Essays · Movies

Paging Dr. Strangelove or: Why We Still Love The Bomb After 50 Years

To celebrate the film’s 50th anniversary, film critic Brian Salisbury revisits Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
Dr Strangelove War Room
By  · Published on February 1st, 2014

It was released 50 years ago this week, but as Dr. Strangelove’s cryptic closing ditty promised, we do indeed meet again. Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 Cold War satire has reached the half-century mark, and for this writer and many others, it remains a constantly-revisited favorite cinematic exercise in Kubrick’s storied career. Now we have received orders from C2 to execute Operation: Longevity, a highly classified mission to highlight those elements of Dr. Strangelove that provide for its continued relevance to a post-Cold War society. Classified as much as any freely-available internet editorial can be … so not at all.

Dr. Strangelove’s legacy is a funny thing, or more accurately its legacy is engrained in its use of humor. Indeed all comedies strive for humor ‐ reference for such revelatory claims can be verified in the New England Journal of Obviousness ‐ but Kubrick’s use of humor to tell this particular story is both innovative and staggeringly bold. The film serves as the premier satire of the Cold War, a tense period of saber-rattling and missile-measuring between the stubborn superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. Hey, if there is any subject guaranteed to elicit laughter, it’s mutually assured destruction.

Now, most of you reading this article were probably too young to remember the Cold War or were maybe even born outside of its conclusion. There is a considerable spacing between you and the days in which Americans daily co-existed with the very credible threat of fiery Armageddon. The ballsy triumph of Dr. Strangelove is that Kubrick did not have the benefit of that distance. He made this film at the very height of the conflict when things looked their absolute darkest. He knew people would be walking into theaters where his film would be immediately preceded by sincere “Duck and Cover” PSAs, and still, he chose to point at the two superpowers with their fingers resting firmly on the kill-switches and laugh derisively.

Make no mistake, the choice to laugh was entirely his own. The book upon which Dr. Strangelove is based, Red Alert by Peter George, was not at all a comedy. It was written as a realistic drama. Kubrick made the conscious decision to keep much of the plot of the novel but to drastically alter the tone. But why? Why did he risk alienating an audience so preoccupied with the seeming inevitability of nuclear war and the end of the world? I believe it was precisely because we were afraid. Second maybe only to horror, satirical comedy is a genre that allows us to face our fears while creating the safety of an arm’s length as we point our fingers and laugh.

All the evidence you need is in the second half of the film’s impishly cumbersome title. In the mid-1960s, we needed something to alleviate the constant and formidable state of dread. Kubrick’s title takes the defiant stance to not only no longer be afraid of “the bomb,” but to actually love it, to make it the subject of amusement. The entire film is an absurd farce about best-laid plans, about how there is no fail-safe when it comes to mankind and our innate predilection toward self-destruction. One man decides to raise the temperature of the Cold War and is able to launch an offensive which would have been averted, if not for one malfunctioning radio on one misguided bomber. It’s a horrific conceit, but Kubrick is unflinching in his hilarious causticity.

Kubrick’s mockery of the jingoism at the heart of the conflict is wonderfully subversive, and yet we sometimes find ourselves laughing too hard to notice. Col. Bat Guano (such a great name) believes Captain Mandrake is a prevert [sic] simply because of his differing uniform and accent. Guano is also deeply offended at the idea of shortchanging the Coca-Cola corporation, a company symbolically inextricable from the American way of life. This send-up of jingoism culminates of course into one of the most iconic moments in cinema. Near the film’s climax, just when crisis seems averted, the image that thrusts our planet into total annihilation is a cowboy riding a nuclear bomb, proudly hooting and hollering as he is transformed into an instrument of cataclysm. If that’s not a skewering of mindless patriotism, then that actor’s name wasn’t Slim Pickens. And his name was totally (changed from Louis Burton Lindley Jr. to) Slim Pickens.

