First As Tragedy, Second As Farce

The ultimate test of satire is whether it fools intelligent people into mistaking it for non-fiction.

I’m still tickled, for instance, by the stories of rock ‘n’ roll fans watching This is Spinal Tap and asking director Rob Reiner why he didn’t profile a more well-known band.  That, in a way, is the highest compliment that could be paid to a film of that sort.

It was in that same spirit that I recently re-watched Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove—probably the finest movie satire ever made—and looked for anything unbelievable about it.

It’s an awfully difficult thing to do.  To experience Kubrick’s twisted, apocalyptic Cold War farce is to peer 52 years into the past and wonder whether the movie is, in fact, a plausible vision for our future.

(The film, as you know, involves a desperate attempt by the U.S. and Soviet governments to avert nuclear annihilation by outsmarting machines that were specifically designed to resist all human meddling.)

There’s an old Hollywood legend that Slim Pickens, one of the stars, was never informed the movie was a comedy.  It’s a tribute both to him and all the other actors that, in watching it, we’ve no way of knowing whether this legend is true.  Pickens appears to be playing it straight, but then so does everyone else.

And, in a sense, it’s still an open question whether Dr. Strangelove is really a comedy at all.  It was originally conceived as a thriller—adapted from a straight-laced Cold War novel, no less—and the final product bears many of the hallmarks of what a traditional, somber treatment of the same material would’ve produced.  Really, the only thing that makes it more of a satire than a drama is the absurdity of the plot, but even that doesn’t completely settle the case, since the whole point of the thing was to demonstrate how absurd the drama of real life tends to be.

Indeed, one might say that satire is nothing more than drama that has achieved self-awareness, as exemplified in Dr. Strangelove by such lines as, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”

While the line between serious and silly has always been tenuous—doubly so when it comes to government and politics—it’s hard to conceive a more resonant contemporary illustration of this than Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  In Trump, we find the clearest argument to date that the world of Dr. Strangelove is one to be feared as much as laughed at, and that life can imitate art just as surely as the other way around.

At this moment—some 14 months after Trump entered the presidential race—we have absolutely no idea whether the Republican nominee takes his own candidacy seriously.  While it may contain flashes of traditional campaign strategy and is occurring in the real world, it is so manifestly ridiculous—both as a whole and in its constituent parts—that sober-minded, intelligent people have been compelled to wonder whether Trump is—in a Springtime for Hitler sort of way—pulling America’s collective leg.

Our provisional conclusion (if such a thing can exist) involves a mixture of inductive reasoning and Occam’s razor:  While we can’t prove Trump’s run is a calculated farce—that he is effectively throwing the election, for God knows what reason—he has consistently said and done what we would expect him to say and do if such a thing were actually the case.  If his original master plan was to secure the Republican nomination and then lose the general election in a rout, then nearly all of his behavior since June of 2015 would suddenly make perfect sense.

Thus, Trump is not an embodiment of Dr. Strangelove so much as its mirror image:  One is reality masquerading as farce, while the other is farce masquerading as reality.  I’ll leave it to you to determine which is which.

Most modern-day satire makes the mistake of going too far over-the-top and becoming just another form of slapstick comedy.  The secret to Kubrick’s movie, by contrast, is how little it exaggerates the truth—that is, if it exaggerates at all.

Filmed and released during the hottest moments of the Cold War—when the U.S. and Russia were pointing nuclear weapons at each other and no one was particularly confident there wouldn’t be an “exchange”—Dr. Strangelove imagines a scenario whereby a rogue U.S. Air Force commander named Jack Ripper orders his entire fleet of B-52s to bomb the living hell out of the Soviet Union, triggering a sequence of events that unfolds with the airtight logic of classical tragedy:  As the pilots hurtle toward their targets, an unsettled president and his war cabinet are informed that the planes cannot be recalled without inputting a code that is known only to General Ripper himself, who, by this point, has locked himself in his office and cut off all communication lines.

To further complicate things, the Russian ambassador reveals the presence of a “doomsday machine” inside the Soviet Union that will automatically launch a nuclear counterattack against the U.S. the moment Russia is hit by those B-52s—an eventuality that cannot be averted, because, as the ambassador explains, this machine “is designed to explode if any attempt is ever made to untrigger it.”

How, you ask, did a relatively low-ranking officer like Ripper manage to unilaterally launch a nuclear attack in the first place?  Easy:  By exploiting an emergency provision of existing U.S. war policy, which grants such authority to someone like him in the event that, say, the Soviets strike Washington, D.C., and wipe out the entire executive branch.  (Presumably, a similar provision also exists today.)

How, then—you may further ask—did Ripper get away with this extraordinary power grab when all systems were normal and no such emergency had occurred?  Well, he just kinda did.  He himself will claim he was preemptively saving humanity from a vast communist conspiracy, although another character is perhaps more accurate in saying of Ripper, “He went a little funny in the head.”

So we have, in short, a situation is which the entire world is faced with nuclear annihilation because one individual, of his own volition, takes advantage of a system that operates precisely as it was designed to operate—designed, admittedly, on the assumption that every government official would behave rationally and according to protocol.  Whoops.

