Viking Night: Dr. Strangelove

By Bruce Hall

March 25, 2014

If Sigmund Freud were still alive, this image would kill him.

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The funny thing about nuclear weapons is that sometimes they cause more problems than they solve. I know it’s hard to believe. You'd think a bomb that can destroy a whole city in one shot would be a HUGE time saver. But if your enemy has them, too, this completely takes the wind out of whatever murdery surprise you had cooked up for them. Still, it's an efficient, space-age replacement for conventional warfare. Instead of sending two million teenage boys into Belgium to shoot each other in the face, the Americans and Russians settled on a decades long global thermonuclear Mexican standoff where neither side has the guts to fire first, because Armageddon.

You're welcome, Earth.

The idea is called Mutually Assured Destruction (or, ironically, MAD), whereby instead of eliminating war by setting aside our differences, we do it by building enough bombs to completely sterilize the planet, and daring the other side to come at you, bro. Sure, Word War III has yet to happen. Also, feel free to ask the citizens of Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, Central America and everyone's favorite hellhole - the Middle East - how much safer they feel.

You're welcome, Earth.

But you're not here for MY snarky indictment of geopolitics, you're here for Stanley Kubrick's snarky indictment of geopolitics. And, it doesn't get any snarkier than Dr. Strangelove, a movie so darkly, relentlessly cynical it's almost more terrifying than funny. Imagine an Oliver Stone movie with more class than hubris (or, one that's good). Imagine a black comedy whose primary source of humor is the idea that the human race is inherently, inevitably suicidal. Imagine every liberal, conservative, AND libertarian nightmare happening at once - a soft, outer shell of confusion and chaos with a creamy thermonuclear center.

Now imagine rogue U. S. Army general Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), steeped in communist conspiracy theory and more paranoid than Glenn Beck on a meth binge. Convinced the only way to beat the Reds is to blow up the entire planet, he orders a fleet of B-52 bombers to attack Russia, and then seals off the air base. His non-insane assistant, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), is too late to do anything but try to talk sense into a man who believes the Russians are controlling us through the water supply.


Meanwhile, Ripper's superior, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is called to Washington for an even keeled dressing down by President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers), a Commander-in-Chief so soft spoken he makes Jimmy Carter sound like Conan the Barbarian. In an effort to avert total disaster, Muffley invites imperious Russian ambassador Sadeski (Peter Bull) to the proceedings, only to discover that the Soviets have a very unexpected card prepared to play. While this roomful of stereotypes debates the fate of the world, Mandrake is busy trying to reason with Ripper, while the latter pumps hot lead into the American soldiers who’ve been sent to arrest him. And all the while a single, seemingly superfluous B-52 crew (which includes Slim Pickens and the future Darth Vader) prepares to drop what could end up being the most ironic bomb in the history of the world.

Quietly overseeing it all is Dr. Strangelove himself (also again Peter Sellers), the sinister former Nazi scientist the Americans sold their souls to in order to stay one step ahead of the communists. It's kind of sad and kind of funny because as with all great satire, there's a grain of truth to it. But don't feel bad if you still don't get the joke. Kubrick's screenplay (co-written with Peter George, from whose book it’s adapted, and Terry Southern, who would later pen Barbarella and Easy Rider) isn't perfect; at times it ventures well into the surreal, either undermining the satire, or making it more colorful - it depends on your level of tolerance for Kubrick's brand of distinctly acerbic wit. After all, most of the characters have damningly descriptive names, from Ripper to Turgidson to Bat Guano to the President, who is surreptitiously named after a pubic wig.

Subtle? No. But this is gallows humor at its finest, and the comedy of errors that leads to the biggest crisis in human history is juxtaposed against the very real, very chilling fact that every day - to this VERY day - a small and unrepresentative group of men around the world play God with the lives of everyone on earth. Like a cross between a Tom Clancy thriller and an episode of Archer, Dr. Strangelove feels realistic in an absurdly reassuring way. It seems like maybe this really could happen, but only if everything and everyone in the world went wrong, all at once.

Only if there really were insanely paranoid air base commanders who reported to testosterone-drunk, skirt-chasing generals who consider 20 million deaths a pretty sweet deal - if it means you get to drink beer out of the skulls of your enemies. Only if there really were world leaders so inept a foreign policy they could accidentally start a war while brushing their teeth. And only if there was a public willing to believe in, and soldiers willing to take their orders from, such people. When you break it down like that it's still funny, but in the way listening to a cancer patient joke about their disease is funny.

Should you laugh because they're laughing, or should you go ahead and buy a ticket to hell right now? I don't have an answer to that, but I can tell you that however you feel about politics, war, grain alcohol, bat guano or merkins, Dr. Strangelove will ensure that the next time you look out the window you'll wonder how the hell the human race got this far, and if we're really better off this way or not. Regardless of what you think, it's worth thinking about.

You're welcome, Earth.



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