Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb ★★★★★

“Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”

Laughter is such a strange thing. We laugh because we’re happy. We laugh because we find something amusing. We laugh to displace our discomfort. We laugh because otherwise we might cry. We laugh because we don’t know how else to react. Same response, so many different triggers. The past decade has seen those non-traditional triggers frequently exploited by “cringe comedies” like Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Office; laughing at uncomfortable or sad situations has become all the rage. But it’s one thing to laugh at the absurdity of a politically incorrect officemate. It’s another to laugh at nuclear annihilation. The degree of difficulty is steep.

Has there ever been a more deadly serious comedy or a funnier film about great tragedy than Dr. Strangelove? Kubrick plays the scenario so straight, with his black-and-white cinematography, his unadorned sets, his camerawork often handheld or static, that his story of a world pushed to the brink soars to absurd comic heights while remaining frighteningly real. (And as a recent New Yorker article revealed, the scenario wasn’t all that far-fetched.) Lacing Cold War paranoia with the obvious psychosexual implications of the military-industrial complex and men with cigars measuring the length of their nuclear arsenals, Kubrick and his co-writers Terry Southern and Peter George depict a world whose humor is inextricably intertwined with its dispiriting bleakness.

The sexual symbols and references are so prominent it’s a wonder they were slipped past the censors (it’s hard to imagine this film being approved even five years earlier). Planes are seen suggestively refueling in midair under the opening credits. Our primary villain is General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who initiates an unprovoked nuclear attack after having a moment of clarity about the Communist plot to corrupt our precious bodily fluids during a bout of impotence. Our hawkish military advisor to the President is General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), who is rather enamored of his “secretary”—though not quite as enamored as he is of the suggestion that society might survive nuclear winter underground with a ratio of ten women to every man. Our President is a pale, feckless chrome-dome ironically named Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers). Our man in the air, piloting a B-52 bomber to doom, is Major “King” Kong (Slim Pickens), who rides an engorged nuclear warhead between his legs to a great explosion below. The Russian Premier is one Kisov, who can’t always be easily reached as he is “a man, if you follow my meaning.” And our Russian emissary is Ambassador Alexei de Sadeski (Peter Bull), whose French namesake would undoubtedly have made, er, unconventional use of a doomsday device.

All these silly names and obvious references might seem juvenile were the proceedings not so sober and the parallels not so accurate. Hell-bent on power and its ostentatious displays, these men in positions of dominance beat their chests loudly to scare off competitors. But they are so short-sighted they neglect the consequences of their death pact. It’s all just a step removed from cataclysm, but it's that crucial step that gives rise to the film's many laughs. Ripper is lit and framed like Mephistopheles, puffing on his cigar, a specter of doom—whose speeches about fluoridation are hilariously ludicrous. Turgidson advocates an all-out nuclear onslaught and minimizes the potential loss of life—while behaving like a live-action Daffy Duck and flipping through his copy of “Recent Targets in Megadeath” (which, if not the name of a metal album, should become one quickly). President Muffley is weighing options of the utmost importance—while warning people not to fight in the War Room like a spineless hall monitor and downplaying the coming holocaust to the Russian Premier as though it were a mere social faux pas. And Dr. Strangelove (Sellers again), ever opportunistic, sees the occasion for social engineering that his Führer was unable to provide—if only he could stop doing battle with his possessed bionic hand.

Like most successful satires, Dr. Strangelove works because no one in it knows they’re in a comedy. Rather, they rightly behave as though they’re in a tragedy, which escalates the humor exponentially. Comedy equals tragedy plus time, but when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, time ceases to be a factor.

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