“It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film.”
So begins Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, that bleak, blistering film from 1964, in which a demented general launches a full-scale nuclear attack against the Soviet Union, leading to global annihilation. As for that disclaimer? We now know that nothing could be further from the truth.
In a declassified memo, dated a year before Dr. Strangelove’s release, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara expressed concern that delegating nuclear strike capability to military commanders increased the probability of an accidental nuclear explosion. He referred to a 1961 incident in which two armed nuclear bombs fell out of a B-52 and landed in North Carolina, undetonated only “by the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross.”
Just in case you thought anything had improved, last year, Major General Michael Carey — the Air Force general who was in charge of the nation’s nuclear arsenal — traveled to Moscow, insulted the Russian delegation, drunkenly caroused and bragged that he saved the world every day, and then tried to force a band at a Mexican restaurant to let him perform with them. (The band declined, and Carey subsequently was relieved of duty.)
As we settle in for the holiday season, trying not to think about who has their finger on the big red button, you might take a look at these five satirical films that hit a little too close to home.
Wag the Dog (1997)
“Life imitates art,” they say, but rarely as quickly as it did with Wag the Dog. When the president gets ensnared in a sex scandal, a Washington spin maverick and Hollywood producer team up to manufacture a fake war with Albania to distract the public. Audiences and pundits were quick to draw comparisons with the Lewinsky affair, which broke in the mainstream press one month after the movie opened. Then, in August of 1998, Clinton ordered military strikes in Afghanistan and Sudan, further cementing the film’s resemblance to unfolding events. Defense Secretary William Cohen was actually asked about the apparent similarities between the military action and the film. He asserted that the campaign was to protect Americans from terrorist activities and not to draw attention away from a sex scandal. That he even had to say so speaks to the film’s deft and troubling wit.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
For years, when The Manchurian Candidate was out of print, a story persisted that its star and producer Frank Sinatra had taken it out of distribution and buried it for over two decades because its plot about a political assassination too closely resembled John F. Kennedy’s death.
This isn’t true. But the film does carry echoes of not only that day in Dallas, but the patchwork of conspiracy theories that arose after, the shaken confidence of a nation, and the restless sense that we don’t have the first clue what’s going on. A sickening current of dread runs through The Manchurian Candidate, which still feels strikingly modern, with the villains planning to exploit an act of terrorism in order to grant the White House “powers that will make martial law seem like anarchy.”
That fear of losing control of our country to powerful, unseen forces, is so pervasive that Jonathan Demme’s jittery 2004 remake, a fine film in its own right, transposed the conspirators from communists to corporations with no great loss to the story. And the film’s influence can be felt in the lunatic fringe theories of today: Just four months ago, Breibart.com called Obama a “real-life ‘Manchurian Candidate.'” There will always be a “Manchurian Candidate” — a cipher for whatever we dread most, a sleeper agent in our midst infiltrating the highest office, waiting for its trigger.
The Great Dictator (1940)
In the anxious period between Munich and Pearl Harbor, when appeasement was still the byword, Hollywood moguls scrubbed anti-fascist sentiment from their films for fear of harming German grosses. It was during this time that Charlie Chaplin embarked on a project to make an unsparing excoriation of the absurdities, cruelties, and madness of fascism. When it arrived in theaters, history had caught up to him, and The Great Dictator became Chaplin’s highest-grossing film.
In the movie, a lowly Jewish barber (not unlike Chaplin’s iconic Tramp) switches places with Adenoid Hynkel, a ruthless, deranged dictator (not unlike Adolf Hitler.) The result is a deadly serious farce, or a wickedly funny horror film, about war and tyranny. Years later, when the world had reckoned the full evil of the forces he was satirizing, Chaplin conceded that there were limits to his craft. “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps,” he said, “I could not have made The Great Dictator. I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
“An outrageous motion picture!” proclaimed the trailer to Network. But any notion that the movie is fantastical or outlandish in the slightest has evaporated in the last few decades. Aaron Sorkin observed that no writer predicted the future with as much accuracy as Network screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky. In fact, one could argue that the film is remembered now more for its prognostications than its laughs. Which is a shame, because every scene is scattered with bruising, diamond-cut wit.
When anchorman Howard Beale loses his mind on live TV, rather than pull him off the air, his ratings-starved network spins an entire programming lineup from his unfolding mental disintegration. You can draw a line from The Howard Beale Show to Honey Boo-Boo, and somewhere in that continuum find just about every inane, amoral, exploitative minute of television aired since this prophetic film came out. We’re still living in Network’s shadow. Outrageous, indeed.
The Interview (2014)
This action-comedy (set for a Christmas release) follows two celebrity journalists as they are recruited by the CIA to assassinate Kim Jong Un. It’s not the first time the leader of North Korea has been fictionalized in American comedy (Team America: World Police and 30 Rock covered similar ground.) Still, let’s take a moment to puzzle over the fact that a spokesman for North Korea’s Foreign Ministry warned that the film’s release would be an “act of war,” and that North Korea would pursue “merciless countermeasures.”
To paraphrase Ralph Ellison: A nuclear strike is a rather harsh review.