Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion,
and the international Communist conspiracy
to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids."
—Colonel Jack D. Ripper, Dr. Strangelove
I do so love this film—not only is it easily my favourite Kubrick film (a director whose genius I freely acknowledge while not necessarily loving much of his oeuvre), but it is a fixture in my top five favourite films, period. I've been rewatching it this afternoon and pulling screen captures in preparation for teaching it in my intro to film class this week, and just generally losing myself in it.
Whenever I watch it, my laughter at its hilarity is always slightly checked by an awareness of just how dark and bleak the humour is—or was. The first time I ever watched the film was for a class in my undergrad, in the early 90s. Hence, my familiarity with Dr. Strangelove began after the Cold War had ended, during a time when it appeared to many that the United States was permanently ascendant and American-style liberal democracy had proven itself the acme of societal evolution (see, Fukuyama, Francis: History, and the Ending Thereof). But even now, with those delusionally halcyon days of the new world order rather emphatically behind us, and amidst the hysterical rhetoric of the War on Terror, it is difficult to understand the nuclear paranoia of the Cold War in the 50s and 60s. It is hard to imagine the ever-present anxiety of the spectre of nuclear annihilation; my parents talk about air raid drills as a regular punctuation of their young lives, of being sent home from school early during the Cuban Missile Crisis praying with their families around the radio that they weren't about to be wiped out by thermonuclear bombs. I have at least a little inkling: I remember my father's sombre concern about Reagan's election in 1980 (I was eight at the time), expressed as "I'm afraid he won't be afraid of starting a war with the Russians." I came of age during the Cold War Redux, as we might call it, as Kissinger's détente gave way to Reagan's overheated rhetoric about "the evil empire," and films such as The Day After gave us starkly vivid images of the aftermath of a nuclear war. (I was not allowed by my parents to watch that movie—they did not want me or my brother to have to deal with the anxiety that inevitably came from such a brutal depiction of nuclear warfare—which was, not insignificantly, optimistic in its estimation of human survival).
Once (again, I think I was around eight years old), I quoted to my parents an interesting fact I'd read about the survival talents of spiders: that they would likely be one of the few species to survive nuclear war. To which my mother replied, "No, we'll survive!" I'm not sure what disturbed me more: the vehemence with which my cool factoid was quashed, or the tremor in my mother's voice as she did so. I think I can start charting my own nuclear anxieties from that moment. I remember too the sense of dread I experienced every time they moved the hands forward on the Doomsday Clock—seeing it as I did with the literal-mindedness of a child, believing that when it hit midnight, that was the end.
Even growing up with such anxieties, the nuclear paranoia that was the context for Dr. Strangelove remains hard to fully imagine today. And so it is similarly hard to wrap my head around the audacity of the film's humour. The novel on which it is based, Red Alert by Peter George, is a straightforward political thriller; and Stanley Kubrick's initial script drafts were not humourous or satirical, but essayed a serious and dramatic narrative. But he found that the tone of the story kept running up against the often absurd contradictions of nuclear logic, especially in the premises of mutually assured destruction. "I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully," Kubrick said, "one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question." Hence his decision to make it a black comedy, which was one of those choices that should be enshrined in film history as a turning point into genius. For Dr. Strangelove could not have been the trenchant critique it was had it played it straight: the absurdly amoral discussions in the War Room, in particular General Buck Turgidson's suggestion that they go all in on Colonel Ripper's sneak attack, exactly echo the actual contingency plans of the Cold War.
My favourite line in this scene is Turgidson's caveat "I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed!", which sums up so perfectly the desperately euphemistic logic of nuclear war: millions of lives instantly snuffed out, millions more suffering the inexorable agonizing death of radiation poisoning, and billions ultimately dying of privation and exposure, neatly divorced from brutal reality with such terms as "acceptable losses." Possibly one of the best discussions of this subject I've read is Martin Amis' essay "Thinkability," which prefaces his 1985 collection of short stories Einstein's Monsters. The euphemisms and clichés of the Pentagon's rhetoric about nuclear war all attempt to hide the basic, inescapable reality of nuclear war, which Amis characterizes as "everything becoming nothing, all at once."
What is less difficult to comprehend and understand today is the culture of conspiracy and paranoia that informs Colonel Ripper's decision to launch his pre-emptive attack. Though framed in the language of absurdity, the figuration fluoridation of drinking water as a Communist plot was not an uncommon meme in conspiracist circles. Some things never change: watching Glenn Beck today (or rather, watching the thirty seconds or so of him I can stand at a time), Colonel Ripper's delusions seem mild. I take comfort in the fact that Beck does not command a wing of B-52 bombers, but it is a sad statement of today's climate when the satirical language of Colonel Jack D. Ripper is mild in comparison to that of the highest-rated news channel in the U.S.
But I digress … I told my students the other day that when we study film, in addition to its aesthetic dimension, we're concerned both with what they can tell us about their historical moment and with what they still have to tell us about ours … and that, ultimately, it's the latter category that tends to most define those films that we return to over and over. Dr. Strangelove never gets tired for me. Hopefully my class feels similarly.