by Timothy Troutner
When Stanley Kubrick released his classic film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964, tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union troubled the world. The Cold War and the possibility of nuclear apocalypse dwelt constantly in public consciousness. America had spent nearly the past two decades building up its weapons, shoring up the patriotic symbols of the nation, and pitching an ideological conflict between a “Christian nation” and “Russian Godless Pervert Systems,” to use Harry Truman’s phrase.
Against this background, Kubrick’s deeply satirical film about the absurdity of mutually assured destruction, hair trigger alerts, and egotistical masculinity in military leadership struck at the very core of American identity, and it sharply indicts the impersonal forces man unleashed upon the world in the twentieth century. The film’s action is initiated by Sterling Hayden’s paranoid character General Jack D. Ripper, who, driven by fears of communist conspiracy and the dangers of fluoridation to “our precious bodily fluids,” launches an unauthorized nuclear attack on the Soviets. Kubrick’s cast is headlined by Peter Sellers, whose brilliance as an actor shines in the three wildly different characters he portrays. Sellers’ first role is the stereotypically soft-spoken and hapless British RAF officer tasked with trying to stop the attack. In addition to this role, Sellers plays the dumbfounded American president, Merkin Muffley, who must inform the Soviets that the United States has accidentally targeted their nation for nuclear war. Finally, Sellers gives life to the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, a mad scientist, ex-Nazi figure whose tics and bizarre behavior demand more screen time. George Scott is also highly effective as General Buck Turgidson-whose over the top nationalism and patriotic bluster lead him to find a perverse pleasure in the impending attack.
Kubrick’s satire takes no prisoners, openly indicting the American military, political leaders, and the American character in general. The American military is portrayed as aggressively masculine, more interested in asserting America’s superiority than in human lives or the common good. The persistent sexual imagery in connection with the military throughout the film reasserts the association with overcompensating egoism. American political leaders fare slightly better-the President is weak and naïve, but at least he realizes the absurdity of the situation. Other American traits receive criticism-the inner cowboy blindly bent on wreaking havoc on the enemy finds expression in the fighter pilot Major Kong, who persists in his ill-fated mission despite all obstacles. The soldier who refuses to listen to Nelson Mandrake’s desperate attempts to get in touch with the President nearly dooms the world because of his refusal to damage a Coke machine. His misplaced reverence for private property stands in for the American fetishization of abstract principles manifest in the ideologies of the day. Paranoia and blind obedience dominate in the rank-and-file characters.
As this summary indicates, a potential weakness of the film is the transparently obvious satirical message-the comedy is often lost in the critique, which largely dwells on the shortcomings of the American military and the American character as whole. This criticism has some legitimacy-Kubrick is definitely heavy-handed. However, this no anti-American screed-the Soviet Union is lampooned as well. Kubrick likely would respond that the situation required little in the way of comedy- the absurdity of man’s predicament in the Cold War spoke for itself.
Besides, the most important message of Dr. Strangelove is less overt and more timeless, although it comes across quite clearly. The absurdity of the Cold War lay in man’s use of technology- the tools man had created were now dominating policy and eliminating freedom. The Russian ambassador voices the loss of human agency when he argues that they had to construct the Doomsday Machine because they knew the Americans were researching one. Policy decisions were no longer made by human choice but by the inevitability of the next technological development. This is the logic of the arms race and mutually assured destruction. Failsafes intended to prevent humans from overriding military decisions end up dooming man to helplessly stand by while his technology lays waste to the world.
The problem becomes most pressing when Dr. Strangelove suggests the use of the computer to select those who will survive the nuclear fallout in underground shelters. Man no longer has to choose-his decisions are made for him. However, those choices end up expressing man’s unconscious dark desires for domination and destruction. Perhaps the problem is not that technology replaces the human but that it expresses the darkest side of man.
The danger of nuclear war remains present today, and tensions with Russia are on the rise again. The American military establishment remains ambitious and the American character still shows many of the same defects. Perhaps the most incisive element in Kubrick’s satire, however, remains the warning about man’s ability to curtail his own freedom through technology and other impersonal forces he sets in motion. Beyond Sellers’ brilliance and the fascinating picture into the nuclear paranoia, Dr. Strangelove is worth watching for this warning, which is more relevant than ever.
Timothy Troutner is a senior studying history and philosophy.