Commentary Magazine


The Strangely Polite

The most memorable comic elements in Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant and impudent new movie, Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, are an assortment of visual gags: two airplanes copulating in mid-air in accompaniment to the screen credits; an infantry battle raging in the focus of a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign; two hydrogen bombs mottoed “Hi There” and “Dear John”; Peter Sellers in a vaudeville-style battle with a right arm uncontrollably intent on raising itself in a Nazi salute; Slim Pickens flying through the air waving his ten-gallon hat astraddle a bomb; and several others. These gags have undoubtedly done more than anything else in the film to earn Kubrick and his collaborators on the script, Terry Southern and Peter George, their current reputation in some quarters for being radical social healers and, in other quarters, for being tasteless sick-joke makers. For to watch images like these being imposed on a story about the onset of nuclear war—indeed, even to acquiesce in the idea that such a story is a possible occasion for them—is bound to bring with it a frisson of overwhelming impiety.

The plot of Dr. Strangelove by now probably needs only the barest summary. A psychotic Strategic Air Command general, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), convinced that the Russians are poisoning all our “vital body fluids,” orders his planes to attack the Soviet Union. The bombers cannot be recalled except by a prior signal of three code letters known only to Ripper, and there is less than two hours’ time before they strike. Washington dispatches infantry troops to the SAC base to wrest the code from Ripper, but he declares the troops to be Russian and gets his men to fire on them. By the time the code is finally discovered and the planes called back, a Russian anti-aircraft missile has crippled one of them. The damaged aircraft does not receive the countermanding radio signal and continues on to the nearest target. Consultation over the hot line between the President and the Soviet Premier reveals that the Russians no longer have any control over the matter either, for they have recently put into operation a “doomsday machine” which is triggered to go off automatically the minute Soviet territory is attacked. And so, simulating a conventional suspense by moving back and forth from plane to SAC base to Washington, the film proceeds tautly to the montage of mushroom clouds with which it must inevitably end. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the brilliance and nerviness of Kubrick’s impiety is that Dr. Strangelove does end with the mushroom clouds, that Kubrick, in other words, did not blink the logical necessity of his creation, and that he succeeded—partly with the aid of background music and partly by sheer cinematic sorcery—in making the sight of one nuclear explosion after another the funniest visual gag of all.

There is also a good deal of verbal joking in the movie—not all of it, however, quite so successful. Many of the jokes are in fact rather more banal than might be thought seemly in a production so insistent on its “advanced” taste in humor (“He is a man of the people, but he is also a man,” says the Russian ambassador by way of suggesting that the President might reach the Soviet Premier at a certain unlisted number in Moscow). Dr. Strangelove may, as its admirers assert, be bringing fresh air into the murky regions of our social and political insanity, but it certainly does not do so by opening itself anarchically to the possibilities of madness as, say, the Marx Brothers did in Duck Soup. On the contrary, within its own confines the movie remains surprisingly careful and measured, with much of its comedy dependent on the simple and time-honored device of having the characters talk and act at cross-purposes. Everything is kept just slightly out of connection with everything else, and the final result is a sort of burlesque on the breakdown of communication, like one of those old Abbott and Costello dialogues. While the pilot of the bomber is promising his crew that they will all be promoted for their part in this historic occasion, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) and Premier Dmitri Kissoff are arguing over the hot line about which of them feels more truly sorry for what has happened, and a British officer (Peters Sellers again) is in a phone booth with the secret code trying desperately to reach Washington—without change for the phone. And at the center of all, this confusion stands the boyish, gum-chewing patriot, Air Force General Buck Turgidson, who suffers from an almost constitutional incapacity to focus on whatever is the issue at hand, and who, as played by George C. Scott in a thoroughly subtle yet muscular performance, becomes the movie’s main source of comment on the comedy of mismatched intentions that it conceives the international political situation to be.

A spoof Dr. Strangelove certainly is, but the spoofing is neither pure not perfect, for other impulses are also at work in the movie. No more than Peter Sellers’s Dr. Strangelove could control his right arm, it seems, could Stanley Kubrick control his love and great gift for movie-making—even when that gift was helping to undercut the movie being made; possibly in a film that makes so much of men’s powerlessness, the camera, too, will have its way with them. For example, breaking into a ridiculous picaresque battle at the SAC base, a nervous hand camera suddenly brings a vividly real infantry war onto the screen—which has the momentary effect of destroying the atmosphere of fantasy which is so essential to the comic force of this movie. Similarly, just as Sterling Hayden is making one of his most insane speeches, the camera stops to catch and play over his face (a face to which Kubrick’s art has made love before), looking almost statuesquely beautiful and anything but villainously insane.

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But apart from such considerations as these, the purity of Dr. Strangelove as an anarchic spoof is also compromised by the political partisanship it subtly expresses. Robert Brustein has praised Kubrick for achieving a rare freedom from the “stink” of ideology, right or left, but Dr. Strangelove is not nearly so liberated from politics as Mr. Brustein would have it. In fact, the movie throughout plays a curious game with its own political attitudes and with those of the audience, calling on responses to ideas it neither admits to having nor assumes any responsibility for.

