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Dr. Strangelove: The Darkest Room

Strangelove essay

When Stanley Kubrick bought the motion picture rights to the 1958 thriller Red Alert, by the retired Royal Air Force navigator Peter George, he meant to direct an action film about a nuclear war triggered by a solitary madman. Some way into his work on the script, however, Kubrick realized the story was too appalling for serious treatment and decided to recast it as an out-and-out satire. He had begun rewriting with George along those lines when he decided to call up Terry Southern, a Texas writer known for fiction with a dark deadpan humor. As Southern would recall, Kubrick thought he could detect in Southern’s novel The Magic Christian “certain indications” of the approach he was aiming for. “He told me he was going to make a film about ‘our failure to understand the dangers of nuclear war.’ He said he could only see it now as ‘some kind of hideous joke.’ ” Southern went to work accordingly, and the process remained collaborative. In the end, he and Kubrick revised the scenes for each day’s shooting on their limousine ride from London to Shepperton Studios, near Heathrow Airport.

Historically, Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb registers the terrifying impact of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear destruction. A more particular stimulus came from scholastic arguments in the 1960 presidential campaign regarding the peril of a “missile gap” that was supposed to have yielded advantage to the Soviet Union in the manufacture and deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles. John Kennedy ran to the right of his opponent, Richard Nixon, on that issue then, but the missile gap turned out to be a sham, just as Kubrick and many others suspected. Another nonfictional element was critical to the plot: Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, had approved U.S. contingency plans for an all-out nuclear attack. As Eric Schlosser points out in his 2013 book Command and Control, President Eisenhower saw the dangers but declined to obstruct the completion of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP), which specified the conditions for massive retaliation by the military acting in the absence of civilian leadership. Once triggered, such an attack could never be recalled. This was the basis for Wing Attack Plan R—the command issued in Dr. Strangelove in a surge of psychotic inspiration by Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper.

Dr. Strangelove was Kubrick’s seventh feature film. His career had begun in his teens, when he worked as a staff photographer for Look magazine, and he said once in an interview that setting up a darkroom was good practice for making movies: the right preparation for any line of work was to organize a whole project and see it through. Writing, photographing, and editing his first films on a shoestring budget, Kubrick turned himself into a director whom the studios would back to do whatever he pleased. He made no large claims for his early work and would later disavow all of the big-studio epic Spartacus (1960) except the scene of gladiatorial training, but he took some well-earned pride in The Killing (1956), a crime story about a robbery during a horse race; Paths of Glory (1957), a film of the First World War that is centered on a court-martial after a defeat in battle; and Lolita (1962), which he transformed from a dandyish satire into an unsettling romantic drama. Two traits marked all of these films, and distinguished them from the work of most of Kubrick’s contemporaries: an insistence on grown-up subject matter and a disquieting portrayal of abstract space, with a correspondingly diminished emphasis on character. The man behind the camera was possessed of uncanny powers of detachment. This gave his films a style at once formal, rigorous, and unfamiliar.

Kubrick’s cinematic intelligence never shone more brightly than in his summoning of the cast and crew for Dr. Strangelove. Peter Sellers, a major supporting actor in Lolita the year before, had agreed to play four parts here, including the Texan pilot of the B-52 that eludes Russian radar and air defenses. Accounts vary regarding the change of plan that followed, but if we can credit Southern’s version, Sellers sprained his ankle badly in an accident off the set and reinjured it in an effort to negotiate the difficult space of the fuselage. The studio insurers then forbade him to play any part that required athletic movement under stress, and at this point Kubrick decided the famous actor’s replacement as the bomber pilot ought to be a real Texan, and preferably an unknown face. He brought in Slim Pickens—a former rodeo clown, relatively new to acting—and Pickens carried to perfection the role of Major Kong.

A constant strength of the movie is the way that incidents, characters, or particular lines of dialogue straddle the boundary between the fantastic and the all too real. Pickens, as Major Kong, is pathetically convincing when he delivers his speech to a crew poised on the brink of “nucular combat, toe-to-toe with the Rooskies.” With instinctive fatherly grace, choked up by empathy, he says, “I got a fair idea the kinda personal emotions that some of you fellas may be thinkin’. Heck, I reckon you wouldn’t even be human bein’s if you didn’t have some pretty strong personal feelin’s about nucular combat.” The rest of the crew—among them, James Earl Jones in an early role—are the ethnic mix required in every war movie since Shakespeare wrote Henry V. They listen to his speech with due sobriety, and go on with their work.

