The Big Lebowski, the seventh of the Coen brothers' 13 feature films, begins when two goons break into the modest home of Jeffrey Lebowski and one of them pees on his rug. They've mistaken Lebowski, who calls himself "the Dude," for another, wealthier man of the same name. So the Dude seeks out this other Lebowski in search of compensation for his rug. That meeting does not go well. A few days later, though, the rich Lebowski offers the Dude 20 grand to deliver a $1 million ransom to men who claim to have kidnapped his wife. The kidnapping involves some German nihilists and a porn tycoon, plus a few others. It's a simple story, really.
Just released for a third time on DVD, The Big Lebowski has, in a decade, inspired a following to rival all cinematic cults, complete with annual festivals, monthly podcasts, and teachings to live by. At the heart of this denomination is the Dude, brilliantly incarnated by Jeff Bridges as a Zen slob whose three great loves are weed, white Russians, and bowling. And the Dude is indeed a fantastic character. Ten years on, though, the movie's most striking role belongs to John Goodman as Walter Sobchak: a hawkish, slightly unhinged Vietnam vet and the Dude's best friend and bowling partner. Watching The Big Lebowski in 2008, it becomes clear that appreciating Walter is essential to understanding what the Coen brothers are up to in this movie, which is slyer, more political, and more prescient than many of its fans have recognized. Perhaps that's because Walter, with his bellowing, Old Testament righteousness and his deeply entrenched militarism, is an American type that barely registered on the pop-culture landscape 10 years ago. He's a neocon.
If that seems like a stretch, consider the traits Walter exhibits over the course of the film: faith in American military might (the Gulf War, he says, "is gonna be a piece of cake"; in the original script, he calls it "a fucking cakewalk"); nostalgia for the Cold War ("Charlie," he says, referring to the Viet Cong, was a "worthy fuckin' adversary"); strong support for the state of Israel (to judge from his reverent paraphrase of Theodor Herzl: "If you will it, Dude, it is no dream"); and even, perhaps, past affiliation with the left (he refers knowingly to Lenin's given name and admits to having "dabbled in pacifism"). Goodman, who has called the role his all-time favorite, seems also to have sensed Walter's imperialist side. "Dude has a rather, let's say, Eastern approach to bowling," he said in an interview. "Walter is strictly Manifest Destiny."
The Coen brothers present this bellicose figure "in the early '90s" (as an opening voice-over provided by a mysterious cowboy informs us) "just about the time of our conflict with Sad'm and the Eye-rackies." After the cowboy has spoken, the first words we hear come from the elder President Bush: "This aggression will not stand," he declares, responding to the invasion of Kuwait and appearing on a grocery store television while the Dude buys some half-and-half. Bush's threat of force frames all that follows. When Walter hears about the "carpet-pissers," he insists that the Dude draw "a line in the sand":
The Dude has his own politics—or once did, at least: member of the Seattle Seven, co-author of the "original Port Huron Statement" (not the "compromised second draft"). A student activist who's become a SoCal layabout, he contrasts neatly with Walter, a veteran who interprets everything through the lens of Vietnam. In other words, the Dude and Walter are on opposite sides of the American divide that opened during the 1960s. And while the Dude is the movie's hero, more or less, it's Walter who drives the plot. He tells the Dude to seek out the rich Lebowski. He accompanies the Dude during the ransom delivery and insists that they fake the handoff and keep the money. When the Dude's car is stolen, with the money in it, Walter tracks down the apparent culprit and brings the Dude along to interrogate him.
This last scene, if filmed today, would almost certainly be taken as an allegory about the younger Bush's war. The police have recovered the car, and the Dude has found, wedged between the seats, a page of homework belonging to one Larry Sellers. Walter figures out Larry's address and arrives at his house, the Dude in tow, the homework in a plastic bag. He then makes a brief presentation:
When Larry says nothing, Walter proceeds to Plan B: destroying the new Corvette parked outside—purchased, he assumes, using the money left in the car—with a crowbar. Actually, though, the Corvette belongs to a neighbor. Neocons everywhere can sympathize.
Is this eerie foreshadowing of the second Iraq war coincidental? Not entirely. The Coen brothers created a character with traits that run deep in American culture: unflinching righteousness and a tendency to violence. (He was largely based on John Milius, who wrote and directed Red Dawn, the Cold War-paranoia film that later gave its name to the military operation that captured Saddam.) This character confronts a situation that combines both injustice and the opportunity for material gain. He responds more or less as one would imagine. The Dude's pacifist leanings are no match for Walter's assertiveness: While the Dude's disposition may be admirable, he has little effect on the tide of world events. (Refugees from the 1960s can also sympathize.)
Within the world of the movie, though, the destruction of the bystander's Corvette is a fairly minor incident. Immediately afterward, we see Walter, the Dude, and Donnie—the third and least conspicuous member of the bowling team, played by Steve Buscemi—on their way home in the Dude's car, eating hamburgers and listening to "Oye Como Va." Watching The Big Lebowski today, one notices its insight into basic American attitudes but also the lightheartedness with which it's able to treat these attitudes. Donnie does die of a heart attack during a climactic showdown with those German nihilists, and one might call his death a casualty of Walter's aggression and the Dude's inability to reign it in. But his death quickly gives way to Walter and the Dude's reconciliation, at a makeshift funeral they hold for Donnie by the Pacific Ocean:
This gentle, comic conclusion came to mind while I watched the Coen brothers' new farce, Burn After Reading, which revolves around the misplaced memoirs of an ex-CIA analyst. The new film is a similarly sharp satire of American life, and there are parallels with the Lebowski plot: a greedy attempt at extortion, multiple schemes incompetently botched. The contrast in tone, though, is stark. There's no real friendship in the world of Burn After Reading, there's even less heroism, and paranoia abounds. No one mentions 9/11 or the war in Iraq, but these characters, like their audience, are living in a darker world. The cult of Lebowski, I've begun to suspect, has more than a little nostalgia in it—for a decade when one could poke brilliant fun at the national disposition and the stakes didn't feel so high.