A friend of mine saw Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb when it first opened in Paris in 1964. He and his American army friends were rolling on the floor throughout. The French audience, however, sat in stony silence. It wasn’t a comedy to them; it was a documentary.
What is it now?
In general, Hollywood is America dreaming – but Strangelove is something different, a “nightmare comedy,” in Kubrick’s words. It is prophecy disguised as farce – the finest dramatic analysis we have of the paradoxes of deterrence, that strange world of interpenetrated enmity and overriding common interest. What follows is a look at Kubrick’s masterpiece as satire, history and cultural critique.
Watching the film today, one realizes that Kubrick was exaggerating only the details and personality quirks, not the fundamentals. Peter George’s somber novel Red Alert, upon which the film is based, evolved into a comic script of its own deeper nature, almost without intervention. As Kubrick said, “The most realistic things are the funniest.” In the Strangelove universe, the serious constantly morphs into the humorous, which then reveals itself as deadly serious.
Historian Margot Henriksen, author of Dr. Strangelove’s America, describes the movie as a kind of expose – a frontal assault on “the cherished seriousness and rationality of America’s nuclear ethos and establishment. … Strangelove showed the previously disguised cold war reality for what it was: immoral, insane, deadly – and ridiculous.”
Distinguished critic Lewis Mumford defended the film’s blackly humorous take on nuclear holocaust as an example of deadpan Swiftian wit: “It is not this film that is sick: What is sick is our supposedly moral, democratic country which allowed this policy to be formulated and implemented without even the pretense of public debate.”
Strangelove’s literary antecedents go back even further, to the Old Comedy of Aristophanes – the comedy of Periclean Athens, which was ribald and irreverent and deeply political. It’s a theater of living, participatory democracy, of a citizenry involved in every matter of state. Also, it’s a comedy grounded in the body and nature, as for instance in Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens bring the bloody and stupid Peloponnesian War to an end through a brilliantly organized sex strike, or in other plays, where the chorus of frogs or wasps or birds comments on human affairs from an ironic inter-species distance. The film’s insistent “strange love” sexual subtext places it firmly in the Aristophanic tradition.
The characters in Strangelove embody social hierarchies; they are flattened, if highly compelling, and command a very different kind of response than does the typical Hollywood character – a critical reaction, rather than an emotional identification. It is similar to what Bertolt Brecht describes as the alienation effect, forcing the viewer to see characters in terms of what they represent, coloring the subjective perception of objective reality, and creating the psychological conditions for both detachment and enlightened re-engagement.
Historically, 1963 was a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis and a couple of years after the Berlin Wall crisis. It was the last moment that some Pentagon brass and nuclear strategists believed that the USA would have a significantly superior strategic position vis-à-vis the Soviets, allowing the possibility of a first strike.
President Kennedy was surrounded by such thinking. From the book JFK and the Unspeakable, by James Douglass, regarding events in 1961:
“His military advisors continued to ride hard toward the apocalypse. Kennedy was appalled by Generals Lemnitzer and LeMay’s insistence at two summer meetings that they wanted his authorization to use nuclear weapons in both Berlin and Southeast Asia. His response was to walk out of the meetings. … After one such walkout, he threw his hands in the air, glanced back at the generals and admirals left in the Cabinet Room, and said, ‘These people are crazy.’ ”
Only one month after the terrifying Cuban Missile crisis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff requested a buildup of strategic forces to the level of a disarming first-strike capability. On November 20, 1962, they sent a memorandum to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara stating, “The Joint Chiefs of Staff consider that a first-strike capability is both feasible and desirable.” Their studies showed that a first strike would kill at least 140 million Russians – but that American casualties could be kept down to a “manageable” 10 or 12 million.
This is almost exactly what General Turgidson says in the movie. (“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say … no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh … depending on the breaks.”)
In September 1963, Air Force General Leon Johnson said to Kennedy, “I have concluded from the calculations that we could fight a limited war using nuclear weapons without fear that the Soviets would reply by going to all-out war.”
Kennedy understood the real but unstated objective. Knowing that the Pentagon was gaming him, he responded, “I have been told that if I ever released a nuclear weapon on the battlefield, I should start a pre-emptive attack on the Soviet Union, as the use of nuclear weapons was bound to escalate and we might as well get the advantage by going first.”
Again, it’s precisely the gambit attempted by General Turgidson in the War Room regarding the “unpublished study” about the correct (i.e., murderous) response to a nuclear “accident” – a study apparently not shared with the president.
