Directed by Stanley Kubrick
An insane general starts a process to nuclear holocaust that a war room of politicians and generals frantically try to stop. The Ultimate Black Comedy
Nominated for 4 OSCARS:
Best Actor in a Leading Role: Peter Sellers
Best Director: Stanley Kubrick
Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium: Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern
At first glance little about an accidental nuclear war appears to be fodder for a comedy. In fact, previous films such as Fail Safe had mined the dramatic potential of an almost identical situation as a political thriller. Director Stanley Kubrick, however, is more interested in mining the inherent absurdity of nuclear strategy – indeed, the very idea that there can be a “strategy” to using a weapon that causes such massive death and devastation. He highlights man’s powerlessness in the face of such unthinkable possibilities, and we are forced to laugh because any other response would be too grim to bear.
A deranged Air Force Base commander, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has sent the nuclear codes to an airborne bomber and has since cut off communication with the outside world. Ripper has committed this act of insanity because he believes a Communist conspiracy is poisoning the “bodily fluids” by contaminating the water supply. This conspiracy theory was based on a real-life belief by the ultra-right wing John Birch Society that fluoridation of the drinking water was a Communist plot. To deal with this crisis, an ineffectual President (Peter Sellers) calls a meeting at the War Room (created by Ken Adam who was shockingly not even nominated for Best Art Direction by the Academy) with the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull), his key generals especially General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and the mysterious Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again).
With that seemingly unpromising comedic plot in mind, it is the stellar performances that maintain the film’s tone. George C. Scott’s performance is sometimes overlooked because of Sellers’ more showy characters and that is a shame. Scott’s facial reactions to each turn of the increasingly comic tragedy signal a man who simultaneously cannot believe what is going on and yet is still assessing the changing scenarios. He manages even to contort his body language to reflect Turgindson’s attempts to make sense of his bewildering predicament.
Despite Scott’s performance, the most memorable character is Strangelove. The Nazi aspects are based on German physicist Wernher von Braun whose past was whitewashed by the American government after World War II so that his knowledge about missile technology could be tapped. But the ideas belong to Herman Kahn. A few years earlier Kahn had written the simply titled book On Thermonuclear War, which outlined the strategies for nuclear war and a post-nuclear society that are the focus of Strangelove’s speeches. Kahn even consulted with Kubrick during the making of the film, so much so that after the film’s success Kahn suggested that he deserved royalties, to which Kubrick replied, “That’s not how it works.”
Of course, the last laugh may have been Kahn’s. When asked about Dr. Strangelove, Kahn always enthusiastically praised the movie. Kahn knew that comedy creates distance from the emotionally traumatizing, and he was confident that given enough mental distance from the horrors of nuclear war people would see what he believed to be the essential rightness of his ideas. In fact, both Kubrick and Kahn would be surprised that in the post-Cold War era, it has been the political Left which has defended mutually assured destruction and other balance of power strategies.
Another theme in Dr. Strangelove may be more enduring and that is the relationship between sex and death. Starting with an early scene between Turgidson and his mistress, everything about the film from the names (Turgidson, King Kong, Merkin Muffley) to Strangelove’s plan for a post-nuclear world (appropriate breeding ratios) suggest not just the traditional analogy between male sexuality and warfare but also an unspoken desire to use technology to return to a period on unquestioned male dominance.
The men in the War Room seem awfully intrigued by the idea that there will be multiple women for every man – which naturally will have to include the current leadership – in the mine shafts of post-nuclear world. Of course, there are no similarities between these rational men and the promise of virgins for suicide bombers. None at all.