Seven Great Cinematic Satires
Ever since Aesop compiled his famous fables, satire has been art's way of criticizing the status quo or, on occasion, foretelling a dire future that will come to pass if mankind doesn't mend its ways. Whether it's Jonathan Swift suggesting that Irish babies could solve the dietary dilemma of the poor or Charles Dickens highlighting the iniquities of post-industrialization England, exaggeration points out subtleties too often obscured in everyday life.
With the advent of cinema, satirists found a new venue with which to wage a witty war against the ills of modern life. This week, CS Weekly points out seven great film satires and offers a little writing lesson to take from each. So hone your pen to razor sharpness and -- on the off chance that you didn't know that "Rosebud" was the sled, that Verbal was Keyser Soze, or that Darth Vader was a whiny little twit--be careful, there are some spoilers ahead.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern & Peter George (Kubrick directed)
Based on the novel Red Alert by Peter George
The Lesson: Global nuclear was is bad.
The Writing Lesson: Why go for subtlety when you can name a character "Jack D. Ripper" and really cut to the chase?
Peter George's Cold War thriller Red Alert got a radical makeover when director Stanley Kubrick (A Clockwork Orange) and screenwriter Terry Southern (The Magic Christian) realized that the only way to reasonably face nuclear annihilation was to laugh. Dr. Strangelove could have been the direst depiction of world affairs ever committed to film, what with a sexually frustrated (not to mention barking mad) USAF general launching a nuclear assault on the USSR. The resulting debacle of spin-doctor diplomacy could induce a suicidal depression if not for the facts that General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is terrified of the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull) seeing the threat board, that President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) is "really very sorry" that this has happened, and that his adviser, Dr. Strangelove (Sellers, again), thinks the best option is to embrace polygamy in underground bunkers to repopulate the species.
Screenplay by Ring Lardner, Jr. Based on the novel by Richard Hooker
The Lesson: In battlefield surgery, a martini does not constitute malpractice.
The Writing Lesson: If your characters, no matter how mad, make more sense than the situation they're in, your waging a winning satire.
Chaos reigns when Doctors Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Augustus "Duke" Forrest (Tom Skerritt) are drafted into the Korean War and assigned to the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, where the war mangles patients faster than the besieged medics can sew them up. Ring Lardner, Jr.'s (The Cincinnati Kid) adaptation of Richard Hooker's novel is supplemented by copious improvisation on behalf of the cast and amusing camp announcements added in post-production by director Robert Altman (The Player). The film finds disparate personalities forced into untenable circumstances that bring out the best in surgeons like Hawkeye and Duke while showcasing the worst in their immediate superior, Major Frank Burns (Robert Duvall). Though episodic in nature, the film's set pieces combine to create a chaotic gestalt that eventually erodes all the intellectual underpinnings of the war and leaves the human cost as the only figure worth considering as the screen goes dark.
By Paddy Chayefsky
The Lesson: Reality TV signals the demise of Western civilization.
The Writing Lesson: Try to predict the future, and then regret it when you do.
The tale of news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch), whose on-air descent into madness is exploited into ratings fodder, Network is a 20th-century satire that has become a 21st-century reality, resulting in an enduring classic of one medium and a scathing indictment of another. Paddy Chayefsky's (Marty) disturbingly prescient assault on the ratings war finds the UBS network, under the cutthroat guidance of Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), turning the evening news into an instrument of entertainment rather than education. Viewers tune in with the expectation that Beale's ravings will eventually lead to his suicide, a notion that subverts the whole point of television news and seems despicably similar to the worst of modern reality TV. A tragedy of Oedipal proportions, Network has the benefit of its author's experiences during TV's golden age and loses none of its power as each succeeding minute brings it closer to reality.
Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)
Written and performed by Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin (Jones also directed)
The Lesson: Always know who you're following and why you're following them.
The Writing Lesson: In satire, nothing is sacred…especially if it normally is.
