuff that always bothers critics of great (and I mean "great" as in "of major significance or importance") satire: it is unflinching in its engagement. But satire only undermines its own purpose--its very authority and integrity--if proves anything less than an equal opportunity critic. Satire should be beholden to no one.

I'm glad Stanley Kubrick didn't choose to preserve figures like the United States President and members of the military from judgment due to some misguided sense of nationalism or respect. Of course, Kubrick was practically British, too (though born in the Bronx), so he had little reason to bow and scrape before POTUS.

Dr. Strangelove remains one of my favorite movies to this day. And, clearly, it still proves disturbingly relevant.

Also, that last line about the movie's denouement being "malefic and sick." No, no, no. Satire doesn't have to have a happy ending. (Do satires ever *really* have a happy ending? Really?) Satire is a funhouse mirror held up to society; it's a surgeon's scalpel which must lacerate in order to heal. It doesn't show a pretty picture; it doesn't tickle and tantalize with a dull blade.

Now, a society that pursues a nuclear policy dubbed MAD--for Mutually Assured Destruction--now that's malefic and sick. And respect for the Commander in Chief ought not to be considered a given.

Related: Check out this updated version of the movie poster, too--starring Donald Rumsfeld.

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