The ultimate punchline to the nuclear satire of "Dr. Strangelove"? As absurd as Stanley Kubrick's imaginative black comedy about World War III seemed when it opened 50 years ago this week (on January 29, 1964), it all turned out to be true.
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Everything in the movie that the Pentagon said couldn't happen in real life -- from Air Force officers launching nuclear strikes without Presidential approval, to the USSR being ready to respond with an automated doomsday system of its own -- actually could have happened. The safeguards really were as flimsy as Kubrick and his screenwriters imagined them to be. (Which begs the question: How safe are we now from a nuclear apocalypse?)
That's just one reason -- albeit the most chilling one -- that Kubrick's 50-year-old comedy holds up shockingly well today. But there are many other reasons that the aftershocks of "Dr. Strangelove" continue to have an impact.
The realism of Kubrick's account of a slip-up that leads to a nuclear Armageddon comes from his source, Peter George's novel "Red Alert." Kubrick hired George to adapt the book into a screenplay, but the director was struck by the absurdity of the whole scenario and brought aboard comic novelist Terry Southern to help transform George's nightmare into a satirical burlesque. (Southern, who'd go on to co-script "Easy Rider," was just one of several people whose movie careers kicked into high gear because of "Strangelove.")
Southern's additions -- character names like Jack D. Ripper, Buck Turgidson, and Merkin Muffley, and scenes like the opening shot of a bomber refueling that looks like two planes copulating in mid-air – played up the Freudian nature of nuclear defense policy. Behind every missile standoff is a contest of manliness between East and West -- and maybe some sexual performance anxiety, too, as Gen. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) suggests in his famous speech about "precious bodily fluids." When Major Kong (Slim Pickens) rides that missile between his legs to glory at the film's climax, the metaphor becomes impossible to miss.
Aside from Inspector Clouseau, Peter Sellers played three of his most famous roles in "Dr. Strangelove," including the title character whose Nazi-saluting arm has a mind of its own. (He'd have played four characters, but he was afraid he couldn't master Major Kong's Texas accent, and a broken ankle kept him from working in the bomber's cramped cockpit. So Kubrick hired Western stuntman Pickens, effectively launching him to stardom. James Earl Jones, playing a member of the bomber crew, enjoyed his first big film career break in "Strangelove" as well.)
Sellers's portrayal of Strangelove (a character who doesn't even appear in the George novel) has reminded a lot of viewers of Henry Kissinger, with his lugubrious German accent and heartless realpolitik. Actually, the character was based on a number of people behind the Cold War nuclear strategy of mutually assured destruction: rocket scientist Wernher von Braun (who had worked for the Nazis before coming to America), strategist Herman Kahn, Manhattan Project mathematician John von Neumann, and hydrogen bomb designer Edward Teller. But when Kissinger gained prominence a few years later as President Nixon's Secretary of State, "Dr. Strangelove" had provided us with the language necessary to describe and understand him.
Similarly, the visual language of the film has also become standard over the years to define wartime planning scenarios. The cavernous "War Room," created for Kubrick by Ken Adam (the production designer behind all those supervillain lairs in the James Bond movies) was the ancestor of every similar control room in every presidential war or spy drama in movies or TV.
"Dr. Strangelove" so quickly came to define and dominate the way we thought about nuclear war that it upstaged a similar but utterly unironic drama, "Fail-Safe," that came out just a few months later. Even that movie had a von Braun-like German advisor character. As straightforward as "Fail-Safe" was, it was a little hard to take it seriously after the total lampoon offered by "Dr. Strangelove."
The movie continued to reverberate through the culture in ways both obvious (the catchphrase "precious bodily fluids," the joke, "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!") and obscure. The CRM-114 device aboard the bomber, which receives radio confirmation of the nuclear launch codes, has been referenced in numerous other films and TV shows, including "Back to the Future," "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine," "Heroes," and the 2005 remake of "Fun With Dick and Jane," as well as Kubrick's own "A Clockwork Orange" (where Alex is injected with "serum 114").
But then, there are the movie's subtler lessons as well.
Barry Sonnenfeld, who directed "Get Shorty," the "Addams Family" films, and all three "Men in Black" movies, has often cited "Dr. Strangelove" as his favorite film. (He loved it so much that he got Pablo Ferro, who designed "Dr. Strangelove"'s distinctive hand-written credits, to do the same for many of Sonnenfeld's own films.) Sonnenfeld has said that the lesson he (and his mentors, Joel and Ethan Coen, among other current filmmakers) learned from Kubrick's classic is the importance of tone. For all the mounting absurdity in "Strangelove," the tone is absolutely deadpan serious; Kubrick trusts his viewers to find the comedy.
"The single most important thing that a director does is to decide on a tone, whether it's sloppy or controlled or dark or absurd," Sonnenfeld told the New York Times in 2002. "And to me, this is a perfect example of a director who has picked a very specific tone and then every single thing, from the script to the performances to the way it's shot, serves that tone."
Watching today's satires, from "Nebraska" to "American Hustle" to "The Wolf of Wall Street," it's clear just how difficult it is for even experienced directors to master a tone that balances realism and absurdity. But then, in life and in politics, what's real often outruns even the most absurd things an artist can dream up.
And maybe that's the ultimate lesson of "Dr. Strangelove" and Kubrick's mastery of tone: it works because the deadpan-dramatic was the right tone after all, since even what he thought was crazy turned out to be the truth.
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