Human beings for Kubrick possess something of the quality of mobile dolls or mannequins. (It seems plausible to describe this unclassifiable director as, among other things, an intellectual cartoonist in the manner of Wyndham Lewis or Saul Steinberg.) Human actions, in his view, are governed by determinations beyond our grasp. Our own approval of our actions is so finely self-deceived that the best thing an artist can do is to photograph them and let the pictures show what is happening. The hidden mover operates through orders or instructions, but also by means of verbal formulas that seem to explain the world. Consider the paranoid declaration by General Ripper against the national menace of fluoridated water: “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Sterling Hayden, as Ripper, plays the line for as clear and rigorous a dedication to duty as the generals must have felt who urged Kennedy to bomb Cuba in October 1962. And Kubrick prepares for this speech by photographing Hayden’s opening monologue at a sheer monumental angle, from under his granite jaw—a camera setup reminiscent of fascist propaganda, which the film never outwardly mocks. Indeed, the shading of all the scenes with Ripper is sustained just this side of cartooning; he is at once an absurdity and a terrifying father-commander, every inch of him dead with purpose. The magnificent performance is carried off with just one prop, a cigar.

Hayden’s is a realistic rendition, within type, of a grotesque model—a kind of representation Kubrick would continue to favor, in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). Yet Kubrick loved adventurous acting of a more idiosyncratic sort when it drove to the edge. He cherished the improvisations of Sellers in Lolita and Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980); and he gave Sellers plenty of scope for invention in two of his three roles in Dr. Strangelove: as the ex-Nazi physicist Strangelove, who in moments of passion calls the president “Mein Führer,” and as the president himself, Merkin Muffley (who looks a good deal like Adlai Stevenson, the symbol, for conservatives, of everything intellectual and unmanly about American liberalism).

The central role of General Buck Turgidson went to a talent quite distinct in kind from the protean Sellers. Kubrick had admired George C. Scott as Shylock in a New York production of The Merchant of Venice, and Scott makes both a credible portrait and a convincing caricature of the normal general with a normal love of war. His strut, his snarl, his guttural laugh and grunt, his way of slapping his hard belly as he runs through the options in the emergency, the hunch of his shoulders as he cups the phone so his presence will be undetected in a hotline conference call—in every one of General Turgidson’s postures, his mouth is wide open, to advise, confide, exhort, or placate. As he talks and listens, a huddle of America’s military and diplomatic elite can be glimpsed in the throes of crisis management. The room they are in, cavernous and marmoreal, is photographed flat.

The extraordinary war room set was built 100 feet by 130 feet, with a ceiling 35 feet high, to the specifications of Kubrick and Ken Adam—the set designer for Dr. No (1962), who would go on to many subsequent Bond movies as well as Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (1975). Nobody had ever seen anything like it. (There has never been a darker place.) Yet anyone who thought about these things in the early 1960s must have imagined there was such a chamber inside or underneath the Pentagon. One comes to know the war room in Dr. Strangelove as an immaculate profane sanctum, an object of wonder alike for its polished black Formica floor, its enormous circular table, and its suspended halo of fluorescent light. The president, his advisers, the Russian ambassador, and an impressive array of generals sit comfortably around the table as if it were their natural habitat. In little stacks in front of the generals are strategic studies with titles you can read if you try. One of them is called World Targets in Megadeaths.

The dialogue in every scene is keyed to the setting. Only the war room could have yielded a suitable environment for the gravely therapeutic phone call by the American president to the Soviet premier: “Of course I like to speak with you—of course I like to say hello! Not now but anytime, Dimitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened.” General Ripper’s bunkerlike office appears made to order for the unraveling of his cadenza on fluoride—“the most monstrously conceived and dangerous Communist plot we have ever had to face”—whose effects he says he first became aware of “during the physical act of love.” Back in the war room, between the phone calls, Dr. Strangelove speaks with obvious warmth and aptitude of the feasibility of creating a postnuclear super race, to be preserved underground from further nuclear attack—a race that would of course include specimens of the military command and top government officials.

