Dr. Strangelove - Stanley Kubrick (1964)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) still has to be identified as America’s finest anti-cold-war film, clearly exposing as it does the madness of Mutual-Assured Destruction. Far from being the typical anti-war film that bombards us with senseless human brutality and naive pacifistic propaganda, Dr. Strangelove, in its representation of the ultimate depravity and hopelessness of man and his systems, is not so much anti-war as it is anti human being.

That such a film could, at the same time, be a tense melodrama and a ridiculous comedy is a tribute to the directorial execution of Stanley Kubrick (Lolita, 1962; 2001; A Space Odyssey, 1968). Kubrick’s bold use of a wide range of camera and editing techniques is aided by a tight scenario involving three simultaneous theaters of action – a US Air Force Base, the Pentagon War Room, and a bomber on a mission threatening to destroy the world. Continuous interplay between dramatic tension and comic release heightens the effect of both and makes the resulting fever pitch almost unbearable.

The most important element is, however, the self-conscious nature of the acting performances which provides immediate commentary on the roles and sends the entire film careening back and both between absurd tomfoolery and frightening reality. The characters, equipped with campus sex humor names like Merkin Muffly and Buck Turgidson would appear too absurd were it not for our own national leaders (I refer you to the Pentagon Papers, the Bush-Cheney era, etc.). In doing what he thinks is right, each player behaves heroically, yet in a fashion so parochially self-righteous that one realizes the screen writers have condemned the entire species to self-extinction.

Indeed couldn’t it be said that it is rather sick to produce a nihilistic farce about our grave world situation? The poet and critic Lewis Mumford commented on such a question in the New York Times [1]
“What the wacky characters in Dr. Strangelove are saying is precisely what needs to be said: this nightmare eventuality that we have concocted for our children is nothing but a crazy fantasy, by nature as horribly crippled and dehumanized as Dr. Strangelove himself. It is not this film that is sick: what is sick is our supposedly moral democratic country which allowed this policy to be formulated and implemented without even the pretense of open public debate.”
What is needed to cure this sickness is a common commitment to the propositions that all people are our brothers and sisters and that adversary annihilation (no matter how "evil" an adversary may seem) is always insupportable.

  1. Lewis Mumford, (letter to the editor), New York Times, March 1, 1964.

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