A Deep State Film Festival

Two films I watch about once every year are titles that, I admit, I sometimes hear or say as I’m picturing a scene from the other:  The Manchurian Candidate and Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

They’re both made during the Kennedy years, both broadsides in their own spectacular way against the American Cold War mindset. In them you can see an educated and liberal people married to the Cold War who foresaw the marriage falling apart, and are trying to imagine where they’d go next. The war in Vietnam would soon take care of that, but they didn’t know that at the time.

A mind-bending film about anti-Communism and gender, made by people hyper-attentive to the anti-anti-Communist narrative, but self-taught about gender. Starring Ol’ Blue Eyes!

I can’t be the first person who lumps them together in their own mini-genre, but when I watched them both back in January, during the impeachment of President Trump, it occurred to me that they both have a principled and sane army officer as a lead character. I kept seeing Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman, the whistle-blower who made such a credible witness leading to impeachment, in Peter Sellers as Capt. Lionel Mandrake in Doctor Strangelove, and also in Frank Sinatra as Maj. Bennet Marco in The Manchurian Candidate.

Mandrake is the British officer assigned to the nuclear base that goes rogue under General Ripper. (Strangelove was written by Terry Southern, Peter George, and Stanley Kubrick based on George’s novel Red Alert.) Marco is the Korean War vet whom the Army reassigns to public relations, who starts sensing that something’s wrong with his old commander Col. Raymond Shaw – and Shaw’s stepdad, Senator John Iselin. (The Manchurian Candidate was written by George Axelrod and John Frankenheimer, based on Richard Condon’s novel.)

Sellers as Mandrake, one of three roles he plays in the film – another being the Stevenson-esque U.S. president.

Both characters are the “normal ones” that you follow into the underworld of Cold War madness. I find myself quoting them both in everyday conversation, both Mandrake trying to sweet talk the security codes out of Ripper, and Marco berating himself for his mishandling of Shaw: “If the Pentagon ever wants to open a Stupidity Department, they know who to call!”

I watch The Manchurian Candidate for the perfectly executed thrills, and when it’s time to tune in to how deeply misogynist American manhood can be. You would think the climactic scene in which Raymond Shaw, shall we say, channels Orestes via Oswald is the prime piece of evidence, but there is another scene that’s not so much loaded as downright embarrassing:

As Marco is struggling at his job (Communist brainwashing and PTSD will do that.) he takes a break from D.C. to visit Shaw in New York. On the train, somewhere around Wilmington, he meets Rosie, played by Janet Leigh. He’s too frazzled to light his own cigarette and confesses that he’s on leave from the Army for psychiatric reasons, and she’s still so smitten she gives him her address. Once they’re in New York, and Marco gets into a bloody fistfight with the first guy he sees (albeit with good reason), Rosie comes to get him at the police station; she’s already broken off her engagement to another guy.

The only woman in the cast of Doctor Strangelove is Miss Scott, played by Tracy Reed, the secretary and mistress to General Buck Turdgison. Campy and comic as their dialogue is, it has more gravity and believability than all of Janet Leigh’s scenes in Frankenheimer.

Tracy Reed and George C. Scott.

Thinking what else might fall under that genre, I revisited Seven Days in May, the film Frankenheimer made after Manchurian Candidate – and which never grabbed me in the past. If The Manchurian Candidate is about Communist infiltration of the American radical Right, then Seven Days in May puts the blame squarely on homegrown fascism inside the military. And the hero this time is – guess who? – Army Colonel Jiggs Casey.

Will the coup coalescing around General Burt Lancaster topple President Frederic March? Not if Kirk Douglas as Casey has anything to say about it! It’s also noteworthy that Seven Days in May (written by Rod Serling, based on another novel) has a delicious part for Ava Gardner. She’s like Miss Scott ten years later, after she’s been around the block a few times and slept with a few more colonels.

Ava Gardner and Kirk Douglas.

With the pandemic and the uprising, who remembers impeachment, right? Well, this week I returned to all this. The Criterion Channel adds new titles at the beginning of each month, and for June it’s including the early verité documentaries Primary and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, from the Kennedy years. Crisis, directed by Robert Drew and produced by ABC News (with some footage by D.A. Pennebaker) shows the two or so days leading up to JFK’s June 11, 1963 forced integration of the University of Alabama and TV address to the nation about race.

