Dr. Strangelove (1964)—The Absurdity of Agenda

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Watched from the perspective of the twenty-first century, one of the most interesting details in Dr. Strangelove is the date within the opening credits: MCMLXIII. That is just 18 years after nuclear weapons were used for the very first time, and here is a comedy—a successful comedy, one of funniest satires put to film—premised on the threat of nuclear annihilation.

As I write these words, we are not far from the 18-year anniversary of another history-making moment of mass violence. Yet when the 18-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks comes, it is hard to imagine we will have a comedy in the theaters premised on the threat of a massive terrorist attack.

There are differences. America was the attacker with the atom bomb and the attacked on 9/11. America sought to end a war with one and was drawn into war with the other. Do these differences point to a reason why we apparently found our way into humor over the aftereffects of one, but would not imagine finding humor in the wake of other?

In at least one important way, both events were alike. After both, a previously held sense of safety was lost.

Indeed, given one difference in particular—the vastly greater scale of death and loss in the nuclear attacks—it seems as though our resort to humor should have been even farther away in 1963. Unless.

Unless incomprehensible destruction actually makes humor more accessible.

In fact, herein might be another key to the lasting effect of the 9/11 attacks, to the “success” of these attacks in terms of the impact they have had on the American sense of calm and security. These attacks, large as they were, were also small enough to be comprehensible, small enough that each of us could personally understand them and envision them well enough to fear them.

In Dr. Strangelove, the viewer does comprehend, to an extent, the scope of the threatened violence within the story. We are aware that the actions being taken by one comically deranged general (Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden) are careening the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. toward mutual annihilation.

The characters understand this, too, including the President (Peter Sellers), General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and the Soviet Premier “Dimitri” whom we know only from hearing the President’s side of the phone conversation with him. But in the case even of each of these characters, they somehow do not feel the scope of what is to happen, or they do not rise to it. Instead, their self-interest, their various personal agendas, invariably come to rule each moment.

This is a movie about agendas. In the story, a giant system is moving in the background of each of the little lives we see. Planes are moving toward bombing the U.S.S.R. on a mistaken mission, and the U.S.S.R. can be expected to retaliate. It is a system threatening to destroy all involved, yet it is still the self-interests of all these little people that fill the screen.

One of the more captivating such characters appears in only one scene. Tracy Reed plays Miss Scott, General Turgidson’s secretary and mistress. While the general is off-camera, she takes a telephone call from another officer, and the audience quickly comes to understand she is the lover of this man as well. The system in her background is somehow the military, its culture, the chain of command—and it all doesn’t matter. In alternating speaking tenderly to one lover into the receiver while relaying news to the other just out of the frame, we see her pursuing her own agenda against this backdrop.

Hayden as General Ripper
Agendas built the system across which the entire movie plays out. Self-interest fed two countries’ mutual pursuit of a superior ability to annihilate each other, leading (in the movie) to the U.S.S.R. developing a weapon that would destroy all life automatically if the country was ever significantly attacked. This is the outcome the characters are aiming—against the distractions of their own still-active self-interests—to avoid.

The movie’s subtitle is “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Seeing the characters in this film, we do love the bomb somewhat. Not because we hate these characters, but because the knot of human machination portrayed here is so impossible to disentangle that utterly ending it all feels as though it is, if not the best answer, an option to seriously weigh.

That world, tied by that knot of human machination, is not the world we live in. It could be. But the world we live in is hopeful. The inconceivable solution to that machination has been given to us: In Christ, human beings are remade. By faith, human beings have been lifted—are being lifted—out of agenda. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” wrote the apostle Paul. People are being transformed in just this way, and the world is being transformed with them.

Dr. Strangelove is a Christian story in this way: It brilliantly portrays the inevitable logic by which the world would be doomed if it knew only human will and nothing else.

Our world is not the world of this story. Our world knows grace; our world is being remade. To be sure, our world is still far fallen. It includes elements scary enough that we do not bring ourselves to humor about them.

The darkly humorous development that sets off the story in Dr. Strangelove is General Ripper’s sending a bomber off to attack because of his blaming the Soviets for, of all things, fluoridated water. His crazy agenda was not anticipated by the larger system, and so his move sends the system careening off-course. Before this, the existence of that system and its seeming stability were—in their way—a comfort.

And therein lies another difference between then and now, between the time period that produced this movie and the times today. There is the sense now that systems have gone awry, or gone away. We are more exposed now, more fully and directly aware of our plight, because in the dangers and in the problems that face us today, it increasingly seems as though there is no system to meet them. Even when the danger is smaller now, it is nearer to us when the agendas are all there are.

Forgiveness is Choosing Life

If I hurt you, and you forgive me, that forgiveness can’t undo the damage and doesn’t erase the hurt. Intellectually, we know this much. Emotionally, we get confused on this point.