Kubrick worked hand in hand, too, with his cinematographer, Gilbert Taylor. Wide and medium shots of the war room keep the mysterious background of hollow space forever present in our mind’s eye, while a regular counterpoint against these indoor expanses is provided by the eerie footage of the B-52 pursuing its long trajectory over arctic wastes. Still another stroke of craft, as vital as the alternations of majestic indoor and outdoor landscape, was Kubrick’s choice of a handheld camera for the conventional combat between the rival American troops at Ripper’s air base. With the juddering frame, and bumps and bruises on the soundtrack, we are made to feel the texture of the older way of battle that the generals love. At the same time, we are held back from intoxication by the startling violence of the fight.

Dr. Strangelove is one of the masterpieces of filmmaking. And though photographed in England by an expatriate who would never return, it is very much an American masterpiece, brimful of American types and stereotypes, American madness and ingenuity, every species of American idiolect, from regional slang to institutional euphemism. The rotating episodes in the Strategic Air Command base, the war room, and the cockpit of the rogue B-52 move forward in punctual succession, but individually the scenes have all the slowness of a bureaucratic process. The deep preoccupation of Dr. Strangelove is, in fact, not war itself but rather the political development of which modern war has been the largest symptom: the bureaucratization of terror.

The black-and-white medium imparts a quality suggestive of documentary treatment, which goes with the visual style of matter-of-fact sublimity. But stretches of the film turn out to be literally black. Before the bomb is ridden down to its destination by Major Kong, we are with him inside the bomb bay, a closetlike gloom, barely illuminated by a flashlight and the sparks from a short circuit. General Ripper’s office is dark at midday, the blinds shut tight, the desk lamp shattered by bullets, the fluorescent ceiling lights doused for security. Go back to the war room for a final look and you notice that the only bright thing is Dr. Strangelove; and even he wears tinted glasses. This genius of destruction—who bears a strong physical likeness to the young Henry Kissinger—has hair that is wavy and white, Aryan white, polar white; and as we learn, close to the polar ice cap will be found the Doomsday Machine that the Russians have built in secret. On hearing of that development, the prudent remnant in the war room are aghast—or rather, all are except Dr. Strangelove.

What seems most unusual about the film, considered as a comedy, is that it prompts a kind of laughter that may lead back to thought. Like every great satire, it contains a germ of sympathy that takes us to the brink of compassion before it pulls us back. As 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) would show, Kubrick looks on people as something other than the earnest strivers and helpers we like to imagine we are. In all of his films, individuals are photographed almost neutrally, without flattering close-ups. He would no more deliver these than he would enforce a pointed cut to elicit a predictable laugh or a groan. His is an abstract method, depopulated to the largest practicable extent, so as to approach a geometrical purity.

His early film Killer’s Kiss (1955) has a remarkable sustained shot of a fugitive clambering up a fire escape and running across the flats of a New York rooftop. The camera halts at the edge of the roof to observe the crazy weavings as the man grows smaller in the distance, then larger as he comes close again. The shot seems to say: Here is the horizon on which this creature will live and die. It implies a morality of art that Kubrick found equally suited to the men in the war room and the B-52 crew strapped in to their miniature posts on their world-annihilating mission.

A canonical satire that Dr. Strangelove holds steadily in view is Gulliver’s Travels. Jonathan Swift, in his impersonation of an eighteenth-century explorer memoirist, offered a point-by-point negation of Enlightenment humanism, and Kubrick aimed for an approach just as unsparing toward the optimism of mass democracy and modern technology: the little-guy heroes of Dr. Strangelove are slated to bomb “the missile complex at Laputa.” What Swift’s novel did for the age of the orrery, Kubrick doubtless hoped his film would do for the age of the cyclotron. Yet Swift elsewhere added a reservation about the mode in which he worked: “Satire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own”—a pertinent warning about how cheaply satire may buoy up the complacency of the spectator. Only by a masterly deployment of cinematic realism, grafted onto a plot and characters of the grossest extravagance, was Kubrick able to construct a mirror in which we discover a face that resembles our own.

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