HBO’s New Political Satire Channels ‘Dr. Strangelove’
‘The Brink’ is a nuclear comedy for a generation tired of war and terror
Halfway through Gen. Umair Zaman’s speech to the world after his successful coup in Pakistan, I realized The Brink is an homage to Dr. Strangelove.
Zaman has run for president of Pakistan and lost. He demands a recount, refuses to acknowledge that his opponent has won and then sends in the military to take control.
He decries America’s drone war in his country, calling it illegal. The electromagnetic pulses from the drones, he explains, are frying the reproductive organs of Pakistan’s young women and emasculating its men.
I thought immediately of Gen. Ripper and his obsession with America’s precious bodily fluids. The Brink reinforced the connection a moment later when American president Julian Navarro takes a call from the Israeli prime minister. This mirrors Peter Sellers as the American president in 1964, deep under the earth trying to calm Dimitri in Moscow.
Both Dr. Strangelove and The Brink poke fun at our fear of nuclear Armageddon, and both work because they understand that in the face of unrelenting horror, a person must laugh … or go mad.
HBO’s newest comedy uses a setup that hits close to home. An Islamist regime comes to power in Pakistan and threatens to nuke Israel. It’s the kind of scenario analysts, journalists and politicians lie awake worrying about.
To make matters worse, the people who stand the best chance of helping the world avoid nuclear war are complete pieces of shit. Jack Black plays Alex Talbot, a low-level functionary working for the State Department in Islamabad when Zaman seizes power.
Talbot is outside the walls of the American embassy when the crisis starts. He’s convinced a local driver — played by Daily Show alum Aasif Mandvi — to run him into the city so he can score some weed.
Tim Robbins is Secretary of State Walter Larson. We first meet the esteemed diplomat in flagrante delicto. A Cambodian prostitute has tied him up. She pushes a pillow into his face but pulls away right before suffocating him. Larson is pissed. He was almost there, he explains. The lady points out that all of his sexual fantasies involve death.
Larson’s secretary then barges into the room with the news of the trouble in Pakistan. It’s the middle of the day and America’s secretary of state is drunk out of his mind while the world moves toward war halfway across the planet.
Pablo Schreiber plays Zeke Tilson, a Navy pilot who is less than thrilled with his station in life. When we meet him, he’s on the phone with his ex-wife — a pharmacist. He’s trying to convince her to send him more pills. He needs them to keep his fellow sailors awake … and to make enough money to live.
“I’ve been living off credit cards since flight school,” he tells a fellow pilot. “Flying $65-million fighter jets for minimum fucking wage.”
Tilson is my favorite of the series’ three bad boys. Black is more restrained as Talbot than his other performances, but still too over-the-top for my tastes.
It’s great to see Robbins on screen again, but the first episode sets up Larson as the kind of bad boy who plays hard because he works harder. He’s a drunk genius savior of the world. Not interested.
But Tilson is hilarious. He’s a man caught in the big machine of the military, tossed around by fate. His fellow sailors love him because he delivers drugs. His commanders love him because he delivers results.
“I shouldn’t have to remind you that if I fall asleep, our planes end up crashing into each other,” his X.O. explains after asking Tilson for stimulants.
Tilson is like most soldiers — he’s just a guy doing a job. He wants to pay off his debts, have a good time and survive his stint in the military. The politicians are making that hard to do. “Will someone please tell me who we’re supposed to bomb the shit out of?” he asks before hopping into his jet.
The line is supposed to be funny, and it is, but it’s one of the show’s more grounded moments. It reminded me of all my recent interactions with soldiers and vets, who say they just wanted to know what their mission was.
The Brink is a big deal. It’s a dark satire brimming over with bile not just for the politicians who contrive to put the world in danger, but also the military that backs them up. On the surface, the show might seem crude, a throwback to a time when HBO aired basic cable schlock such as Arliss.
But the crude humor comes from a place of anger. It shows in every camera shot, every bit of dialogue and every ridiculous situation. The dialogue is great, because it’s hilarious, and propelled by rage at our increasingly awful geopolitics.
Dr. Strangelove came out in 1964. The world — and America in particular — had lived through more than a decade of Cold War anxiety. Bombers armed with nukes patrolled over the homeland, children ducked and covered and Moscow moved missiles into Cuba.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterful satire was a lone scream in the midst of all that darkness.
Now, in 2015, America has been at war in the Middle East and Central Asia for more than a decade. The public is weary of fighting and the enemy has grown increasingly crazed and horrifying. Islamic State seems unreal, a screenwriter’s conception of villainy.
But it is real, as is the horror and death the group sows across Iraq and Syria.
What can the American people do but laugh in the face of unrelenting horror or go mad? The Brink is that laughter.
It’s a comedy that knows, deep in its heart, that the people we trust to keep us safe are just as awful and ridiculous as the people who want to kill us all. “What does it feel like be such an asshole?” Rafiq Massoud, Black’s driver, asks him late in the first episode.
“Hey, the world is run by assholes, my friend,” Black replies. “Don’t underestimate the asshole. It’s the most powerful muscle in the body. It’ll crush you.”
He’s wrong. The strongest muscle is in the jaw. But that doesn’t matter, Black delivers the line with conviction, and it’s enough that he makes others believe his lie. That’s what assholes do.
I’ll keep watching The Brink. After reading through so many reports on waste, fraud and abuse in the military and the constant horror of Islamic State’s empire-building, it helps.
I took strange comfort in the final moments of the first episode. Tilson and his co-pilot have started to trip balls on some unknown drug he mistook for Xanax. They’re flying into Pakistan with a payload of bombs and a mission to destroy a civilian building where the Pentagon thinks Zaman is hiding.
It was dark, I was tired and I laughed.