If I see evidence in your actions or in your eyes that you are still hurt, and seeing this causes me to experience again the pain of remorse for what I have done, then this can leave me feeling (falsely) that I am unforgiven.

What, then, should I receive as the one forgiven? Granting that the forgiveness can’t remove reminders or remorse, what is my due?

Answer: Nothing. I am due nothing. As the one forgiven, I have no entitlement.

I certainly receive a benefit. You won’t be retaliating or nursing resentment against me if your forgiveness is true. If you care for me, you might want me to have that benefit. However, this benefit is not the point. Ultimately, forgiveness is a step the forgiver takes for the forgiver’s own reason, which has nothing to do with the benefit that might extend to me. Forgiveness is about life.

Forgiveness has to do with the forgiver’s understanding of his or her own life. It has to do with one’s expectations about life. It therefore has to do with the giver of this life, God.

As the one who has been hurt, what can you expect of him and what should you hope for?

Answer: Only one thing—the continued presence of this life-giver himself.

In this world, life inevitably entails and consists of loss. Assume now that I am the one who has been hurt. That means I have suffered a loss. Depending on the offense, I no longer have the peace, trust, health, property or possibilities I used to have.

To forgive is to choose life regardless. To forgive is to find the way to choose life even in this subtracted state. One chooses life in spite of the loss of this thing, accepting that the life now led includes that absence. I still feel what is missing—I still face and carry the consequences. But I choose to proceed with a new life, a life that is now different to some great or small extent, because it no longer contains or offers all that the previous life did.

God will change us. God will change you. Because you are a unique being with a unique destiny, his shaping of you might make use of the loss of something that everyone around you continues to possess as though by unspoken right. The loss of that thing might come as a result of injustice. It might come by means of another’s selfishness.

Framing the matter that way lets no one off the hook. God does not will the damage humans choose; he provides that it can be redeemed. It was evil of me to hurt you. It was vile of you to hurt me. In either case, I hope we can get past it. But “getting past” is not the forgiveness, since just enduring and powering through can accomplish that much. Forgiveness is more.

Hear the words of Joseph when he forgave the brothers who had sold him into slavery. He said, “You meant evil for me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). Joseph saw the good; he saw the people whose lives had been saved because of the turns his life took and the position he found himself in as a result of having been brought as a slave into Egypt. The latter chapters of Genesis tell this elaborate story. Yet now here before him were the ones who had subjected him to that slavery. Seeing the good did nothing to change the evil of what they had done. In forgiving, we do not redefine evil, but instead we refuse to be defined by it.

We say to God, I accept that the life you have for me has now changed in this way. We cease fighting against the loss by means of a bitter heart or plans for vengeance. We say, I choose this life.

Thus, those of us who feel we have been humbled by being forgiven probably aren’t sufficiently humble at all. The offender looms large in the mind of the one who has not forgiven. When it comes to the actual act of forgiving, the offender does not figure in. Forgiveness is the outcome of a conversation between the forgiver and God.

[PS. Then what does it mean when God forgives us? Answer: It means the same thing! God has given his creatures free will. We use it in detrimental ways. God says, I accept that the life I have given them has now been changed in this way. God says, I choose that they should live.]

Goodfellas (1990)—The Beginning of an Even Better Movie

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

The problem with sin is that it feels so good.

That truly is the problem. No one would follow in it otherwise. Sin, as a concept, has nothing to recommend it. But in practice, sin is exhilarating. It feels like life (which it is not). The sinner feels like one’s most natural self when experiencing the indulgence that has him or her in its grip. And it’s not just the sensual indulgences to which this applies. Anger, too—it feels great to unleash rage. The unleashing leaves costly aftereffects, a clue to the true nature of the choice, but the trap of sin is that we often choose the same indulgence again as a way to respond to the effects that come.

Sin always leaves wreckage in its wake. That is its nature. Sin is death that feels like life during the brief moment while it’s happening. 

We see this in Goodfellas. A gangster in the 1960s and 70s, main character Henry Hill (Ray Liotta) led a life of barely restrained indulgence, including stolen wealth and domineering others. Hill’s words describe how that life felt to him at the time:

“For us to live any other way was nuts. To us, those goody-good people who worked shitty jobs for bum paychecks and took the subway to work every day and worried about their bills were dead. I mean they were suckers. They had no balls. If we wanted something, we just took it. If anyone complained twice they got hit so bad, believe me, they never complained again.”

But even by that point in the movie, we know it didn’t last. We know the wreckage had come. The entire movie is narrated looking back, by someone who no longer had access to what he was remembering. We see why at the end: Hill has testified against his closest friend and his most admired mentor in court, and he has gone into witness protection under the observation of the state.