About one-third of the action, for instance, takes place in an immense, airless chamber called the War Room. It is here that the President and his advisers confer about whether and how the war might be averted, and it is on the scenes in this room that everything else hangs. The War Room is bare and extravagantly modern, seemingly put together of onyx and plastic and walnut; it is the perfect visual setting for what takes place there—indeed, it is Kubrick’s best realized cinematic invention, in a young career that has already produced many. What makes the War Room perfect, however, is not that it is a satiric caricature of nuclear-age government (though at times it is pushed into serving as one), but that it is a brilliantly conceived Utopia, a nightmare Utopia, the Nowhere of hypothetical speculation inhabited by the minds of the experts on nuclear war.

The War Room is supposed to be in Washington, but it could really be anywhere, underground or even under water. No one is ever seen entering or leaving (the one person who arrives there in the course of the movie, the Russian ambassador, simply materializes between camera angles). Only a lighted wall map and some telephones on a huge circular conference table bespeak any connection with what is going on outside: as the planes under Ripper’s orders advance on, and subsequently retreat from, the Russian borders, some person or electronic device on the other side of that wall records their progress on the map; the phones establish a few extremely hard-come-by points of contact—with Moscow, with the SAC base, with Turgidson’s impatient girl friend. Inside this non-connected, non-existent place, the deliberations carried on fall very naturally into the terms first presented to the world by Herman Kahn, who, as the author of On Thermonuclear War and Thinking About the Unthinkable, is perhaps the most thoroughgoing negative Utopian of our time. The President and Turgidson and Dr. Strangelove, a sinister German nuclear physicist (also played by Peter Sellers, who is so terrifyingly plastic an actor that by himself and in his person he very nearly constitutes a statement on the obliteration of man), discuss precisely those questions that have been outraging the sensibilities of the American liberal intelligentsia for the past several years: questions like, Can the nation survive a nuclear war? What is an “acceptable” number of casualties? Would the survivors of a nuclear war envy the dead? The truth of the matter is that although Dr. Strangelove is an adaptation from Peter George’s novel Red Alert, the movie could very easily have been written by Herman Kahn himself; he outlines just such plots in his books and even calls them “scenarios.” To be sure, Kubrick and his collaborators set up all this discourse to poke fun at it, but then—for those who have known how to read him—so does Kahn, who never fails to imagine all the possibilities for chaos in the positions he offers. And where Dr. Strangelove is at its best, it most resembles Kahn in the way it rubs the hypothetical up against the real (as, for example, in the character of Buck Turgidson, the movie’s most incisive parody of ordinary speech and thought).

Dr. Strangelove, then, bears witness to a curious politico-cultural reversal. Not very long ago (though it feels as though it was very long ago), we were told that every addition to public awareness of the unthinkable—the possibility that there might actually be a nuclear war some day—would serve the evil purpose of making nuclear war thinkable. Now we are invited, for the sake of the very social health that the nuclear strategists were supposed to be jeopardizing, not only to think about the unthinkable, but to laugh at it. One must be grateful for every new admittance to the realm of acceptable thought, particularly public thought. But all public reversals, it seems, come with strings attached, even when they are given such a genuinely inspiriting form as a “way-out” movie. Dr. Strangelove makes no overt political gestures in the end, but it does make a few covert ones. Indeed, for a work that so obviously regards itself, and that has been so readily taken, as a radical disruption of the going complacencies, Dr. Strangelove is strangely polite in its choice of enemies: Jack D. Ripper is not only crazy, he is right-wing crazy; Buck Turgidson is not only sappy, he is sappy on the side of established military power; and the mad scientist, Dr. Strangelove, is a Nazi. No liberals are ridiculed in this “anarchic” movie, unless one considers President Muffley a liberal, and even then he comes off relatively well. Nor was Kubrick quite daring enough to have risked portraying his nuclear strategist as a Jew—not a Nazi, but a refugee, in fact, from Hitler, as so many real-life nuclear strategists are. But to have made Dr. Strangelove a Jew—or on the other side, to have poked as much fun at the inadequacy of pacifist thought in the face of the nuclear danger as it does at the absurdity of strategic thought—would have involved the movie in a complexity—and an anarchism of spirit—quite beyond its basic intentions. And Kubrick would probably not in that case have been extolled for his courage by everyone from Robert Brustein in the New York Review of Books to the editorialists of Life. Everyone, after all, is against psychotic generals and Nazis.

Several people have remarked that watching Dr. Strangelove was as enjoyable to them as it appeared to be to everyone else, but that on leaving the theater they felt depressed in a way they could not quite understand. Perhaps they were depressed because they had been seduced into feeling they were running free and then found themselves being hurled smack up against an invisible but solid wall of conventional political piety.

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