Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick is often considered by critics as one of the best film auteurs of the twentieth century. By dominating every element of each of his films, Kubrick was able to have complete control of the subtext and themes of his films. Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Kubrick, 1964) is a prime example of how Kubrick was able to use the cinematic elements of his film to establish the film’s residual themes. In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick uses irony to show the absurdity of Cold War logic. Through the use of the war room set and the characterization of President Muffley, General Turgidson, and Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick demonstrates to the audience how the politics of the Cold War were illogical and paradoxical (Siano, 1995).
Kubrick’s dramatization of the war room set perpetuates his thoughts on the absurdity of Cold War logic. Kubrick designed the set to resemble different elements of games. The Big Board resembles a pinball game, the Joint Chiefs’ table can be seen as a roulette wheel or a poker table, and even a game of telephone (“he said”, “she said” logic) is played among the diplomats (Siano, 1995). This game-like feel of the war room is Kubrick’s way of commentating on the immaturity and naivety of the politics during this global crisis. Kubrick is making the point that the political logic, talks, and interactions of the Cold War were simply a game of poker played among countries. For the audience, Kubrick has pared down what diplomats at the time considered to be political strategy to nothing more than a bunch of boys playing board games.
Kubrick also uses characterization - both symbolically and in performance - to dramatize the absurdity of the Cold War. The three most defining characters in Dr. Strangelove are President Merkin Muffley, General Buck Turgidson, and Dr. Strangelove. In character traits and through performance, Muffley and Turgidson exemplify two prominent ideologies present in American society during the time of the Cold War. Firstly, Merkin Muffley - who's name is an allusion to female anatomy - is considered to be weak as a leader and is too generous and kind to the Soviets. He is presented by Peter Seller as a more meager character who is more interested in communicating rather than acting. He’s not very aggressive in his position (Maland, 1997).
To contrast, Buck Turgidson - who's name is a sexual innuendo concerning male genitalia - is portrayed as dominant, forceful, and hyper-masculine. Sterling Hayden plays Turgidson with excessive aggression and masculinity to the point of foolishness. He comes off erratic and paranoid because of his persistent distrust of the Russians (Maland, 1997). Kubrick uses these characters to present a contrast between the logic of aggressive male dominance and female sensitivity. On one hand, some thought, like Muffley, that a diplomatic approach that relied on careful communication was the ideal way to deal with the Russians, whereas others thought, like Turgidson, that America should exert its dominance over the Soviets to maintain its global authority (Belletto, 2012). By dramatizing both Muffley and Turgidson as unstable and ridiculous, Kubrick is commentating on how unbalanced and ludicrous the thinking of the Cold War was.
When Dr. Strangelove is first introduced to the audience he is consulted on the possibility of there actually being a doomsday machine. Kubrick distinctly distinguishes Strangelove from the other characters in the room by his ideologies and physical traits. Firstly, Kubrick used the mixture of personalities in Strangelove’s characterization to satirize the logic of nuclear intellectuals during the Cold War (Siano, 1995). Strangelove is often cited as being based off a number of different real-life figures - Henry Kissinger, Werner von Braun, Edward Teller - but it’s Herman Kahn’s logic that is most defining in Strangelove (Siano, 1995). Strangelove, much like Kahn, theorizes the doomsday device seen in the film. Strangelove follows the logic that this device should act outside human control and act only on automatic and technological programming (Belletto, 2012).
While Strangelove is advocating for the use of computer-driven machinery, Sellers is also giving a performance that is almost completely devoid of human physicality. His actions are unnatural, robotic, and alien. The most unsettling trait of Seller’s performance is that he has fixed upon his face an unnerving and disturbing smile, despite discussing the entire world being ravaged by a nuclear bomb. Kubrick uses these bizarre physical characteristics - both portrayed by Sellers (his Germany accent and robotic-like movements) as well as costuming choices (his “mad scientist” appearance and wheelchair-bound body) - to dramatize the absurdity of the logic and intellectual ideology of the main players of the nuclear debates. With the introduction of Strangelove, Kubrick is dramatizing how the absurdity of this man, whose logic favors the increased involvement of technology over humanity and who is devoid of any real human characteristics, is able to influence the outcome of the world, something that was seen in real-life politics.
Because of his role as a cinematic auteur, Kubrick was able to take the most insignificant things - like a set piece or a character’s name - and make it apart of his film’s symbolic themes. In Dr. Strangelove, Kubrick utilized the war room set and the characterization of his three main characters to perpetuate his belief that the Cold War was illogical and absurd. Kubrick used satirized drama to show the audience the irony of Cold War logic in Dr. Strangelove.
Belletto, Steven. No Accident, Comrade: Chance and Design in Cold War American Narratives. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Maland, Charles. “Dr. Strangelove (1964): Nightmare Comedy and the Ideology of Liberal Consensus.” American Quarterly, vol. 31, no. 5, 1979, pp. 697–717. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2712432.
Siano, Brian. “A Commentary on Dr. Strangelove.” The Kubrick Site: Brian Siano on 'Dr. Strangelove', 1995, www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/0017.html.