The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming directed by Norman Jewison

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming directed by Norman Jewison
By Ron Falzone

As we sift through the wreckage of another experiment in democracy, one thing seems very clear to me:  We would never get through all of this without satirists.  In all honesty, I’m not sure that I could have survived the last four years and whatever is to come without the life preservers thrown by John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee and anyone who ever contributed to The Onion.  I thank them.  I bless them.  And I pity them.

You see, most satire is afflicted by what we used to call “planned obsolescence.”  It exists in the moment of its initial impact then rapidly loses relevance.  In the case of the escalating craziness of the Trump years, each headshaking moment has been replaced by another moment a moment later.  The comic commentaries have been useful palliatives, but when the next act of lunacy occurred, the preceding observations were suddenly outdated, and even quaint. 

Very few satirical movies can play outside their moment in the sun without prefacing them with a lot of context.  Of course, when you have to explain the joke it loses its urgency.  The few movie satires that manage to get past their own planned obsolescence are those that examined specific problems but used these to illuminate universal concerns.  Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was certainly about the fear of a nuclear attack in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis.  On a deeper level, though, it is about questioning the competence of those we have delegated to put their finger on the button.  The Cold War may be over, but that button is still there.

Although a very different kind of comedy, Norman Jewison’s The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming still manages to land its satirical punches.  This is because it is less about geopolitical issues and more about the impact of constant fearmongering on the American populace.  And if that isn’t an issue that we can all relate to then I don’t know what.

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming is the tale of a Communist invasion.  Well, actually, it is about a Russian accident.  A Soviet sub runs aground just offshore of fictional Gloucester Island.  A small crew led by Lt. Rozanov (Alan Arkin) is tasked with secretly procuring a power boat big enough to dislodge the vessel.  Needlessly to say, a group of Russian sailors traipsing around a quiet but easily panicked island stocked with American archetypes is going to lead to some complications.

What separates The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming from Dr. Strangelove is one of comic stress.  Dr. Strangelove is a dark, literally existential comedy.  It is the horror show as burlesque.  The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming is more of a vaudeville, a varied collection of great comics doing their shtick in clearly delineated acts (the telephone operator skit, the inept deputy bit, etc.). Tonally, it is a broad farce in which civilization is not threatened, just chided for its utter and complete willingness to indulge in frenzy at the drop of a sailor’s hat.

This approach is hardly surprising considering the source.  The screenwriter is William Rose, the chief Mad in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.  Rose was an exceptionally gifted comic writer and, apparently, someone with a penchant for redundant titling.  If that earlier film was only loosely built around a theme of greed, The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming is laser focused on its subjects of communal paranoia and mass hysteria.

The characters in The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming are played as comic archetypes quite familiar at the time.  Jonathan Winters does a bang-up Barney Fife as the town’s bungling yet self-deluded deputy sheriff.  Carl Reiner plays a “famous Broadway playwright,” a character that had become a familiar comic trope after movies like Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, Facts of Life, Act One and Reiner’s own Enter Laughing.  Even the usually serious Eva Marie Saint pitches in with a spot-on Laura Petrie-style housewife.  These and the other performers use their archetypes to expose all of the barely suppressed madness that underpinned life during (cold) war time.

The sharpest character in this farce, though, is not one of the Americans.  Arkin’s Rozanov is a brilliant comic turn.  Although he is technically the enemy, it is through Rozanov that we see and feel the lunacy of a populace determined to defeat a “commie invasion.” It is Arkin’s great gift for presenting comic frustration that fuels our sympathy for Rozanov and his plight.  The delightful irony is that it is this enemy alien who guides our view.  Rozanov is the vehicle through which we recognize the ways we as Americans are sometimes far too willing to jump to conclusions, especially if those conclusions stroke our prejudices.

If most satire is “stranger in a strange land,” this one is “strangers in a strange land having to deal with strangers in a strange land.”  The addition of the Whitakers (Reiner, Saint and young son Sheldon Golumb), creates this kind of Russian doll approach to satire.  They are outsiders to this island, New Yorkers who have landed here because he needs a quiet place to write.  They, though, are overtaken by even bigger strangers who expect them to become the go-betweens with the residents.  The islanders never quite understood those damned cosmopolitans and now they have to deal with them as well as with the Soviet navy.

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming isn’t a perfect movie.  I could certainly do without the glutinously cute romance between the Russian sailor and the babysitter.  And the resolution, though very well staged, reduces the conflict to a “save the child” ending that is more appropriate to Lassie than a possible Apocalypse. 

Where The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming scores its points is with its very smart observations played at full tilt by a group of first-rate farceurs.  In the process, all involved remind us that the bigger our kneejerk reactions, the more likely we are to kick ourselves in the chin.

And that’s a universal truth.