The first time I saw director Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove I was fifteen, and if we’re being completely honest, I couldn’t really understand why it was called a comedy.
It barely made me chuckle, and in fact, Dr. Strangelove freaked me out more than it made me smile.
Still, the movie’s absurdist take on war stuck with me for years, compelling me to see it again and again.
In the repeat viewings, I’ve come to two conclusions.
1) For full effect, Dr. Strangelove must be seen in a theatre.
2) Dr. Strangelove is utterly hilarious.
First Encounters of the Strangelove Kind
When I first saw Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, I saw it on a portable DVD player in my bedroom.
Dr. Strangelove needs to be seen in a theatre full of people to allow that critical mass of laughter.
For those who haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove yet, see it in a theatre!
If you can’t, try to see it with a large group.
The Genius of Dr. Strangelove
So, what makes Dr. Strangelove so great?
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is a 1964 black comedy directed by Stanley Kubrick that portrays a rogue United States Air Force Colonel who orders an all out nuclear bombing of the USSR, only for the USSR to reveal they’ve created a doomsday device that will irradiate the world if they’re attacked.
Where Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb excels is taking this terrifying circumstance and showing how shockingly not absurd it really is. The absurdity of Dr. Strangelove isn’t from the “ha, ha isn’t this so crazy,” and more from the “Jesus Christ, I can’t believe this hasn’t happened yet.”
The true absurdity isn’t the film; it’s our reality.
We do have nuclear weapons that could blow up the world, which we keep in the name of peace. That is absurd.
Director Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove reminds us of that horrible truth.
The Three Stories of Dr. Strangelove
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb shows three intersecting stories about this rogue general, each drilling into a level of war insanity, masculine paranoia, and childish stupidity.
Air Force Base
The first story is that of General Jack D. Ripper (ha!) at his United States Air Force base. His ordering the nuclear attack on the Soviet Union hearkens back to the fragility of the male ego.
When we find out General Jack D. Ripper’s rationale, the first impulse is “this is patently absurd,” but this impulse is slowly overtaken by the thought, “Oh my God, people actually do think this way.”
This creeping notion of “Strangelove isn’t that much more absurd than reality” is the absurdist, terror-ridden-humor that makes the movie so potent.
The War Room
Our second story takes place in the appropriately titled war room. It features United States President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and the titular Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) himself trying to contain the potential fallout of an unwarranted nuclear attack.
We again drill down on masculine paranoia and machismo.
Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley is a pacifist. President Merkin Muffley is painted in opposition of George C. Scott’s gung-ho and virile General Buck Turgidson, who fuses war, sex, and conquest into a single beast of adrenaline.
George C. Scott’s shift from unbridled excitement of war to rapture to horror as he realizes the impending doom of humanity practically mimics post-coital clarity. It further drives that if war is sex, then we’re all screwed.
B-52 Nuclear Bomber
In Dr. Strangelove’s third story, Major Kong pilots a B-52 nuclear bomber on a little-engine-that-could, reverse-feel-good mission for the ages.
I’ll avoid spoilers. But let’s say that somehow with the whole world conspiring against Kong’s mission, and him duty bound to see it to fruition, the audience finds themselves in the unfamiliar position of rooting for a character to fail.
For those of you who haven’t seen director Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove yet, stop here.
A Climactic Bang
For those who don’t mind a spoiler, keep reading.
Kong’s journey to bomb the Soviets, no matter the cost, again merges with masculine paranoia. With every sane head trying to cool down impending war – even with the President of the United States conspiring with the USSR to prevent nuclear annihilation, Kong refuses to depart from his mission.
The bomb doors won’t open? Kick ‘em down.
Bomb won’t deploy. Ride it down!
The last shot of Major Kong riding a giant nuclear weapon like a bronco – wielding a machine of destruction as a giant phallus – fully encapsulates his headspace.
He’s gonna screw the Soviets. He’s gonna screw them ‘til he dies.
The Absurdity of War
This is the absurdity of Strangelove. It’s the strange love of war.
The entirety of the conflict is caught up in masculine insecurity, posturing, pent up anxiety, and (ultimately) the struggle for the orgasmic release of war.
Diplomacy is a tease! War is sex!
This is what makes Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb so hilarious. You see this mindset replicated everywhere.
It’s absurd because it’s so patently wrong, yet it is the norm, and it’s more prevalent than ever.
Nuclear bluster and presidential questions of “why don’t we use nukes if we have them?” happen on a frighteningly recurring basis.
This is the absurd reality, even far removed from the world of film and make believe. This is our strange love.
Audiences must face the unfunny truth that, yes, to these men war is a hypermasculine pursuit of posturing. And it will get us all killed. So, ironically enough, what else can one do but laugh?
You laugh and let the laughter mask the dread. It’s all messed up.
That’s what I had to learn. That’s what it took three viewings to fully understand:
Stop worrying. Love the bomb.