The movie also offers a realistic picture of how sin begins. Hill as a child was looking for the way to live, as we all are. He looked out his window and saw what he thought was life, in the form of the mobsters hanging out across the street from his childhood home.

The realism ends there. As gangster movies do, this one gives us unrealistic crimes. To enjoy the movie, we need to sympathize with the gangster’s exploits. So a truck full of cargo is stolen. We never see the small business owner spiraling toward ruin because of the income lost in that theft. We see a young man working as a waiter who is killed in a moment of rage. We never see the parent or the young bride whose heart is shattered by this loss. Gangster movies give us crimes without impact, crimes without consequence. Which never happens in actual life.

What is the message of Goodfellas? It doesn’t really have one. That crime doesn’t pay? I am not sure it didn’t in this case. I’m not sure Hill didn’t come out ahead, because of the memories he now seemingly still enjoys. We don’t see repentance on Hill’s part, let alone sorrow or a sense of achieved meaning. And why repent, since those crimes had no consequence? He is looking back and marveling upon a moment he got to experience, and that is what this movie is: a painting of that moment.

The way of life is fruitful. Life bears fruit—good fruit that lifts or sustains others, fruit that lasts. That is why, strangely, the way of life often does not feel like life when it is happening. It involves building, striving against obstacles, humility, devotion, duty, self-denial, and often humdrum routine. For a great many, it involves taking the subway to work every day.

There is a better Goodfellas to be told. What is the fruit Henry Hill is now bearing within this new life after being a mobster? This is what the movie is missing. He looked out his window looking for life and he found its twisted imposter. This part is true. (Parents, what windows are your children looking through?) We frequently do not have a moment in which we knowingly and gravely choose sin. Rather, we find it or it finds us; we find ourselves in the midst of it without knowing quite how we got there. We don’t get lost—we realize we are lost. What then?

That moment is the beginning of life. And that moment for Hill, which is the ending of the moment we see, can only be the beginning of a story even better than the one we have been given in this film. Was Hill’s mind ever changed? Did he find something new; was he broken into beginning again? Did he ever become a good fellow?

The 20th Century Film Project

What was going on in the 20th century? What were people experiencing then and what did they believe?

You would think I would know. I was born in that century. I came of age in it. But the times have advanced and I have gradually changed. Now that the current century is more than one-sixth complete, perhaps we are just far enough out to look back and see something new across the distance.

And in at least one way, I have markedly changed since then. My awakening to Christian faith took place entirely within the 21st century. For me to look back on the 20th is to peer into a time that I was experiencing with a different metaphysical understanding, a different mind, than the one that informs my experience now.

I have a small project I am beginning, a plan for how I want to look back. I am going to watch the 20th century’s movies. Specifically, I plan to watch or rewatch all of the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movies of the 20th century, and write something of value (hopefully) out of my modern-day viewing of each of these old films.

The idea first occurred me simply because I found myself watching something dumb on TV. Generally, if I surrender to television, it is because I am mentally tired—too tired to choose well. I need a plan for these moments. Defaulting to classic films seemed like a good one. Finding the AFI top-100 list was helpful. And since writing is what I do, it wasn’t a leap to decide that I should meet each of these movies in that way, actively experiencing and appreciating each one by challenging myself to write something about it.

So: I am setting out the goal that I will write 100 pieces about 100 20th-century movies for this blog.

How long it will take to do this I don’t know.  Since this aims to be a project of joy rather than commercial commitment, I won’t promise any pacing. Here are some other notes on how I expect to proceed:

1. I won’t watch these movies in any particular order. Not alphabetically, not by ranking or year, and not by my own sense of which ones I think I most want to watch. To maximize variety and surprise, I will use a device for randomly selecting which one I watch next. (Hint: d100.)

2. I am using the AFI’s 1998 list of top 100 movies. There was a revised list put out in 2007. However, the earlier list has the advantage of representing the 20th century’s take on the 20th century’s best movies. This creates one problem: There is a toxic item on that list, a film from early in the century advancing a premise that deserves no airing. I might watch and write about something else in its place.

3. For movies based on well-known books that I have not read (ahem, Grapes of Wrath), I am letting myself off the hook about feeling obliged to read the book first. Plenty of writers have already compared these films to their literary source material. My aim is something different.

4. In what I write about these movies, I won’t summarize them. Wikipedia does that. I won’t rate them. Critics have done that. Instead, I’ll be looking for something as I watch them. Perhaps something timely—an insight into changing worldview that comes from watching the movie with 21st-century eyes. Or (more often, I expect) something timeless—a truth the movie’s story still conveys after all these decades, perhaps a truth I now see differently with eyes that have been given something new to see.