Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Super Delegates: Merkin Muffley in "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964)

Peter Sellers
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

Dr. Stangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Release Date: January 29, 1964
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Written By: Peter George (Novel), Stanley Kubrick & Terry Southern & Peter George (Screenplay)
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Peter Sellers)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
Delegates in Question:
-President Merkin Muffley

Among political satires, there are few films as renowned as director Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The final image of Slim Pickens riding the bomb to sure death is an iconic image of the mass hysteria surrounding war. Considering that Kubrick isn't known for being comedic (though there's argument that A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket are at times pitch black comedies), it helps the film stand out among his strongly revered resume. This raises a specific question. What was it about Dr. Strangelove that stood out as a genuine statement about politics in the time of war, specifically in 1964 when the coinciding Cold War was in full swing?

The answer is buried under characters with names like Merkin Muffley (both words are a play on erotic female associations), Colonel "Bat" Guano, Major "King" Kong, and Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Despite having the deathly subject of bombing a foreign nation, Kubrick's approach is to turn politics into its own cartoon. George C. Scott's General "Buck" Turgidson is introduced in the informal manner of being shirtless with a cigar hanging out of his mouth. The war in question seems like an inconvenience to everyone involved, and it takes them away from their more desirable frivolities. When they come together, the madness doesn't get resolved.

Over the course of 95 minutes, the story covers both the ongoing proceedings in the war room as well as Kong's (Pickens) mission to drop a bomb that would cause a nuclear holocaust. The conversations could be summarized by Muffley's (Sellers) most famous quote: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the war room." There is this need to hold order in time of crisis, but everyone is stuck arguing over trivial ideas. Among the details lost to the black and white cinematography was that the central table where everyone talks was designed like a poker table. Knowing this helps to make the threat of humanity seem like nothing more than a few poker chips being thrown in for a game of cards. Some could win on luck, others strategy. A potentially world ruining bombing shouldn't be equivalent, yet the egos on display cannot help but play their cards in foolish ways.

By the end, some reason is achieved. Most of the bomber planes in Kong's mission have pulled back. Crisis seems to have been averted. The only issue is that Kong misses the memo and goes forward with a mission. His supplies are said to make for a great weekend in Vegas. The switches to unleash the bombs are intricate, yet the release hatch is dysfunctional. Despite Muffley eventually coming to agreement with Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) about a peaceful ending, things are over. The world blows up as the lyrics "We'll meet again. Don't know where. Don't know when." play over the credits. It's a cheeky way to show how politics and communication can ruin humanity in substantial fashion.

The parallels are very obvious to the Cold War paranoia of the 1960's. Everyone was afraid of the Russians and the threat of bombing was just as present. The hostility in the civilians was representative of the officials in charge of negotiating in the war room. They had limited time to save the world, and they fought over petty jealousies. Along with slapstick humor, the film plays into a commentary on the inefficiency of government to fully stop chaos. While the world has thankfully not been met with a nuclear holocaust, the choice to end the film with the world's doom only reflects the flimsiness by which international safety can truly be. Nobody outside of politics is really seen in a substantial fashion. Everyone that Kubrick focuses on seems to have a hand in the inevitable doom. To some extent, it's the clearest warning that Kubrick has made to people: "Do your job right." 

While the Cold War has ended, the ongoing threats with Russia are prominent. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has had several controversial/coincidental ties to Russia over the 2016 election season, including rumors that Russia hacked American servers to acquire information. There's even the suggestion that provided that he becomes president, he will have severe ties to Russia that may be detrimental to international affairs. Considering that he also has a bad temperament when it comes to criticism, it doesn't seem like Trump would do a much better job than Muffley when faced with a war. Trump claims that he would do the best job and nobody would be caught or have any case of PTSD. Yet it's difficult to argue with a man who has 3 AM rants on Twitter decrying anyone who talks critically of him, even once suggesting that his followers check out a mythic sex tape.

War  is constantly a threat to America's safety. It may have different names, but it is easy to imagine a president falling into frustrating and ridiculous arguments. As a society, America likes to believe better of their safety. However, that's part of the haunting subtext to Dr. Strangelove. The American populous is unassuming of the deeper dangers. They may not even know of missile strikes going on at this instant. If they knew who controlled them, it likely would disturb them deeply. While threats relating to terrorism are largely more in focus, the fear that America will be overrun has sunk into politics. There's worry of immigrant terrorists destroying America's core. While it has largely been proven to be a home-birthed issue, the dread still fuels those believing that war is coming into their backyard.

It is difficult to talk about Dr. Strangelove without sounding a little confrontational or even one-sided in modern politics. Whereas Trump has been proudly xenophobic and fascist, Democratic party candidate Hillary Clinton has been more welcoming to non-whites in America. While it doesn't solve the problem abroad, it shows the spectrum of how paranoia still impacts everyday lives. There is hope that things never come to the extent that it does in Dr. Strangelove. Of course, Kubrick's work was likely effective because it was unapologetic and was quick to play the tough cards. It is very silly, but it still ends with the world blowing up. As Bad Religion once sang "We're only gonna die from our own arrogance." Kubrick agrees, and it's disturbing to think of the ramifications that it may have over the course of 24 hours over one seemingly innocent day.

I admit that this Super Delegates couldn't help but get a little dark, but the concept of war is never a cut and dry issue. I personally like to believe that there's enough good in the world to keep tragedies of this magnitude from happening. Even then, the threat of a nuclear holocaust isn't entirely absent. All that can really be done is to not play into the fear and the worries of evil. I don't know how to negotiate in a war room setting, but I'd like to think that the people who do are more rational than Muffley or Turgidson. In lighter news, this week's Super Delegates Bonus will have a happier look at war with a special commentary on Argo by the president who was running the country during that time: Jimmy Carter. I'll meet you again then. 

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