DR. STRANGELOOP or: How I Realized That IN THE LOOP Is Our Generation’s DR. STRANGELOVE
Much like the horror genre, the comedy genre has become a sprawling, excessively sub-divided wasteland. Attempt to navigate that godforsaken place without a destination in mind and you're likely to get lost somewhere in between the "Comedies Starring George Lopez, Larry The Cable Guy or Rob Schneider" sub-genre and the "Ohhh, Fuck, I Forgot Dennis Miller Was a Thing Once (Rom-Com Division)" sub-sub-genre. As it is with horror films, the ratio of truly great comedies to completely unfunny piles of shit is about 250/1. Those ain't good odds.
For my money, the rarest of all breeds - the hardest sort of "great movie" to come by and the most satisfying to randomly come across - is the truly great black (or, if you like, dark) comedy. Even mediocre black comedies are kind of hard to come by, comparatively speaking, so you can imagine how rare the truly great ones are (if you're wondering: the horror genre equivalent is definitely the horror comedy).
They're so rare, in fact, that I'm willing to bet that if you asked the average cinephile (read: someone who hasn't yet admitted to themselves that Quick Change is actually Bill Murray's most underrated movie, not fucking Kingpin) to name three great black comedies, one of 'em is probably gonna be Harold and Maude, but another one is definitely gonna be Dr. Strangelove. I'd argue that it's the most high-profile black comedy of all time, and certainly the best of them. Leave it to Stanley Kubrick to direct the greatest black comedy ever, right? Kubrick's entire filmography is basically him walking into the genre of his choice, raising the bar and dropping the goddamn mic.
While Strangelove is known primarily for being a black comedy, that sort of sells the film short: it's political satire at its most pointed, but it's also got this weird little character showcase for Peter Sellers (playing only three of the four roles he'd been hired to play), a sexual streak that seems to grow wider with every viewing, characters who were apparently named by fourth graders (Gen. Jack D. Ripper, Merkin Muffley), and, at one point, it had an ending that would've turned it into a particularly well-shot The Three Stooges short. And all of that's on top of the powerful anti-nuke message at the heart of the film, which comes through loud and clear without once coming across as preachy.
For the longest time, there really wasn't anything else quite like Dr. Strangelove, and until a few nights ago I would've said that was still the case. But this week I randomly found out that my wife had never seen Armando Iannucci's brilliantly dark politi-comedy, In The Loop (2009). It is, I submit to you, the best comedy of the past decade. That's one of those movies where, if you're over and you tell me you've never seen it, we're dropping whatever else we have going on and watching that shit right then and there. So, of course that's what happened.
I've seen In The Loop a number of times, probably half a dozen or so now, but earlier this week I was seeing it A) for the first time in a long time and B) about a week after my wife and I happened to have watched Dr. Strangelove. Perhaps not seeing it for a year or so allowed me to see things with a slightly different set of eyes; perhaps seeing it so soon after Strangelove was enough for my brain to make the connection for me. For whatever the reason, I'd never picked up on the similarities between the films...and once I did start noticing them, the comparison only became more apt. In fact, by the time In The Loop wrapped a few hours later, the connection was so obvious that I actually felt stupid for having never noticed it before: In The Loop is a spiritual successor to Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (or maybe you'd prefer to think of Iannucci's film as more of a "spiritual sibling," because maybe you're not so crazy about the idea of Strangelove being nudged aside by some flashy, potty-mouthed new kid).
Each film offers a deeply cynical portrayal of government, particularly as it pertains to war. In both films, characters spend time debating the relative pluses and minuses of going to war, only to end up bureaucratically fumbling their way there for another reason entirely: egomaniacs in low-level positions of power (the fluids-obsessed Jack D. Ripper in Strangelove, Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker in In The Loop) finally overstep their bounds in a way guaranteed to cause a chain reaction leading to war. Both films present the government as a fatally flawed machine being run by one of two kinds of people: the type who's infinitely more concerned with his or her own needs (and/or "being right") than anyone else's, and the idiots.
A notable difference: Kubrick's Strangelove starts off at the tipping point. Gen. Ripper goes rogue and issues "Flight Plan R," which Russia will surely interpret as a declaration of war, seeing as how we hadn't been provoked. Kubrick then shows us the chain reaction this causes, all the way up to a not-quite-close-call involving four American aircraft on their way to nuke Russia into orbit: after finally getting in touch with three of the four bombers and ordering them to stand down, it's discovered that the fourth bomber has lost radio contact. Our guys give the Ruskies co-ordinates intended to allow them to track the final aircraft, but the bomber's way off course. At this point, even if you've never seen Strangelove, you know what happens next: Slim Pickens rides that big-ass nuke straight into the ground, cue Sellers being brilliant, cue "We'll Meet Again," fin.
Iannucci's In The Loop, on the other hand, does almost the complete opposite. It tells the story leading up to the tipping point that sends us to war. The low-level governmental madman here takes his step over the line at the end of the film: Malcolm Tucker, goaded into drastic action following a hilarious verbal smackdown by David Rasche's Linton Barwick ("I cannot abide the sight of a woman bleeding from the mouth"). After his dressing down, Tucker realizes he can edit a recent pros-and-cons war study (which is threatening to derail the States going to war in the Middle East) into a pro-war study simply by deleting all the cons. Tucker uses an associate to have the edit done by a third party - and by force - and triumphantly presents the document to Barwick. Tucker has just sent a nation to war in order to get the upper hand in his ongoing big-dick contest with Linton Barwick.
Barwick, by the way, is easily the corollary for George C. Scott's take on the warhawk, General Buck Turgidson, which makes Tucker In The Loop's General Ripper. Most interestingly, this means that In The Loop's Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) and Dr. Strangelove's Maj. Kong (Slim Pickens) are twins: dim-witted buffoons who play a key role in aiding Ripper/Tucker's plans. Both films present these events with the same dry, British sort of humor (side note: In The Loop reads as more obviously "funny" than Strangelove - does this have anything to do with its glorious wealth of profanity? Discuss), both derive plenty of comedy from the strained relationships between foreign governments, and both are deeply misanthropic and...well, they don't present a hopeful outlook for our future as a species.
While I think In The Loop is certainly playing in the same league as Strangelove, I'm not going to tell you I think it's "better" or vice versa; I love both films equally. These two films are an embarrassment of riches, each offering a sprawling cast of gifted actors delivering brilliantly written dialogue via razor-sharp performances. They skewer our often buffoonish government with pitch-perfect satire, each presenting a "lesson" of sorts without obviously climbing up on a soapbox to do it. They couldn't look more dissimilar (Strangelove's sparse black and whites to In The Loop's messy, un-glamorous government buildings), but at heart they're two sides to the same pessimistic coin.
I'm sure that, over time, I'll notice even more connections between the films (interestingly, In The Loop and Dr. Strangelove premiered in America almost exactly 45 years apart; Iannucci's Sundance premiere was off by one week in January), and I expect to have fun with that. Having finally recognized the mirror-image/spiritual-sibling thing going on between Kubrick and Iannucci's films, I can't imagine watching one without immediately watching the other.