The sexually suggestive names of the characters in Dr. Strangelove is another ingeniously subversive move. President Merkin Muffley, ‘Buck’ Turgidson, and a Russian ambassador named for the Marquis de Sade? It’s as if Kubrick is daring you to let your mind slip lasciviously into the gutter and then rewarding you with a justification of your dirty thoughts. It also prompts the audience to laugh at the men in authority, which subconsciously has them questioning the very nature of hierarchy and control. Of course, the scarier subsequent thought is how we really view the people assigned to protect us, those tasked with staving off war and disaster. Kubrick is also playfully jabbing at the misogyny of war by painting it as a byproduct of the male libido. In certain moments of the film, he even suggests that warmongering is the business of men with sexual inadequacy issues. Why is General Ripper launching this violent one-man crusade against Communism in the first place? He attributes the fluoride in the water as the cause of one recent instance of impotence. By all accounts, a humorous, but a rather scathing indictment of the military and its appointed doomsday guardians.

While allowing for some distance, having a chuckle at these terrifying things does not mean we don’t deal with them. There’s a perverse sense of comfort in the acknowledgment of the precarious nature of our global survival. After all, if a series of goofball dominoes can be set cascading by the most random of catalysts, what use is there in preparing or, more to the point, in fretting at all? Kubrick doesn’t cower under a table at the thought of apocalypse but instead adheres to Henri Bergson’s position that comedy is the realization of one’s own mortality. It would seem that the idea of an internal screw-up launching the nuclear war that destroys all of humanity in one fell swoop is a pretty pronounced and courageous acceptance of that mortality.

That’s all well and good, but the Berlin Wall has come down. What’s the lingering appeal of Dr. Strangelove? The fact of the matter is that we are still 100% living in the midst of a cold war. If what we’re talking about is the constant threat of aggression and violence without an official declaration of war or any discernible rules of engagement, the more contemporary version of the Cold War is terrorism. It’s true that we have launched official military action against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and against the Iraqi regimes, but more often than not the terrorist attacks on American soil, as well as other locations worldwide, are committed independently of formal combat and against non-combatants. What this means is that, while the political and religious motivations have changed, we still live beneath that same Sword of Damocles that sent our parents or grandparents scrambling for cover in lead-lined shelters.

So how do we deal with this crippling fear? If you’re British filmmaker Christopher Morris, you take the Kubrick approach. Morris’s film Four Lions is itself a satire that, much like Dr. Strangelove, derives its humor from the introduction of incompetence as a way to undermine a shadowy threat. Morris shows us a group of dopey suicide bombers who are disarmed (so to speak), and in fact humanized, by their bumbling ineptitude. As with Dr. Strangelove, the jokes and comedic subject matter of Four Lions is tremendously bold given the year of its release. Its existence further illustrates that the human inclination to laugh, even nervously, at the things that terrify us on a visceral level is a timeless and universal phenomenon.

It may make us feel better, but does this approach serve any concrete function? Further testament to the power of the film, Dr. Strangelove so shocked people into awareness of the fallibility of supposed nuclear weapon fail-safes that it actually incited internal operational changes within the military so as to prevent the scenario in the movie from actually transpiring. Basically, the Department of Defense took one look at the film, assessed their protocols, and determined that they were actually vulnerable to the exact situation, a situation that seemed so comically far-fetched.

“The movie itself caused the Air Force and the Navy and the Pentagon to put an emphasis on things like psychological screening for military officers who had access to military weapons. So that we don’t end up, in the real world, with a General Ripper.” ‐ Richard A. Clarke, author of Against All Enemies

Clarke goes on to admit that certain lines of dialogue from Kubrick’s film are now standard tradecraft of the national security business. Lines like “he’ll see the big board,” and “you can’t fight in here, this is the war room” are evidently to this day routinely bandied about in the offices of some of the most powerful men on the planet.

We must protect the legacy of Dr. Strangelove, comrades, even if we must secure the original prints in a fallout shelter or a mineshaft deep below the surface of the Earth. Satire is vitally important as a cultural coping mechanism. We must ensure that films like Dr. Strangelove and Four Lions are shielded from the fallout from the decimating garbage bombs dropped by the likes of Friedberg and Seltzer. Hopefully, the half-life of that contamination is relatively short.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.