Born to a Jewish prostitute (Terry Jones) down the road from the Bethlehem stable where Jesus was soon to be be laid in a manger, Brian of Nazareth (Graham Chapman) longs to join in the rebellion against the Romans, but instead finds himself mistakenly labeled a messiah by a revolutionary sect bent on making a martyr. A follow-up to the Arthurian antics of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Life of Brian showcases the dangers of faith not tempered by reason. Brian repeatedly refutes his supposed divinity, only to encourage his would-be followers and their belief that the real savior would deny his nature. When he loses a sandal while evading them, they interpret the mishap as an instruction from on high to discard one shoe. Less sketch oriented than previous Python offerings, Brian's message could just as easily be applied to government as it is to religion, and the narrative marvelously mines every joke the pompous Biblical epics of the past avoided like a plague of frogs.
Screenplay by Terry Gilliam & Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown
The Lesson: Bureaucracy is the root of all evil.
The Writing Lesson: If the world you imagine gives you nightmares, you're on the right track.
Originally titled 1984 ½, Brazil is filmmaker Terry Gilliam's ode to bureaucracy gone terribly wrong. After a typo at the Ministry of Information results in the torture and execution of an innocent man mistaken for a terrorist, mid-level functionary Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce) sets out to correct the error with a check for the widow. One thing leads to another, and Lowry's life is soon strangled by red tape in a world where plastic surgery is as prevalent as brushing one's teeth, fashionable ducts are all the rage, and prisoners are billed for their own executions. Gilliam's story, as refined by the wit of playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) and frequent Python collaborator Charles McKeown (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen), leaves no exaggeration un-inflated as it combs through the banalities of everyday life searching for commonplace annoyances to hyperbolize.
L.A. Story (1991)
Written by Steve Martin
The Lesson: You don't have to be crazy to live in L.A., but it certainly improves the experience if you are.
The Writing Lesson: Observe like Sherlock Holmes and regurgitate like Steve Martin.
It takes a few years of living in Los Angeles to fully appreciate Steve Martin's (Shopgirl) astute observations about the peculiarities of the city. When weatherman Harris K. Telemacher's (Martin) life is derailed by a freak thunderstorm, the magic of the city comes to his rescue in a satirical script with a softer edge than most. Indeed, L.A. Story is more of a love letter to the eponymous metropolis and, like Brazil, its charm comes from the world in which it's set. Freeway shootings, cleansing colonics, and an absolute amazement at encountering natural breasts seem completely plausible in the setting Martin's script establishes, and the movie relies on the overall ambience of strangeness to convey its narrative rather than a nonstop barrage of gags. Martin pays attention to his surroundings and recalls them with a unique wit that imbues the movie with both charm and humor.
Thank You for Smoking (2005)
Screenplay by Jason Reitman (also directed)
Based on the novel by Christopher Buckley
The Lesson: Smoking is bad for you, but the choice to smoke is good…I think…
The Writing Lesson: Know what you're saying and why.
Thank You for Smoking inverts the traditional audience expectations by offering ostensibly evil tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor (Aaron Ekhart) as a protagonist who champions the right to smoke (and die of lung cancer) as being as American as apple pie. Conversely, the anti-smoking Senator Finistirre (William H. Macy) becomes the bad guy because his campaign doesn't care about America's lungs -- it's only a political position with which to pursue votes. Jason Reitman's (Juno) screenplay, based on the book by Christopher Buckley, expands Naylor's relationship with his similarly persuasive son (Cameron Bright) to blow off the haze of tobacco smoke and reveal that it's not what you sell, but how you sell it and why. With a character as strongly realized as Naylor riding a premise that makes even the most oblivious viewer take a beat to think about what's really being said, Thank You for Smoking establishes a satirical foothold in the new millennium and ensures that the movies will still cast a withering eye over society's seemingly boundless stupidities.
As South Park seems to prove with every new season, the human race has no paucity of shortcomings to serve as fodder, so there will always be room for a good satire or six on multiplex screens.
Jason Davis has been the DVD Manager for CS Weekly, a contributing editor for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, and has written for Cinescape.com, MSN.com, and created the TV series Studio 13, which ran on Lorne Michaels' Burly TV network. He lives in the small space left over by his ever-expanding library of books, movies, and music.