Film * Stanley Kubrick * Peace Is Our Profession * 1964
Well, here’s yet another edition in the infinite series entitled Movies Matt Has Never Seen for No Good Reason. And so here I am again, having just watched a classic movie that everyone loves, wondering how in the hell to talk about it. “Hey, yo, check out this movie that’s one of the best films made by one of the most iconic filmmakers of all time! It’s real good!” Like yeah, of course it is, idiot, what are you even doing with your life? I mean, good question, but one which is beside the point. Dr. Strangelove is new to me, and therefore I’m going to be enthusiastic. For some reason, when I think about any movie made before like, Blazing Saddles, I’m genuinely surprised when they’re funny. And that’s absurd. Especially considering I’m into Modernism and will cite Evelyn Waugh and Antia Loos as examples of comedic literature, both of which predate this film by thirty or more years. Yet there’s something about this movie which has a modern feel to it. Chalk it up to Kubrick being ahead of his time, I guess. There’s a subtlety to some of the writing which can get buried by some of the broader strokes, I think, and maybe that’s what I’m thinking of. Or maybe it’s because this movie becomes suddenly relevant whenever Republicans are in office.
If you’re like me and have for whatever reason avoided watching this here movie, I will attempt a brief summary. This is very much a Cold War movie, and although the themes and attitudes of the characters are universal, the setting and plot are very much a relic of the 1950’s and 60’s. As such, it helps to have a cursory understanding of what the world looked like back then. Once upon a time, there were two world superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Both powers had large nuclear stockpiles ready to launch at each other. However, either side was kept at bay for fear of retaliation, which is usually known as mutually assured destruction. Dr. Strangelove is a comedy of errors which poses the question: what if a bunch of dummies actually control this process? The story follows a series of ridiculous, silly characters who attempt and fail to prevent global annihilation. Look, I’m not going to take too much care to avoid spoilers for a 54 year old movie, sorry. Besides, that’s not really the point of Dr. Strangelove. While the movie takes the rough structure of a political thriller, that’s only to bolster the absurdity of all these goofs and the constantly devolving situation the film is presenting.
Here’s why you should watch Dr. Strangelove if you haven’t, and why you should watch it again if it’s been awhile. Watch it for Peter Sellers knocking it the fuck out in three different and wonderful comedic roles. His turn as the President is probably the high point of the film for me, or rather, it would be if it wasn’t for George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, which I think we can all agree is a perfect name. Having only really known Scott from the times my old man forced me to watch Patton, his performance in Dr. Strangelove came as something of a surprise, as in, this guy has a sense of humor? Who knew! And yet here he is, riding a fine line between being a ham and being understated, all the while delivering great lines. My favorite: “Sir, you can’t let him in here. He’ll see everything. He’ll see the big board!” Also: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.” Meanwhile, Dr. Strangelove is also ahead of the curve when it comes to making fun of fluoride conspiracy theorists, so you can’t go wrong, really.
By the time I was old enough to be politically aware, and especially by the time I was well-read enough to have an actual sense of what was happening in the world, the Cold War was over. The Berlin Wall fell when I was ten. I remember seeing it on TV and not really having a keen sense of what all the people running around being super stoked about knocking a wall over really meant. I’m sure it came up in class, but we’re all still in elementary school and honestly tetherball was more important to me at the time. Probably the most relevant thing to me about the abrupt dissolution of the Soviet Union was the fact that all the maps changed and kids were bummed about having to figure out what a “Ukraine” was. Later on, what with all the fancy-man schoolin’ and all, I went back and ended up taking an interest in the nuclear policies of the time. As noted in the film, we had bombers in the air 24 hours of the day, loaded up with nukes in case the Reds tried something. Of course we eventually developed the intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear-warhead equipped submarines in addition to the planes which combined constitute that thing our president didn’t know existed, the nuclear triad.
Oh, we still do all that, by the way. Technologically speaking, the twentieth century was the fastest moving hundred years in human history. We went from riding horses around at the turn of the century to machine-gunning millions of people to death in about fifteen years. Not too much longer than that we developed a technology that could very well exterminate the species. Even now, with our post-Cold War reduced arsenals, we’re sitting on enough ordinance to extinguish most life on the planet. Worldwide destruction aside, that’s an astounding technological achievement! Way beyond what we as a species could realistically deal with rationally, considering the ability to blow it all up came about within half a human lifetime. We had to come up with entirely new governmental infrastructures just to begin to handle what we created with nuclear weapons, and it’s no wonder we were entirely too free and easy with them early on. And if you think that maybe we were a little reckless with them, well obviously. Before we even realize what had happened, we found ourselves in a desperate race with a powerful rival just to keep up, because to be outgunned was to be at risk of being taken over. So the bombs got bigger and the technology got scarier, and the entire world was dependent on hope. Hope that the people in charge, the ones making possibly world-ending decisions, were sane and stable.
The situation was, and is, frankly absurd. That’s all Dr. Strangelove is saying, and it was made at a time that was fresh off the Cuban Missile Crisis when it just about popped off for real. And how stupid would that be? How psychotically paranoid do you have to be to be willing to risk the entire human race over some politically ideology? The best we ever came up with to deal with the situation – which to be clear is two large groups of people with different ideas of how to organize society – is mutually assured destruction, which is exactly what it sounds like. Like the only thing keeping one side from straight up murdering hundreds of millions of people was the thought of maybe also being blown up in the process. And for some people? Well maybe it was worth it just to rid the world of the dang Commies. All Dr. Strangelove was asking, in between comedy bits, was “how far-fetched is this?” How hard is it to imagine decision-makers being motivated by sheer certainty, acute paranoia, and a self-righteous, monumental ego? In retrospect, I’m not so sure Dr. Strangelove is a comedy at all.