Few movies are capable of pulling off a serious critique of the global state of affairs while still emitting endless and uncontrollable laughter beyond mere comic relief. Stanley Kubrick did just that in his 1964 satirical black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. More than half a century later, the inherent absurdity of humanity’s destructive nature holds true for those of us living through today’s health crisis.
The immediacy of the coronavirus scare certainly lives up to the concerns voiced across the globe, but this paradox derives from the fact that excessive worry and panic can damage an already delicate situation. After all, even when all the necessary precautions are taken, the best failsafe is simply acknowledging that the government’s execution of exquisitely detailed plans is ultimately out of our control. With this frame of mind, enjoying a classic like Dr. Strangelove could prove effective as a preventative measure.
One cannot help but visualize Kubrick’s hand at work in each aspect of his films. As a filmmaker, he embodied the role of an auteur in every sense of the word. Following in the footsteps of Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick’s future masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Shining (1980) similarly explored a common theme of the human psyche, particularly in light of some greater force. In order to understand the iconography of Dr. Strangelove, it is important to first trace Kubrick’s background as a young photographer for Look magazine, where he developed the traits that would later cement the artistry underlying his canon of works.
Kubrick’s tight, frame-worthy portrait shots stem from his nature as a meticulous chess player who often went through painstaking preparation, something that carried into his perfectionist directorial style that would later become a signature trademark in his films. That being said, his jazzy photos for Look magazine ironically depict the psychological side of humanity better than these perfectly-staged profile shots. Kubrick was not afraid to uncover his human identity and personally relate with the characters in his films using this spontaneous style, beginning with Dr. Strangelove.
Kubrick’s early masterpiece takes us along for a wild ride as the American President and his advisors attempt to stop a misguided order to bomb the USSR, fearing the costs should it trigger a Russian doomsday machine. The brilliant screenplay by Kubrick and Terry Southern successfully depicts the color red in a black and white film and somehow manages to spoof the serious premise of apocalyptic doom in Peter George’s 1958 novel, Red Alert. At the heart of this critically acclaimed movie is a political commentary on the need to break down the ‘iron curtain’ on man’s universal preoccupation with designing machinery specifically to bring about catastrophic consequences.
The characters of Dr. Strangelove often betray hidden meanings in their witty dialogue, such as when General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) explains to Officer Mandrake (Peter Sellers) a conspiratorial Communist plot to pollute Americans’ “precious bodily fluids,” all while smoking on a phallic cigar. This tongue-in-cheek dark humor even targets the hypocrisy of American efforts, as seen in Major Kong’s (Slim Pickens) wacky patriotism or the film’s iconic line by President Muffley (Sellers, again), “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Perhaps the most baffling sequence of events occurs towards the end, where Dr. Strangelove (Sellers, for the third time) unwillingly breaks out Nazi salutes and exclamations while sharing his plan for sheltering survivors to a more than pleased General Turgidson (George C. Scott).
At last, words cannot fully capture the film’s surprisingly relieving conclusion to an overdrawn chain of events. A shielded critique of our preparations for the worst, the resolution – or lack thereof – imbues the impending doom of nuclear disaster with a phony sense of optimism. What would happen if we learned to stop worrying and trust in the love that transcends even the coronavirus pandemic at hand? The unassuming practice of letting the chips fall where they may possesses noteworthy potential in combating anxieties not unlike those of the Cold War.
Herein lies the gravity of Dr. Strangelove as a masterpiece within the black comedy genre: worthy insights are often lingering just beneath the surface of laugh-out-loud moments. For now, I leave you with a plea to witness the film’s climactic ending in the hopes that we’ll meet again some sunny day.