Stanley Kubrick, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb” (1964)
Notable as the film that features British actor Peter Sellers in three very different roles, this black comedy is a satire on the Cold War that had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and which extended to the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell, and the attitudes, culture and outlook associated with that period. In particular, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, in which countries refrain from nuclear war due to the fear of universal nuclear catastrophe resulting from detonation of an atomic bomb irrespective of who drops it first, is revealed as an inadequate response to a situation of deadlock which should be resolved by communication and diplomacy, both options being badly bungled by politicians on both sides. The film is outstanding for its cast of actors and their acting: Sellers has perhaps never been better before or since he made the film, and other actors like George C Scott, Slim Pickens and Sterling Hayden also distinguish themselves playing characters on the brink of mental derangement brought about by extreme fantasies and paranoia born from their military training and background.
The narrative divides into three connected strands: General Jack D Ripper (Hayden) is so hung up about the Commies contaminating America’s vitality – there is a clear theme of nuclear power being analogous to male sexuality, therefore paranoia reveals male sexual inadequacy – that he orders a sudden nuclear air strike on the USSR and four bombers take off to drop their loads far deep in Soviet territory. News of the order reaches the White House where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers) frantically tries to contact and convince his Soviet counterpart that the attack is a mistake. Muffley tells his War Secretary Turgidson (Scott) to storm the military base where Ripper and his second-in-charge Captain Mandrake (Sellers) are located; Mandrake tries to stop Ripper from ordering the nuclear attack but fails so he turns instead to figuring out the recall code that will stop the bombing. The base is stormed and Ripper’s men, believing they are being attacked by the Soviets, fight back. Ripper commits suicide and Mandrake finds the recall code and phones the White House.
In the meantime the President and his cabinet are shocked at news from the Soviet ambassador Alexei Sadeski (Peter Bull) that the USSR has built a doomsday machine after its politicians read a New York Times article proclaiming that the Americans had already made one. Muffley summons his scientific advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers) who suggests that the ambassador’s statement is a ploy. Sadeski admits the doomsday machine’s secret was going to be revealed by the Soviet government in another week.
Three of the four US bombers are eventually persuaded to turn away but the fourth, headed by Major Kong (Pickens) heads for a ballistic missile complex in remote Soviet territory and in spite of various technological malfunctions in the plane – malfunctions deliberately installed so as to make the job of dropping bombs difficult and so enforcing caution on those who would use the bomb – Kong manages to get it going in a spectacular scene suggestive of sexual penetration and the adolescent schoolboy reaction to “getting it up”. On receiving the news that a nuclear bomb has been released, Muffley and his dejected cabinet begin discussing how they can protect the American population from the inevitable radiation fall-out once the US and the Soviets begin trading inter-continental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in earnest. The weird Dr Strangelove, struggling with his atavistic Nazi tendencies, finally stands up and the feared doomsday machine is triggered as suggested by the film’s repeating coda to the tune of Vera Lynn’s famous World War II song “We’ll meet again’.
The various characters in the film draw their effectiveness from the real people who inform them: Strangelove is based on famous German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, physicist Edward Teller, futurist and strategist Herman Kahn, and mathematician John von Neumann; President Muffley is based in part on US politician Adlai Stevenson; and Mandrake is based on British airforce officers Sellers had known during World War II. Mandrake is played fairly straight though it is not difficult to see Sellers’s most famous role of Inspector Clouseau of Pink Panther notoriety in the character and Muffley is also quite a straight, non-comic character in spite of the hilarious lines he sometimes has to deliver. Bureaucracy and political ineptitude are targets for satire through these characters. The sinister Dr Strangelove is a metaphor for Nazi scientists and others who fled to the US from Germany while the latter country was descending into flames and hell in 1945, and whose loyalties to America might still be in doubt despite the passage of time. Strangelove worships science and technology and the capabilities and range of opportunities these offer; his character might be said also to satirise those who fetishise technologies of annihilation so much that they rejoice even in the alarming number of deaths the weapons are certain to cause.
Sexual innuendos abound in the characters’ names, the language they use and their actions (Strangelove’s behaviour at the end of the film being an example) and in much of the film’s visuals and the images employed, especially near the end. This suggests that the competition to build up armed forces and military weapons with no thought for their consequences is a puerile fantasy that can only end badly.
Cinematography is employed in ways that enhance the film’s claustrophobic paranoia: the bomber aircraft is cramped, the President’s war room looks bunker-like, sealed off from public scrutiny, the headquarters at Ripper’s military base is made bunker-like as well due to the attacks on it. The film’s climax and conclusion are dominated by scenes of the bomber flying to its definition, all flipping backwards and forwards among themselves, to create a feeling of growing tension as viewers become convinced that the bomb will be dropped in spite of the White House’s best efforts to stop it.
While the film has dated in nearly 50 years as of this time of writing, what with military technology having changed dramatically to the extent that aerial bombing has all but ceased, the point that reliance on technological balance between enemies is fragile at best and dangerously unstable at worst remains and that there is no technological substitute, however seductive, for openness, accountability and diplomacy.