Dr. Strangelove
Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George, 1964

A psychotic general orders a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, and the government scrambles to call off the attack before it's too late.

On my list of favorite movies, this is #4 or #5; purely as a comedy, it's #1. A masterpiece.

One of the better lectures I heard in my film classes back in college was about, of all things, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This doesn't seem like a film that would lend itself to academic analysis — it's just a string of silly jokes, right? — but the speaker raised an obvious question that I hadn't thought about in these terms before: why is the movie funny? What do the jokes have in common? His answer was that the main wellspring of comedy in the Holy Grail is the way Arthur is continually frustrated in his quest — that, in a proper narrative, he would quickly gather his knights, defeat increasingly tough adversaries, and achieve some sort of fulfillment... but instead, he keeps getting sidetracked by people obsessed with coconuts and comparative government. Our narrative expectations are subverted, and so we laugh. I would take this a step further and say that the comedic theme is the mismatch of priorities: Arthur gallops around barking at people about his quest, but they seize on the wrong thing. He thinks they should say, "Tell me about your quest and how I should assist you!" but instead they ask, "Wait, where'd you get the coconuts from?" or "You're king? Well, I didn't vote for you." It's the same sort of joke as the one in Airplane! in which people in the tower are looking at newspaper headlines: "Passengers certain to die!" "Airline negligent!" "There's a sale at Penney's!" And yet — aren't these alternate priorities the correct ones? Which is more important, Arthur's silly quest or the fact that the king is gallivanting around the country on an imaginary horse?

So rather than think about sex vs. death and man vs. technology and the usual concerns of the copious analytic literature about Dr. Strangelove, on this vieweing I wondered: what's the comedic theme? Why's it funny? I think a lot of the humor — certainly not all, but a lot — derives from the inappropriate preservation of protocol. The world is about to end unless immediate action is taken, every moment is of the essence, and yet... Mandrake still has to go through the charade of treating Ripper like a superior military officer, as if his rank were still relevant after his psychotic break. Turgidson couches the situation in PR-speak — "Although I hate to judge before all the facts are in, it's beginning to look like General Ripper exceeded his authority." — as if ass-covering mattered on the brink of Armageddon. The president has to spend a precious minute going through introductory niceties in calling the Soviet premier: "Fine, I can hear you now, Dmitri... clear and plain and coming through fine... I'm coming through fine, too, eh?... good, then... well, then, as you say, we're both coming through fine... good... well, it's good that you're fine and... and I'm fine... I agree with you, it's great to be fine..." Mandrake can't get his phone call through because he doesn't have change — as if ten cents for the phone company were worth the end of the world. Bat Guano objects to shooting the Coke machine to get the ten cents because "that's private property" — as if that mattered when the bombs are about to fly. Etc., etc.
I think my favorite joke this time around was the fact that painted on the end of each missile is the message, "NUCLEAR WARHEAD - HANDLE WITH CARE". As if the usual bland warning were appropriate for a device designed to kill millions.

This class of joke fits nicely with the broader themes of the movie. No sane person would elect to turn the earth into a radioactive wasteland, but by training people to follow protocol and act in routinized ways without thinking of the bigger picture, we have created an apparatus to do just that. Now, it is a standard trope of political invective to complain about people being turned into cogs in a machine, but the big problem here is that people aren't cogs. They are neurotic monkeys. Theories like Mutual Assured Destruction require rational actors, yet so few people fit that bill! When we worry about the prospect of a kook getting hold of nukes we tend to think of some faraway madman foaming at the mouth, but even putting aside practices endemic in our society that strike me as crazy — worshipping a 2000-year-old schizophrenic, wearing clothes when it's hot out, etc. — and even putting aside the inherent insanity of the arms race that led Kubrick to conclude that he could not make a serious film on the subject, a lot of the most eminent people in modern Western countries have engaged in bizarre behavior. Ronald Reagan had an astrologer set his schedule, William Lyon Mackenzie King held seances for his dog, Howard Hughes was terrified of germs and stored his urine in milk jars... long before you work your way down to Marv Albert biting people, you have to conclude that no matter how bland and sensible people in positions of power might seem to be, they could all be crackpots. Throw in the ones that even outwardly seem like crackpots and you're in real trouble.

Peter Sellers originally portrayed the president in Dr. Strangelove as another farcical character, a fey milquetoast glued to his inhaler, but Kubrick vetoed that approach. He wanted the president to be the voice of reason in insane surroundings, a serious, respectable man. He is modeled on Adlai Stevenson. It says something that when the filmmakers looked for a model of what a sane president might be like, the closest they could come was a man who had lost twice by huge margins.

Return to the Calendar page!