Sixty years ago, Columbia Pictures released the first of two black-and-white movies with the exact same premise: what if American planes with hydrogen bombs were inadvertently ordered to drop their payload on targets in the Soviet Union, potentially triggering an all-out nuclear war that wipes out humanity? The Cuban missile crisis had pushed the superpowers to the brink of conflict less than two years earlier, and film-makers were unusually eager to face their cold war nightmares head on.
The release dates were like a reversal of Karl Marx’s famous line about how history repeats itself, “first as a tragedy, second as a farce”. The farce, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, came first. Then the tragedy, Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe, arrived in October. There was a lot of messy legal fallout over the common origins of the two films, but they complement each other beautifully, with only a slight difference in perspective on our inability to manage weapons of such god-like destruction.
The message of Fail Safe: human beings are fallible. The message of Dr Strangelove: human beings are idiots.
On balance, Kubrick’s message is more persuasive. Dr Strangelove remains the greatest of movie satires for a host of reasons, not least that it hews so closely to the real-life absurdities of the cold war, with two saber-rattling superpowers escalating an arms race that could only end in mutual annihilation. There’s absolutely no question, for example, that the top military and political brass have gamed out the catastrophic loss of life in a nuclear conflict, just as they do in the war room here. Perhaps they would even nod sagely at the distinction between 20 million people dead versus 150 million people dead. All Kubrick and his co-writers, Terry Southern and Peter George, have to add is a wry punchline: “I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed.”
Part of the genius of Dr Strangelove is how deftly it toggles between the satirical and the silly without losing any of its power. You can picture the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker team behind Airplane! snickering and taking notes over funny names like Brig Gen Jack D Ripper and Col “Bat” Guano, or the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff taking a call from his lover in the war room. (“Look, baby, I can’t talk to you right now. My president needs me.”) At the same time, the film doesn’t need to put that much spin on the ball. Is there really much of a difference between Ripper (Sterling Hayden) launching a nuclear strike over fears of the Russian tainting “our precious bodily fluids” and the QAnon fantasies of the former lieutenant general Michael Flynn, who occupied a much higher position as Donald Trump’s national security adviser?
Kubrick knows when to pull back, however. Dr Strangelove doesn’t try to be a laugh-a-second spoof, because plausibility is its most important weapon. Nothing in the set-up is any funnier than Fail Safe: B-52 bombers with a nuclear arsenal are flying a routine airborne patrol two hours from Soviet targets, awaiting the usual code to return to base. Instead, their superior, Gen Ripper, issues the code for “Wing Attack Plan R”, which not only leads them into the USSR but reduces communications to a three-letter code known only to Ripper. At the war room in the Pentagon, the ineffectual president, Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), summons the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen “Buck” Turgidson (George C Scott), and other military luminaries to deal with the crisis. How could this happen? And what, if anything, can be done to stop it?
The straightforward premise is a lesson in the importance of structure in satire, which is established here not only in the solid parameters of the plotting but in black-and-white photography that presents its own rigorous deadpan. The obsessive precision of a Kubrick production doesn’t stifle the comedy in Dr Strangelove but liberates it, much like Buster Keaton holding a stone face while chaos erupts around him. Because we believe that the “Wing Attack Plan R” code would set up a top secret protocol like the one Major TJ “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) carries out on his B-52, we can laugh when his survival kit includes prophylactics, lipstick and three pairs of nylon stockings. (“Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff.”)
The casting is impeccable, starting with Sellers in a triple role as Lionel Mandrake, an RAF officer who tries fecklessly to talk Ripper down; President Muffley, who exchanges hilarious banalities with the Soviet premier while gently informing him of the situation; and Dr Strangelove, a wheelchair-using former Nazi who can’t control his saluting hand. Hayden and Pickens play to type as a towering madman and an amiable yokel, respectively, and Scott, who would play George Patton only six years later, takes the stuffing out of such military honchos as Turgidson, playing this lusty buffoon with wild eyes and belly-slapping gesticulation. There’s no error too monumental for him to minimize.
Dr Strangelove reserves a special contempt for the notion of deterrence, which it has the Nazi explain as “the art of producing in the mind of the enemy the fear of attack”. To that end, the Soviets have created a “doomsday machine” that would automatically retaliate to a nuclear attack with such force that it would render the Earth uninhabitable for 93 years. The idea is that humans are absolved from making a world-ending decision, but as it’s pointed out to the Soviet ambassador, it doesn’t work if you don’t tell anyone about it.
“It was to be announced at the party congress on Monday,” replies the ambassador. “As you know, the premier loves surprises.”
Watching Dr Strangelove today, in light of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, is to recognize all the more acutely the human flaws that are baked into weapons of mass destruction, starting with the chief architect of the atom bomb. Some of the best bits in the film barely have to reach for a joke: Kubrick merely has to point out the folly behind modern man’s greatest fear. Hubris may kill us all, but we can get a good laugh out of it first.