Saturday, March 28, 2009

A Dr Strangelove For All Times

Stanley Kubrick laughs in the face of nuclear war

For nearly 50 years after the conclusion of World War II, the world lived in fear of nuclear holocaust.

It was at the very height of this fear -- in 1964 -- that Stanley Kubrick produced Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

In this classic film, Kubrick made the case that the terrors inspired by nuclear weapons were minor compared to the fear that should have been inspired by the human frailty, stupidity and greed of those in control of the world's nuclear arsenals.

The film begins auspiciously, as orders to attack the Soviet Union are issued to American bombers circling at their advance staging points.

When told to issue attack orders Captain Lionel Mandrake (played by the incomparable Peter Sellers) is immediately skeptical. When he's told orders to go to condition red are not an exercise, he seems perplexed by the very idea. Later in the film he insists that the orders simply must be an exercise.

His suspicions that General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) isn't on the level eventually lead him to confront him. When he deduces that Ripper is acting under his own prerogative Mandrake insists on calling the bombers back under his own authority.

Ripper has prevented this, but Mandrake displays what may -- in its own way -- be the only sane response to the prospect of nuclear war. Disbelief is the only sane response to the prospect of initiating nuclear warfare with its inevitable promise of mutual annhiliation.

There's certainly something both unsettling and contradictory about the notion of "nuclear combat", as expressed by Major TJ "King" Kong (Slim Pickens).

Nuclear war promised little resembling combat, instead merely offering a mutual exchange of overwhelming firepower.

In the situation room at the Pentagon, General "Buck" Turgidson (George C Scott) seems to buckle under the weight of the stupidity inherent in the system's design. In an effort to take human judgement out of the realm of decision making in regards to nuclear war the chiefs of staff have left themselves entirely unable to recall the bombers. Having sacrificed command in control ironically in the name of command and control, they've rendered themselves almost entirely impotent in the face of impending disaster.

The idea that a pair of doomsday weapons could actually be less destabilizing than common human frailty and stupidity is an unsettling (if amusing) idea, but that is precisely the idea Kubrick puts forth with Dr Strangelove.

When confronted over the United States' own doomsday device by Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (Peter Bull), President Muffley seems to legitimately believe there is no such device. Hilariously, Sadesky says his source was the New York Times.

Then again, after the long and arduous ordeal that was the George W Bush Presidency, it seems far less than implausible that a newspaper would know more about that's going on in the United States than the President.

More humourously yet, the Soviet doomsday weapon is designed to detonate not if anyone activates it, but if someone attempts to deactivate it. The idea seems rather simple -- that, left unimpeded, doomsday devices would provide a stabilizing influence over nuclear affairs. In fact, the attempts to contravene nuclear holocaust lead instead to an increasing threat level.

As Freeman Dyson has noted, efforts to contravene nuclear holocaust through projects such as the Strategic Defense Initiative had not the stabilizing influence its designers would have hoped, but rather a destabilizing influence -- leaving Soviet leaders with few viable alternatives other than to build enough missiles to overwhelm SDI in order to eliminate the possibility of a retaliation-proof American attack.

(It's important to remember that American nuclear doctrine allowed for first use of nuclear weapons, while Soviet doctrine did not.)

SDI clearly wasn't a doomsday weapon. However, like a doomsday machine, SDI reveals the shortcomings of the notion of deterrence. Deterrence, as described by Dr Strangelove (Sellers again) is the production of fear in the minds of the enemy -- making them too afraid of retaliation to even dare a first strike.

Making the enemy too fearful only spurs them to create new weapons in order to reestablish a balance of power -- or even to re-tip the balance of power in their favour.

In the end, this kind of fear leads to a state of affairs in which annhiliation is nearly inevitable.

The same vein of thinking applied to the construction of nuclear arsenals can also be applied to the post-war environment, just as Dr Strangelove does when he dreams up a plan in which survivors of a nuclear war would take refuge in mineshafts, under conditions in which women would drastically outnumber men, and be encouraged to breed vigorously.

In the end, President Muffey and his administration simply allow the weapon to detonate, revealing another factor that led to a destabilization of the global nuclear order -- the belief that one could establish a favourable post-holocaust order, even one beneficial to oneself.

In Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick reminds us that the only thing more terrifying than nuclear weapons are the people who were given control of them.


  1. Patrick good recap -
    "Doc Strangelove' has been one of my cultural (political?) touchstones since I first saw it over 35 years ago. It is one of films responsible for imbuing my (then) young mind with a healthy skepticism of the role of doctrines. Ironically, I find some parallels between the "Strangelove" absurd-ims and some of the positions routinely being advanced by some of today's Global-Warming deniers!

  2. Watchmen really reminded me of Dr Strangelove.

    But my personal favourite political movies is, without a doubt, V For Vendetta.

    It's amazing how many things about that film see more relevant now than they were when the graphic novel was written.

  3. Strangelove was brilliant, no question. But it also has to be viewed through the lens of Kubrick's misanthropy.

    I am huge fan of his films, right back to killer's kiss. But once he abandoned big, studio-backed projects like Paths of Glory and Spartacus, and started speaking with his own voice, it became clear that he really didn't like people very much. There isn't a single character in Strangelove with a flicker of humanity, and that fits the tone of Terry Southern's script just fine. But the same thing is true of everything he did afterward. Oddly, the only time you really feel kinship with any character in any Kubrick film is with Jack Torrance, as he goes over the edge.

  4. I don't fully agree. I think Captain Mandrake was not merely a very human character, but the wisest character in the entire film.

    Other than that, the characters were clearly inhuman by design. When one considers the decisions that had to made when planning a nuclear war, how could they not be?

    Deciding how many millions of dead were acceptable isn't really a very humane thought.

  5. Think about the truly appalling characters in Lolita. The most sympathetic one of the lot was the child molester, Humbert Humbert. And that was as human as it got.

    Clockwork Orange?

    The Shining?

    Full Metal Jacket? No characters - just a series of symbols and situations.

    Don't get me wrong, I love his stuff. But there's a reason he was a recluse for so many years. He doesn't like, or get, people.

  6. Well, yes, you're right about those things.

    I thought you were talking about Dr Strangelove. Then later I remembered he didn't actually write the film. Heh.


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