For most Americans fearing the implications of the Space Race, Nuclear Arms Race and everything communist in general, a biting political satire about all of this was the last thing they likely wanted… but even decades after its release, Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” is still just what the doctor ordered. It’s a testament to what makes comedy such an effective critic: its humor not only makes such realities easier to swallow but shades in what makes them so sobering to begin with.
The crazed Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has ordered a nuclear airstrike against the Soviet Union. At the Pentagon, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and other diplomats and military officials scramble to stop it. Meanwhile, we keep tabs on Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) as he and his crew fly to their target. Despite the depressing stakes of this tripartite plot… hilarity ensues. Ripper monologues about how the communists are after our bodily fluids; Kong dons a cowboy as he flies the plane. The Pentagon, however, provides the funniest scenes, as these politicians endlessly bicker about the correct course of action (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the war room!”). The best bits in the entire thing are the one-sided phone calls between Merkin and the unseen Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov, in which their focus is interrupted by occasional phone-call pleasantries.
The performances are played very straight, which both solidifies the stakes and greatly heightens the comedy. George C. Scott plays a Pentagon general named “Buck” Turgidson, who screams about the communists one moment, and then whispers into his phone off to the side the next, assuring his secretary that their relationship “isn’t just physical.” Sellers, capable of infinite thespian transmutation, plays three different characters. In addition to Merkin, there is Mandrake, a British RAF officer who attempts in vain to reason with Ripper, and the titular Dr. Strangelove. Strangelove, a German, Kermit-voiced, wheel-chair bound Pentagon scientist, has the least visibility within the film and yet perpetually haunts its scenes. His right arm has a mind of its own, randomly Hitler-saluting at inopportune moments and even attempting to strangle himself. The narrative progression is actively taken out of their hands, and yet the performances still create a pinball machine of natural character interactions.
However, “Dr. Strangelove” is not just a well-written farce but a well-crafted one. Black and white films can be difficult to pull off, but Kubrick plays with the frame to create pictures more dynamic in monochrome than they could be in color. There are many gorgeous aerial shots in which the blacks and grays sculpt the white puffy clouds… even if the planes in front of the green screen don’t look so convincing. In the Pentagon scenes, light and shadow play together to undercut the buffoonery with a grim splash of the apocalyptic. The room is dominated by darkness, maintaining an ominous tone in each comedic scenario, and the lights on “the big board,” which show the progressing planes, eerily glow in reminder of what fresh hell is to come.
It isn’t just the limited color palette which illustrates the story’s human cost. Inevitably, Merkin must order men to attack Ripper’s military base. Segments of Ripper’s bodily fluid manifestos and Mandrake’s cowardly negotiating are spliced in between scenes of straight-up military skirmishes. U.S. soldiers fight on different sides of the same stupid conflict; bodies crumple in front of signs reading “The U.S. Military: Peace is our Profession!” Kubrick’s irony is delivered through gritted teeth, as he never lets you forget what’s really at stake in the background as these politicians sit and jabber about how to stop it. And what of the millions of Russian civilians who stand to die at the mercy of this nuclear airstrike? As Turgidson argues, there are two conceivable options: “one where you got twenty million people killed, and the other where you got a hundred and fifty million killed.”
Human lives become chips for betting on which misguided government will come out on top, and by internalizing Cold War “us vs. them” rhetoric, the politicians have placed the entire world at risk. The escalating Nuclear Arms Race, as it’s revealed, has resulted in the creation of a Doomsday Device which will annihilate all life on Earth. Sure, everyone might die, but at least we got to push the button and send those reds and or yankees to Hell before they did us in, right? Strangelove himself, with his numerous Freudian slips pertaining to Hitler, represents the progressing dehumanizing force of science since the hydrogen bomb’s use in World War II. Science, when motivated by blind hatred, gains a mind of its own (not unlike the doctor’s right arm), escalating destructive capabilities to a point of no return. The generals sleep with their secretaries, people in power go AWOL and the politicians are left bickering while the clock ticks.
Despite the bleakness of “Dr. Strangelove,” it’s the comedy which makes its message so poignant. What’s more impressive than the consistency of the hilarity is how nimbly it balances its starkly opposing tones. The comedy is at tension with the prospect of tragedy, a monochromatic duality of truth, and yet “Dr. Strangelove” allows the two to work together rather than detract from one another. It knows not only when to be serious about its subject matter, but knows how to get the laughs back in the air. The comedy both bites and emphasizes the chilling reality of what is playing out. It had me rolling in the aisles, but in many ways, “Dr. Strangelove” inflicts a raw terror that can only be alleviated with the laughter it inspires. I couldn’t imagine watching this when it came out, when such a situation felt possible at any moment, but who knows… perhaps the horror of “Dr. Strangelove” might be closer to us than we realize, but at least it grants us the ability to laugh at its absurdity.