Department of English

Fall 2008 Edition

Dr Strangelove and that Big Red Button

Corbin Allred
Argumentative 2010 2nd Place
Professor: Eric Morrow

Where filmgoers are concerned, Director Stanley Kubrick leaves nothing to be desired with the release of his 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. When it comes to satirical genius, never in the history of filmmaking has a director tackled a subject so relevant to the time and so timeless in its relevance. The threat of nuclear war has haunted the minds of Americans ever since the world’s talent to destroy life became more developed than its ability to sustain peace. So how can a film about such serious topics be laugh-out-loud funny? The film Dr. Strangelove sets the highest standard for satirical films not only because of its pinpoint-accurate and uncompromised performances, but also because of its powerful and poignant message about humanity’s desire to do right in such a wrong way.

The amazingly diverse and plural performances of the late Peter Sellers are just a few of the delights this film offers viewers. Sellers’ portrayal of Group Captain Lionel Mandrake is spot on. This English military-man character represents the one bright and shining hope for humanity. At one point during this film, Mandrake pleads with the mad General Ripper for the mercy of the world. However, in a satirical spin on the “victory at all costs” mentality, Ripper takes his own life and with that seals the fate of the world. This jab at a military mentality—that it is better to die than be made to look wrong or weak—is yet another dark and subtle undertone that educates as much as it entertains. This example of satire cleverly parallels the unspoken perceptions of the general public in regard to military past and present. During the Cold War terrors of the 1960s, it is clear that the military did represent themselves in this manner, and instead of strengthening the people’s faith in military, the military actually perpetuated the problem of nation-wide paranoia and distrust by attempting to mask their own fear, confusion, chaos, and uncertainty by feigning strength with blind aggression.

In yet another spin, Mandrake’s courageous but ultimately vain attempt to prevent world annihilation is touching in its subtlety, and heart-breaking in its reality. The Mandrake character depicts a level of irony that is chronically existent in a militarily driven government. Namely, those with principles and moral fortitude who should have power have absolutely none and, in the case of Dr. Strangelove, are not even American. It is easy to see how this relates to the general public perception of government and military leaders. During times of crisis in recent past and even in the world today, government and military officials have been perceived as unqualified, ignorant, arrogant, and even inept. It truly seems that the wrong man for the job somehow always gets hired. In addition, Kubrick cleverly asserts what has long been the world’s collective opinion of the United States government: though it controls the most powerful country in the world, it is completely lacking in reason and ethics. Similar to what may be real-world negative opinion, not one American character in this film seemed right for his job. The Mandrake character drove these satirical messages home in an amazingly effective way, and this tactfully humorous performance alone keeps the viewers hanging by a thread of hope throughout the entire film. Sadly, the cancer of ignorance had already infested the upper echelons of American government and military, and regardless of the treatment the diagnosis was grave.

Sellers again wows with his sharp and undeniably frustrating portrayal of Merkin Muffley, the inept United States President. Kubrick exercises extreme tact with his image of this character. Too often filmmakers settle for the cliché one-dimensional portrayal of political leaders as arrogant, ignorant, and power-hungry. However, Kubrick’s vision combined with Sellers’ talent gives us so much more. The President is depicted as weak. He cannot even control a phone conversation with a drunken and abrasive foreign leader. His passive aggressiveness and inability to dig the country out of its self-made grave strikes a familiar chord with viewers and reveals a real-life public concern. What if the president cracks under pressure? What would that mean for a country in crisis? Kubrick continually emphasizes “worst-case-scenario” plot points and really gets into the minds of viewers with this approach. Kubrick and Sellers show that President Muffley’s intentions seem honorable, but his inability to enforce his will while sitting in the highest office of the most powerful country in the world is not only frustrating and embarrassing, but it also jeopardizes the welfare of the world. Kubrick again succeeds with this particular example of satire. Though this character depiction was very humorous, it also makes the valid point that some leaders should not lead, and that even the president, at times, should not or rather- cannot preside. Instead of hating this character, viewers are compelled to feel sorry for him and cringe at the introduction of his childlike frailties and utter incapability. How can imperfect human beings be entrusted with the power to protect or destroy the world? Kubrick’s statement seems to be that they cannot.

Yet another highlight of this film was the introduction of Dr. Strangelove himself. Again Peter Sellers hits the nail on the head. Though he only appears in the last few minutes of the picture, his impact is brilliant and stirring. We do not see him early on in the film, but his presence becomes evident later as he injects himself into the most important room on earth and is welcomed by the leaders of the free world as a valuable advisor to the crown. The thought of having a nationalized Nazi giving political advice to the highest office in the land is hilariously terrifying and preys on the fears of an already paranoid and suspicious society. This is a perfect example of satirical execution as Kubrick sheds light on an absurd but strangely possible explanation for the shady inner-workings of the American government. Even in real life, it is easy for society to feel like government leaders are guided by some dark force, especially during wartime. Poor decisions by the government and military always seem to far outweigh good decisions, and leadership as a whole falls into question and under mass criticism. This example of satire plays on the sad fact that, at times, the government seems to be governed by evil.

However, Kubrick begs the question of what is worse in leadership—evil or ignorance? George C. Scott is as captivating an actor as has ever graced the screen. He is unapologetic in his portrayal of General Buck Turgidson. Turgidson’s “kill them before they kill us” mentality is another direct reference to the instincts some members of society have to mask fear with aggression. Turgidson’s endless attempt to persuade the president to strike first and never trust a “Rusky” foreigner pokes fun at the perception liberal citizens have of conservative society. Generally, conservatives are perceived as pro-war, pro-gun, prejudice, bigoted, and paranoid. The Turgidson character plays on these perceptions in a clever and humorous way. In an ingenious twist to this satire, General Tergidson’s suspicions that the Russian “spy” was taking pictures of the war room were initially passed off as the ravings of a paranoid and panicked military-man. However, these suspicions proved to be warranted later on in the film as the Russian was revealed to be a spy, and the “top secrets” were suddenly no longer secret. This witty spin shows that even if decisions are rash and paranoia seems extreme and unwarranted, in dire circumstances, some panic and paranoia may be undeniably valid.

Kubrick’s message is clear and the end result is the culmination of terrors realized. It is truly a profound film if you are willing to look at the core elements. Satirically, the film is an enormous success. It is truly funny in its sadness. No other film has more effectively merged the tragedy of human imperfection with the hilarity of human folly. The film Dr. Strangelove does set the highest standard for satirical films because of perfect performance, impeccable writing, and an unapologetic and bold message. It shows a picture humanity fighting tooth and nail for peace in an imperfect world. The only problem – we are still fighting. The film also leaves the audience without answer to a very important question. Who is guarding the self-destruct button?