The Terrifying Humor of “Dr. Strangelove”

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is a political satire film directed by Stanley Kubrick that revolves around an impending nuclear war. Although hilarious, because this film came out during the tumultuous Cold War era it was likely viewed as a horror movie by audiences. During 1964, the prospect of the the U.S. and U.S.S.R annihilating the planet was not ridiculous; it was a fear the world was learning to cope with on an everyday basis. Just two years prior to Dr. Strangelove’s release, humanity had watched as the two superpowers narrowly escaped mutual destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In Kubrick’s film, General Ripper orders a nuclear attack on a Soviet target and cuts off all contact with the B-52 bomber so that additional orders can’t stop his plot. The movie then switches settings from the cabin of the bomber, the “War Room” in which the U.S. President and advisors frantically search for a diplomatic solution, and an army base where Colonel Mandrake hurriedly tries to send new orders to the bomber. The titular Dr. Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist, acts as an advisor to the President and gleefully rejoices in the inevitable nuclear apocalypse.

While the film plays off widely held fears, Kubrick’s work systematically turns commonly used containment rhetoric on its head. The ideology of “us versus them” is broken down constantly as most interactions between American and Soviet leadership are congenial. A memorable example is when the President greets the Soviet Premier in a warm, friendly manner as “Dimitri” over the phone. For the majority of the film these two sworn enemies are working together towards a common goal, which was a radical way of portraying the U.S. and U.S.S.R.’s relationship to most viewers. 

Kubrick validates the American public’s fear; the world is truly teetering on the brink of war and one person can disrupt the balance. But he simultaneously displays that the person who could push humanity over the edge is not a foreign leader or a communist sleeper spy but rather an American, one that holds nearly the same values as those of the audience. Dr. Strangelove is a movie that never fails to make me laugh, and never fails to terrify me of the fragility of our world.

Check out the trailer here:

 

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