Dr. Strangelove boldly follows this arrangement to its logical conclusion—cowboy hat and all—suggesting that so long as nuclear weapons exist and humans remain fallible, it’s only a matter of time before everything falls apart.  After all, it only takes one crazy person—or, as the movie puts it, “a single slip-up”—for a machine built like a Swiss watch to turn against the very folks who built it.  I am reminded of Greer’s Third Law:  “A computer program does what you tell it to do, not what you want it to do.”

If you find the plot of Dr. Strangelove far-fetched, it might just be that you can’t bear the thought of how inherently dangerous the existence of nuclear weapons has always been and will always be.  A half-century after the fact, we understand with terrifying clarity how close the two superpowers came to blowing themselves up in October 1962, and history is replete with other (albeit less famous) examples of similar brushes with Armageddon, either through misunderstandings or carelessness.

And now, of course, we have a presidential nominee who reportedly asked an adviser—on three separate occasions—“If we have [nukes], why can’t we use them?”  If Trump becomes commander-in-chief, the risk of a nuclear “slip-up” won’t merely involve a hypothetical Jack Ripper somewhere down the chain of command; it will concern the actual finger on the actual button.

Not that we should be any more confident about the people a President Trump would hire at every level of his administration.  If the man himself has choreographed an “anything goes” attitude toward U.S. foreign policy—up to and including the use of weapons of mass destruction—why should his underlings be expected to exercise restraint and discipline with whatever authority they have (or don’t have)?

I doubt even Stanley Kubrick could’ve directed this slow-motion apocalypse more perfectly than it has directed itself.  If it miraculously ends well, we can rejoice over our dumb luck in avoiding nuclear catastrophe for another few years.  And if it ends badly—with Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again” in the fade-out—we’ll at least have the consolation of knowing that reality and satire will have merged once and for all.

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What Might Have Been

Over at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, there is a special exhibit, “To the Brink,” all about the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

Among the featured documents on display, perhaps the most arresting is the original typed draft of a speech that President Kennedy never delivered—that is, the announcement that the United States was about to launch an all-out assault on Cuba to destroy the missiles secretly installed there by the Soviet Union.

“I, as president, had the greatest reluctance to order the action that is now being carried out,” Kennedy was to have said.  “I made every effort to clarify my position.  But the Cuban authorities would not listen.  In the face of their open defiance action became inevitable.”

“There should be no doubt on the part of anyone,” he was to add, “that, in carrying out this commitment, the U.S. will be prepared to use all the forces at its disposal including nuclear.”

The American people never heard such an address because such a decision was never made (the president opted for a blockade instead).  But it jolly well could have been:  Several key members of the secret White House EXCOMM meetings recommended such a move, and Kennedy considered it seriously enough to prepare a speech just in case.

In this week of reminiscences of the Kennedy administration—Friday is the 50th anniversary of the assassination in Dallas—the question has predictably resurfaced, “What if Kennedy had lived?”

Minus those three shots fired from the Texas School Book Depository in Dealey Plaza, how might the arc of history differed from the one we have?

Would the United States have doubled down in Vietnam?  Would the Civil Rights Movement have progressed faster (or slower)?  Would the American public have been spared its disillusionment with government spurred by the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon?

The counterfactual history industry has long flourished in America, and it’s easy to understand why.  After all, the creative possibilities are endless and, by their nature, cannot be positively disproved.

In the case of Kennedy, the allure of crafting “what if” scenarios is especially potent, given the presidency’s oversized promise and undersized length.  It ended on a series of cliffhangers, and it has been left to survivors to second-guess how it might have played out.

What events like the missile standoff bring so sharply into focus, however, is the fact that the world does not require such horror shows as assassinations for the thrust of human events to change course.

As we know but sometimes forget, our leaders are all the time faced with decisions that could (and often do) prove enormously consequential in the longer term—decisions that were all but arbitrary at the time but are seen as inevitable in retrospect.

Such is one of the central insights of history and of life itself:  Nothing is inevitable.  Events unfold in only one way, but there are a billion other ways they could unfold, with only the mildest shuffling of the cards.

Never mind the decisions Kennedy might have made had he not died.  We cannot possibly sort through all the decisions he could have made while he lived.

Further, by no means is this principle of unknowable-ness exclusive to government and politics.  It also applies to each and every one of us.

Back to the Future was all about how Marty McFly’s parents, George and Lorraine, met and fell in love because George unwittingly stepped into the path of Lorraine’s father’s green Chevy.  As the movie makes plain, had George simply watched where he was going, the marriage would never have occurred and Marty would never have been born.

How many of us owe our own place in the universe to events that could very easily have gone the other way?  Is the alternative even possible?

And so when we talk about how different the world might have been if President Kennedy survived, let us acknowledge the limits of such theorizing by recognizing that the future is far more unpredictable than we give it credit for, that nothing is “destined” to happen until it does, and that we are all the time hostage to the playful randomness of the universe in ways that even a president cannot fully control.