Kubrick’s mind was legendarily omnivorous and retentive. He subscribed to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and had read just about every book ever written on deterrence and thermonuclear war. His imagination is so rooted in hard fact that he could intuit what was taking place behind closed doors. Lyman Lemnitzer, Curtis LeMay, Edwin Walker, Herman Kahn, Henry Kissinger, so many others – like Kennedy, Kubrick realized it was a cast of maniacs that kept the nuclear show going. Kubrick and co-screenwriter Terry Southern encapsulate that insanity in the characters of Ripper, Turgidson and Strangelove – an alliance of the psychotic, the narcissistic and the psychopathic, each bizarre in his own way, but all ultimately collaborating in a genocidal groupthink.
Good satire goes directly for the insoluble contradictions, and Kubrick hits so many of them – for instance:
Only those with a superhumanly developed self-restraint and sanity could be trusted to be in control of nuclear weapons – but only a madman could create and support the logic of mutual assured destruction and its associated concepts of “overkill” and “megadeath.” Also: The effectiveness of nuclear deterrence depends on a hair-trigger response to attack – so a system ostensibly intended for preventing war is constantly provoking fear, creating a spiral of suspicion in which defense and aggression become indistinguishable. Also: To deter, the system must be rigid and flexible at the same time, robotic and humanly controllable. An engineer will tell you that any system designed around fundamentally opposed qualities is an accident waiting to happen. It is a doomsday machine, an idiot system of world-destroying power. Also: While the rhetoric is that of war avoidance – “Peace is our profession” – the underlying mentality is that of total victory over an evil enemy. So “accidents” are programmed in, as the pretext for a first strike with “acceptable” American losses. But the extent to which the possibility of a first strike is countenanced gives the lie to any ethical superiority over the other side. The system is morally bankrupt. And finally: The bomb supposedly exists to protect freedom and democracy, but at moments of crisis (which in a balance of terror means every moment), we see how the system actually functions – as the ultimate expression of elitism, accepting the very real possibility of human annihilation as the cost of dominance and control. It is the apotheosis of what C. Wright Mills, writing a bit earlier, described as “crackpot realism,” the thought process of a paranoiac. The system is politically self-deconstructing, reducing itself to rubble here before our eyes, in 90 real-time minutes.
All of these contradictions are embodied in the character of Dr. Strangelove, the crippled, fragmented machine-man who hovers like a dark angel in the corner of the War Room and our consciousness. He is the ultimate accomplishment of the film: a rich and open-ended symbol – a key to understanding both an aspect of human nature and a specific moment in time. He has become a permanent part of our culture, graphically revealing the surreal, fascistic energy that permeates the inner workings of the military-industrial complex.
In the end, Strangelove walks – he regains his potency – because this Nazi technocrat has finally become the voice of authority in the putative democracy that helped defeat his first fuhrer. He no longer needs to conceal his nature and desires. These boil down to a sadomasochistic scenario of female sexual slavery, in which the sickest members of the military-industrial patriarchy are given exclusive right to the most nubile women. It is a eugenics-inspired rape fantasy, out-Hitlering Hitler. And the gathered War Room crowd salivates over the prospect.
We realize that the narrative arc of the movie is that of coitus interruptus, which begins with Turgidson’s painfully suspended tryst with his secretary and is consummated with the final orgasm of destruction. At last, with the end of the world, the sexual suspense is broken and we can breathe; the relief is palpable. The only kind of sexual satisfaction that can exist within the mechanized and disembodied world portrayed in the film involves violence and the projection of power, which compensates for the inner emptiness and lack of feeling in a militarist wasteland.
This is the crux of Kubrick’s and Southern’s irony in Dr. Strangelove: that the higher the stakes, the greater the megatons and megadeaths wielded by these nuclear warriors, the more diminished and enfeebled and grotesque they become. A system that grants godlike powers simultaneously denies real humanity. In the end, loving the bomb means losing the soul.
Strangelove reveals the nuclear standoff as more than a political problem – it is also a symptom of self-alienation, of an imbalance between life and death, Eros and Thanatos. Underneath the antic surface – for instance, in the close-ups of General Ripper’s lined face and haunted eyes – there’s a tragic half-awareness of something terribly wrong. Something that may have to do with communists or fluoride or precious bodily fluids, or maybe something deeper that we no longer have the spiritual or emotional capability to understand or confront. The film is an attempt to regain that capability by seeing the situation as a whole, from a comically human perspective. The belly laughs that the movie elicits come from our core and bring us back into our full, social selves, away from the isolated, phobic, hyper-rationalized world of General Ripper and his compatriots.
Dr. Strangelove offers no solutions to the nuclear quandary. It just shows us where the logic of the system points, in terms of both origins and outcomes. By casting the nightmarish absurdity of the system in a comical light, he strips it of its metaphysical terror. Once we have seen Dr. Strangelove – the ghost in the war-making machine – as he is, we can begin the process of freeing ourselves from him.
HUGH IGLARSH is a Chicago-based writer, editor and film buff, who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This essay is adapted from presentations given at Mess Hall in Chicago and the Peregrine Forum in Madison, Wisconsin.