The opening lines of The Big Lebowski leave no doubt about it: if there is a man for his time and place, the Dude is the man for that. He fits right in there, we are told: in Los Angeles, in 1991. But what else is he fitting into? and how?
The answer is obviously the Gulf War: images of Saddam and Bush are latent throughout the film and both the plot and Operation Desert Storm are set in motion by the need to “draw a line in the sand.” From the unlikely duo formed by the Dude and Walter to the mostly silent role played by Donny, the film is an allegory of American political life during the Gulf War.
The Dude and Walter: An Unlikely Pair
Aside from a shared passion for bowling, everything sets Walter Sobchak and Jeffrey Lebowski apart.
The Dude, as he prefers to be called, is a Left wing hippie. His achievements, which he lists for Maud, include drafting the original Port Huron statement – the birth of the SDS movement – and being part of the “Seattle Seven” – better know as the SLF, an activist group opposed to the Vietnam war.
Since those politically formative years, the Dude has withdrawn into a form of apathetic, hedonistic stance best summed up by the Dude himself:
Walter comes from a drastically different background. Having “dabbled with pacifism,” his truly formative experiences lay in eyeball to eyeball combat with “Charlie”. His excessive righteousness and insistence on the rules all lie on this rationale: “This isn’t Vietnam, there are rules.”
Brought together by the Coen brothers, the Dude and Walter are a fitting – if unlikely – duo representing the extremes of American political life. Their formative experience – that of protests and wars of the 1960s – form the backdrop to their present decisions as does the ’60s soundtrack to events set in the ’90s.
A Broken Dynamic
“They call it the City of Angels, although I don’t find it to be that exactly” says the narrator. As hawks (Walter) and doves (the Dude) enter the ’90s, their outdated references leave them unprepared for the challenges they must face. Unlike Walter’s ranting against Donny being “like a child, walking into the conversation without a frame of reference,” the Dude and Walt are like dinosaurs: entering the conversation with an expired frame of reference.
For the Dude, the clear-cut principled stances of the past are replaced by crippling self-doubt. His motives are transient: money, concern for “that poor woman,” conspiratorial theories and, when all else fails, Walter’s rhetoric. This is exemplified one of the Dude’s classic one-liners, drawn as much from Walter’s reading of the rug incident being “unchecked aggression” as from George Bush’s speech which is played in the background of the opening scene:
Impersonating a Left unsure of its values and uncertain of which course of action to take, the Dude follows Walter – a belligerent Right-wing – only to be disappointed in him.
Walter’s clear-cut distinctions between friend and foe – keeping in a belligerent key – are also comically out-dated in a decade where war takes place with no soldiers on the ground. Always eager for a fight – be it with the failed transaction or with little Larry – his desire to ride into battle is always foiled by the absence of a clear enemy.
Ultimately, both fail to grasp the situation and act decisively upon it. Their outdated ideological models no longer match the conflicts they are attempting to solve, yet they cannot change. As they rely mutually on one another for self-assurance, they also maintain one another trapped in their respective roles.
In the end, for reasons unknown to either of them, “the Dude abides.” With no understanding whatsoever, both heroes – “although what is a hero?” – emerge victorious and renew the status quo: bowling.
Shut the fuck up, Donny
The Walter/Dude duo is completed by a third member: Donny. In this political allegory, Donny is the silent majority.
Accused of “being like a child without a frame of reference,” Donny is kept quiet not so much by being disengaged, but by the obnoxiousness of the extremes. The Coen brothers thus aptly depict the American middle ground as being kept quiet by the sheer loudness and intensity of the debate between Neocons and Liberals.
Fittingly, his demise occurs in a gun-less battle, representing the absurdity of the proclaimed “war without casualties.” His passing is also the chance for Walter and the Dude to showcase their out-dated mode of thinking, the Dude inquiring if he was shot when no shots have been fired and Walter placing him alongside his dead comrades of the Vietnam War in a tragically out-of-touch eulogy.
Lastly, the funeral is also the occasion to see the broken dynamic between Walter and the Dude – and between Left and Right – as the Dude is once more aggravated by Walter’s excess – “what was that shit about Vietnam?” – yet still reconciled in the end.
The Heart of America
The end of this tale of American politics is handed to the narrator, a mythical figure of the true heart of America: aptly named “the Stranger” though he speaks of his own land, he has no bearing over the events he has recounted and he is bemused by the unlikely victory of the Dude and Walter.
Despite his ancient wisdom, he too is unable to keep up with the events unfolding and is as out-of-place as a tumbleweed in downtown L.A.