One thing I love about Stanley Kubrick is that he was unafraid of wading deep into political waters that others might have been too nervous to confront. That is especially true of Dr. Strangelove, which was released in early 1964: smack in the middle of the Cold War and a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. National hysteria regarding the threat of nuclear warfare had peaked at the time this film was released, making the inclusion of this opening disclaimer crucial to the comedy’s reception:
This tiny bit of reassurance did little to restore my confidence in those military safeguards, but Dr. Strangelove eventually does accomplish the goal announced in its subtitle, and manages to teach the viewer how to stop worrying and love the bomb.
The movie is divided between three settings, each dedicated to a different set of men who are the most directly involved in a quickly approaching nuclear holocaust. We begin with the hyper masculine, totally deranged, Air Force General, aptly named, Jack Ripper. Ripper grants himself the authority to launch this attack, partly due to his belief that the Russians were contaminating America’s precious fluids (with the intent to weaken American men) through fluoridation of the water supply. I like to imagine Abbie Hoffman was paying homage to this concept four years later when his counterculture political party claimed to be planning to lace the public water system of San Francisco with LSD in order to seduce the wives of their opponents.
Ripper is a pitch perfect parody of a hard nosed military man, whose paranoid delusions stemmed from a misplaced trust in his own power and authority. He is asserting himself as the alpha, because in his own words, “war is too important to be left to politicians,” — legality and human lives lost be damned. Peter Sellers’ first character in the film, the Royal Air Force Officer who tries to interrupt Ripper’s plot, is goofy and polite enough that the contrast only highlights Ripper’s brusqueness and delusions of grandeur.
Meanwhile in the war room, we’re met with the opposite end of the male leader spectrum, as we’re introduced to President Merkin Muffley’s deferential ineptitude when he attempts to right the wrong enacted by Ripper through cognitive and diplomatic means. The conversation between President Muffley and the Russian leader Dimitri Kissov is a comedic highlight for me, because it deftly shows the distance between the men calling the shots and the ones with their fingers on the triggers. Muffley can afford his meekness and docility because he is protected by the aura and strength derived from the war room. This setting is an impressive display of production design prowess, and how central those elements are to crafting a great film:
The centerpiece of the room is a wide, round, table and the backdrop is the all important “big board”. These components are the two sources of light in the room, lending these scenes a quality reminiscent of a Leni Riefenstahl Nazi propaganda film. The ambience highlights the petty and detached scheming being conducted by the leaders of the two countries. That is, until the existence of the “doomsday” machine is revealed, and the men in the war room feel the burden of their own lives at risk.
Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers) is the president’s war advisor and a former Nazi. Strangelove explains the power inherent to the doomsday device is that it neutralizes the threat of attack through the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction of both the attacker and the target. Unfortunately, the Russians had not yet announced the existence of the device, removing the deterrent factor and rendering the device only a threat to everyone on earth. Yet, the lesson for the viewer remains in tact: don’t worry, love the bomb, because by shooting first any party is guaranteeing their own destruction.
Meanwhile, the crew aboard one of the planes bound to bomb Russia consists of fresh faced young airmen who seemed to have thought, like everyone else, that this day would likely never come. The pilot, Major T.J. “King” Kong, is an affable cowboy who rallies the troops by stoking the flames of their patriotism and reminding them “Wing Attack Plan R” would only ever be enacted if the Russians had already decimated the U.S. and they had no real home to return to anyway. As “The Ants Go Marching” drones on in the background, the men begin carrying out the dubious call for retaliation, following orders and disregarding the threat to their own lives.
In this case, Kubrick is satirizing the soldiers’ loyalty and gullibility. Kong, Ripper, and Strangelove converge to form a portrait of American men at war, albeit distorted through twisted representations of symbols we’ve seen in war movies throughout all of cinema — the ones that beat the drum of American sentimentalism during times of national crises. By connecting Nazi Germany and the American President through Strangelove, one country responsible for genocide and instigating World War II, the other the only country to have deployed nuclear weapons during war — Kubrick is able to highlight the blood on the hands of those involved and the risks inherent in trusting the preservation of life to the men in the war room.
Dr. Strangelove is a wry, funny, look at political systems, and the players involved in the act of killing on behalf of allegiances to those institutions. When Kubrick later directed Full Metal Jacket in 1987, he’d take a harsher, more realistic, look at those same themes. Many of Kubrick’s films have a bedrock founded on an examination of primal human instincts, and how they have been dressed up in different ways by various factions of society. The blatant sexual imagery throughout the film serves as a reminder of how elemental the motives behind the actions are.
Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket are about militaries and war, but at a more basic level, they’re also about humanity’s fear and aggression, loyalty and obedience. Eyes Wide Shut and Lolita are about sex and desire, exclusivity and inclusion. 2001 is about space travel and omniscient machines, but also about human evolution and the role of man in the universe at large. Each of these films have demonstrative styling and the power of the atmosphere enhances the elements of show on display, but at their core, the actions of the characters are instinctual — each an ant marching one by one, steered by unseen forces both systemically complex and elementally basic.