Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb satirizes Cold War-era politics, paranoia, and the precarious nature of nuclear weapons between the United States and the Soviet Union. The film follows a rouge unhinged Air Force general who orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, which forces the hapless President of the United States along with his buffoonish advisers to try to prevent a nuclear apocalypse. Dr. Strangelove tackles the phony idea of the “missile gap” and the mutual assured destruction doctrine all while trafficking in slapstick, outrageous caricature, and silly double entendres. It’s arguably the best political satire in film history.
The Brink is no Dr. Strangelove, even though it spends most of its pilot episode trying to put a Strangelove-like spin on a geopolitical crisis in Pakistan. There’s the panoramic scope of the narrative, which follows three different protagonists, Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins), Foreign Service officer Alex Tablot (Jack Black), and Lieutenant Commander Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber) all of whom are in three different parts of the world; the high stakes of nuclear war that inevitably adds tension to every scene; and the attempt to mix satire with farce, which is where The Brink falls short of the mark. Series creators/writers Roberto and Kim Benabib are seemingly less interested in satirizing U.S. foreign policy, foreign relations, or anything else really and more interested in using it as a premise for a broad comedy about political buffoons in the highest echelons of government.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, and in fact The Brink pilot is funniest when it indulges in its silly side, but it ultimately renders the writing very uneven. The pilot’s attempts at mocking American ignorance of foreign customs, like Alex’s callous and flippant nature towards Pakistani culture, are often heavy-handed and lame. Many of the episode’s jokes are labored and over-written (e.g. “It’s the monthly ‘This country is a ticking time bomb, so we might as well all get shitfaced’ gala. It’s a heck of a party, actually”) and often fall flat even when spoken by veteran actors. But the larger problem is that The Brink doesn’t establish a point of view beyond, “Look how insane these guys are! Can you believe they’re in positions of influence and power?” Granted, it’s a comedy pilot, one of the hardest television episodes to do well, and The Brink could easily settle into a groove and project a perspective in coming episodes, but it’s a shame because a pilot is designed for writers to say, “Here’s our take on this” even if it’s at the expense of laughs.
However, the pilot’s structure moves the action along successfully as it inextricably ties three very different stories with confidence and aplomb. After being interrupted mid-coitus with an Asian call girl, Walter Larsen is summoned to the situation room to advise the President on the ongoing coup d’état in Pakistan. Battling an intense hangover, Larsen tries to stop the President and his chickenhawk adviser from launching a pre-emptive strike against Pakistan after hearing General Umair Zaman (Iqbal Theba), an ally-turned-radical, goes on TV and threatens to attack Israel. Meanwhile, Alex Talbot, a lowly Foreign Service officer, is stuck in Pakistan along with Rafiq Massoud (Aasif Mandvi) while citizens riot. After escaping attack, Alex and Rafiq head to Rafiq’s parents place where Alex discovers that Rafiq’s psychologist uncle treated Zaman for acute episodic schizophrenia. Alex sneaks into the uncle’s office to fax Zaman’s file to Washington, but is caught in the process by the family who want to turn Alex over to the militia. Washington receives the first three pages of the fax, which convinces the President to go through with the pre-emptive strike. The military alerts Zeke Tilson, a world-class aviator/walking pharmacy, to fly the plane heading to bomb Islamabad under the influence of a substance he thought was Xanax but is really much more sinister.
It’s a plot-heavy episode, but what’s impressive about The Brink is that it hardly ever feels overstuffed. It moves briskly and intently, and ends the episode on a moment of earned uncertainty (even if the use of Credence’s “Fortunate Son” hangs way too big of a lampshade over the whole thing). Director Jay Roach and editor Jon Poll deftly cross-cut between the action, making each moment feel a part of a larger whole. It’s interesting because while the dialogue and humor feel worked over, the actual action never does.
The Brink’s all-star cast elevates its mediocre script just by showing up. Tim Robbins stands out from the pack simply because of his enthusiasm and excitement. It’s hard to balance smug, smart, and reckless in a character, and while the script leans on the first and last descriptor a little too much, Robbins makes it work and sells absurd, over-the-top lines like a professional. And while Black is a reliable funnyman, it’s Aasif Mandvi who steals every scene he’s in by being the straight man to Black’s gagman with well-employed eye rolls and incredulous delivery. Schreiber isn’t given nearly enough to do in the pilot to make an impression, but his desperation coupled with his substance use makes for some chuckle-worthy moments.
But again, we return to the lack of bite that our own Erik Adams diagnosed in his pre-air review. It’s clear that the Benabib’s have affection for their characters as they give each of their protagonists a monologue designed to elicit audience sympathy—Larsen fought in Vietnam, Talbot wants to make a difference instead of going to Wall Street, and Zeke’s financial troubles have forced him to deal drugs to his fellow Navy men—which ultimately limits the scope and ferocity of its satire, i.e. if they’re not willing to critique their principal characters beyond eye-rolls and rebukes, then what else are they not willing to do? It’s not fair to compare The Brink to Veep or Armando Iannucci’s previous series The Thick of It (and its subsequent spinoff film In The Loop) as they’re very different projects, but what made Iannucci’s satire so effective is how ruthless it was towards everyone. No one was spared from the institutional idiocy of the global political system.
But maybe The Brink is not that kind of show. Maybe it’s a silly black comedy with a penchant for nuclear politics, which is perfectly fine, but it ultimately means a shift in focus from satire to farce. Put it this way (needless spoiler alert for a 50-year-old film): Dr. Strangelove was initially supposed to end with an absurd pie fight in the War Room (a metaphor for the incoming missile attacks between the U.S. and the USSR) instead of the nuclear apocalypse, but Kubrick decided that the farcical tone of the pie fight didn’t fit with the satirical tone of the film. If The Brink had its way, there would have been multiple pie fights in Dr. Strangelove. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pie, but it’s better with a little substance.
- My Dr. Strangelove homage/allusions count: 1. There’s an analogue between Alex Talbot and Sellars’ Captain Mandrake, Walter Larsen and George C. Scott’s Buck Turgidson, albeit without the jingoism, and President Julian Navarro (Esai Morales) and Sellars’ President Merkin Muffley; 2. Larsen is dragged from sex with a prostitute to the situation room just like Turgidson is dragged from an evening with his mistress to the War Room; 3. President Navarro’s conversation with the Israeli Prime Minister is very similar to Muffley’s conversation with the Soviet premier Dmitri Kissov; and 4. Zeke’s antics in the plane are comparable to Major T.J. Kong’s outrageous antics in the air.
- One problem I have with the series is with their weird internal check and balance system with relation to racial humor. For example, Alex can make cracks about Pakistani culture, but it’s cool because the episode features the family openly and overtly berating him for his ignorance. I’m glad that the Benabib’s are sensitive and smart enough to come out ahead of this, but it feels pre-emptively defensive against potential criticism.
- We have our obligatory HBO nudity coming within the first three minutes of the pilot. That may not be a record, but it’s up there.
- A general note: I hope the female characters have more to do than roll their eyes at the dudes in future episodes.
- “Why do all of your sexual fantasies involve you getting murdered?” “Why do all of your sexual fantasies involve you fleeing Cambodia in a cargo container?”
- “Christ, you think LBJ fought Vietnam in this room sober?” “Yeah, we lost that one, remember?”
- “Is there any money in crop dusting?”
- “TV and radio are down. Internet’s down too, which means there’s no Twitter feed to tell us what’s happening.”
- “We were just discussing how much we admire American foreign policy.”