Some Notes on Dr. Stangelove
Before FULL METAL JACKET, before THE SHINING, before BARRY LYNDON, before A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, before even 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, there was a relatively little-known director named Stanley Kubrick. Just off of two reputable commercial successes (that is, SPARTICUS and LOLITA), he had something of a blank check for his next film.
One of our base commanders, uh, went a little funny in the head. And, um, he went and did a silly thing. He ordered his planes, uh, to attack your country.
Though it seems Kubrick could have given birth to any movie he pleased (especially given his distance from the watchdogs of Hollywood), how could he have conceived of something so outrageous as DR. STRANGELOVE? It was originally intended to be another Cold War apocalyptic drama a la Sidney Lumet's FAIL SAFE (1964) or Stanley Kramer's ON THE BEACH (1959), yet as Kubrick attempted to write his tense thriller, he continually collapsing into the chasm of comedy. Concluding that the subject itself was absurd, he turned to satire, creating the harrowing yet hilarious film we have before us.
You're gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company.
But where does the humor come from? Part of it is from the characters' incognizance of the stakes of nuclear combat: Major Kong talks about post-war commendations; Ambassador de Sadesky focuses on stealing state secrets; General Turgidson tells his mistress that he will be home before she knows it; Colonel Guano refuses to damage private property. In fact, it seems that the President is only character who comprehends that humankind's finale might be on the horizon, yet even he seems more focused on the decorum of the War Room than the prevention of the forthcoming apocalypse.
You can't fight in here--this is the War Room!
These absurdly realistic situations presented in the shadow of total nuclear annihilation are augmented by the oxymoronic and self-satirizing wordplay. From Jack D. Ripper's maniacal doodles (which relate "Peace On Earth" and "Purity Of Essence") to the propagandistic posters of the military (which declare "Peace is Our Profession") to the words emblazoned on the H-bombs themselves (underneath the somber "Nuclear Warhead: Handle with Care" are vivacious scribblings of "Dear John" and "Hi there!"), Kubrick undercuts his images of impending doom with silly and almost jubilant writings. Beyond this is the stylized dialogue which offers us paradoxes that reveal the senselessness of this condemned planet: grown men are reprimanded for fighting in the War Room; the USA's nuclear aggression is likened to a social faux pas on the President's part; and the men who drop the bomb are given provisions that would be useful "for a weekend in Vegas."
Tell you what you do, baby: you just start your countdown, and old Bucky'll be back before you can say "Blast off!"
Though the film's construction is quite remarkable, it only represents the surface of an ocean of meaning; to better understand the film, we must delve more deeply into it. From the opening scene, in which the fuel ship supplies the B-52 as a mother would nourish her child, to the closing scene, in which the world erupts in an apocalyptic orgasm from "King" Kong's nuclear phallus, this film is clearly charged with sexual imagery.
This iconography evidences itself in the characters' loaded names--Jack D. Ripper (the most notorious sex offender ever to eat a prostitute's kidney), "Buck" Turgidson (whose name, according to Thomas Allen Nelson, decodes as "swollen male animal who is the son of a swollen male animal"), T. I. "King" Kong (named after the monster that Pauline Kael dubbed a "forty-foot phallus"). It also appears in many other meticulous details--the Playboy magazine; the many, many phallic symbols; the B-52's target "Laputa" (which means "whore" in Spanish); the silk stockings, lipsticks, prophylactics; the womb imagery of the command base, the 8-52 and the War Room; and the reason for the entire war in the first place--the loss of essence, found while making love and attributed to pollution of "precious bodily fluids". This veritable laundry list makes it clear that the viewer is meant to associate violence with unfulfilled male sexual tension, a relationship Kubrick explores in more detail in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971).
I don't think it's quite fair to condemn the whole program because of a single slip up.
The two culprits in this armageddon are the USA's Plan R and the USSR's Doomsday Machine; they are both devices meant to ensure that their country would retaliate in any nuclear attack. The USA's Plan R allows a lower-ranking General to launch a nuclear strike force, supposedly safe because he has undergone a "human reliability test" (whatever that means). On the other side of the Iron Curtain, the Doomsday Machine is unable to be disarmed under any conditions--doing so would cause it to detonate. These two mechanisms are designed to overcome the weak human links of our world. By having these two anti-human devices cause the destruction of all humankind, Kubrick demonstrates that the situations we feel unable to diffuse were created by us. This self-sown straightjacket is apparent in all three of the films locations: in Burpleson Air Force Base, the soldiers follow their orders to the death, sealing off their base against those they believe to be Commies; in the War Room, individuals are held to codes of conduct, restricting alliances and social graces; and in the B-52, once the orders are given, we are on a collision course with doom.
I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Oh, depending on the breaks.
So how does one stop worrying and love the bomb? Kubrick's answer is obvious: social, mechanical, political, and other constructs paralyze us, and deliverance from them seems like a wondrous goal. This is true paranoia--the human race is so trapped that nuclear annihilation seems like a good time. This elation at apocalypse shown in DR. STRANGELOVE is also captured in Al Yankovic's "Happy Birthday," the words of which I leave you with.
"The monkeys in the Pentagon are gonna cook our goose.
Their finger's on the button, all they need is an excuse.
It doesn't take a military genius to see
We'll all be Crispy Critters after World War III.
There's nowhere you can run to, nowhere you can hide.
When they drop the big one, we all get fried!"
(quotes largely misquoted; puns largely intended)