The arc of the 45 minute film begins and ends with Bobby Kennedy – and you get the impression he could talk circles around his brother. In between, however, it makes a hero of someone I’d never heard of, Nick Katzenbach. A native of Trenton, New Jersey, he was the assistant attorney general RFK sent to Tuscaloosa to orchestrate things.

James Hood and Vivian Malone, the first black students to enroll in the University of Alabama, June 11, 1963.

I highly recommend tracking this film down! For one, it’s a portrait of political animals who are also desperately trying to do what’s morally right, just because it’s right. I also couldn’t help noting how different life was without social media, etc. At one point Bobby Kennedy signs off from a phone call with Katzenbach with an air of finality, “I’m sure you’ll do fine.”

Of these four films, Crisis, the documentary, is the only one about the triumph of an ideal over a practical impediment. The rest are about the struggle of centrism and wholesome common sense against ideological extremism. And even Crisis centers on a bureaucrat. In the mid 20th Century there was, it seems, a great deal of respect afforded to career officers and government bureaucrats, whose combat service and centrist politics made them eminently credible. Or at least there was a movie-going public that liked that kind of character.

The fact that Katzenbach went on to throw his whole career into a defense of LBJ’s Vietnam escalation goes to show that they can be wrong too, but the public could take what they said at face value most of the time. If Trump’s impeachment was a revolt of the public servants against the ideologues or plain old self-dealers, then we’ve come a long way since the early 60s.

Impeachment 2: Why It Didn’t Work

What mystified me most about the Democrats’ impeachment strategy back in January was why Adam Schiff was allowed to talk for so long.

In baseball (sorry friends overseas), after you’ve had a bruising playoff series, you sometimes face the question: Do you start Game 1 of the World Series with your tired ace pitcher, or do you announce the day before that you’re going to your bench for a well-rested, lesser known pitcher that the opponents’ lineup is not expecting?

Schiff was our ace, but we had already seen plenty of him during the hearings in the House, and by the time they got to the Senate, Fox News had already defined him for the Republican following – and not in a flattering way. I thought for sure the Democratic leadership would pull a switcharoo at the last minute and make someone else the lead impeachment prosecutor.

Rep. Adam Schiff

Schiff got high marks from fellow liberals, notably my favorite up-and-comer Preet Bharara, but we had heard his good guy rap already. Most minds were made up, and Trump was keeping the heat on the few who were wavering. I thought the best person to carry that message would have been one of these Gulf War vet guys who was holding down a volatile swing district, maybe a Clintonian good ol’ boy.

They could have kept Schiff on the team to deliver the deepest, most precise punches, but made an overall case that was more like, “I’m with you, boys. I was skeptical too. Do we really have to impeach? Unfortunately we do…” If we had taken this tack, we might have peeled off one or two more.

John McGiver as Senator Jordan.

Adam Schiff reminds me of Senator Thomas Jordan in The Manchurian Candidate – the one whose very name makes Angela Lansbury blurt out “The Communist?!” A cerebral liberal whose kindness to lost-in-the-anticomminust-psychic-wilderness Raymond Shaw gets rewarded with murder, he is, like Sellers’ portrayal of the U.S. president in Doctor Strangelove, both reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson and slightly effeminate.

Earlier in The Manchurian Candidate, when Shaw commits a test murder against his newspaperman boss, the man is wearing his deceased wife’s nighty in bed for warmth. (Jim Backus in Rebel Without a Cause also has a prominent scene wearing a feminine apron, it was a trope at the time.) When Shaw kills Jordan, he is holding a quart of milk exactly breast high, the bullet entering his chest through the carton, and the milkman of human kindness dies.

The macho Right loves to think it knows how to “dominate” the unruly, Hobbesian world that the Lockean Left is too effeminate to handle, but should we really let them decide who our caucus’ impeachment managers are? If we want to win, yes.

Does that matter now? Arguably, no, but if we had peeled off one or two more votes, the lasting damage may have helped get a few more votes out of those croakers this spring, through the virus, the Black Lives Matter uprising, and what might still turn into a constitutional crisis. And let’s remember in the future, it’s not about how we sound to one another, it’s how we sound at the V.F.W. in Milwaukee.