Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is strangely not about its eponymous character. The doctor was only in three major scenes in this movie that is ultimately a satirical take on the 50s nuclear war tension when the the Cold War was at its iciest.
The film starts with a narration about Russia’s “doomsday device,” a machine that will automatically trigger the annihilation of mankind once the Soviets are attacked by a nuclear bomb. Unaware of its existence, US Air Force general Jack Ripper orders an unauthorized nuclear strike against the Soviets as he believes Russia is fluoridizing America’s water supply.
While the subject matter is serious — the world on a verge of a third big war is no laughing matter — the film is able to deliver an edgy treatment to it that is both funny and intelligent.
The satire, as usual, is portrayed successfully at the expense of the characters’ normally stern and dignified positions. The military officials are shown as flawed crazies who believe in popular urban myths (General Ripper) and the world leaders as ill-informed (US President Muffley) and drunkards (Russian Premier Kissov).
The fate of humanity lying on the shoulders of silly characters paints a powerful irony: although we have the brains to invent sophisticated technology, decisions of massive impact are still marred by human vulnerability.
All throughout the film, we see references and visual allusions to masculinity. The film itself, while not titillatingly sexy, is very sexual. The opening scene is an aerial shot of clouds and mountaintops, followed by one air craft refueling another in a process that involves insertion similar to coital motion.
General Ripper also explains to Captain Mandrake that he first learned about the alleged water fluoridization during a “physical act of love [when] a profound sense of fatigue, a feeling of emptiness followed.” Since then, he’s started attributing his failure to ejaculate to Russia im-purifying his “essence.”
Dr. Strangelove, the science consultant to the US President, also proposes a plan for select people to live underground should the doomsday device be detonated. This would preserve humanity’s existence but would also require the selection of people with the best genetic traits. The doctor mentions the need for a 10-1 female to male ratio, with females being chosen according to their sexual desirability. The only female character in the movie is a bikini-wearing secretary-cum-girlfriend of a general; she only has one scene.
The heavy focus on machismo is not something to take against the film as it seems to be very aware of it. The nuclear war and the ideas surrounding it — deterrence theory, mutual assured destruction — are presented as but products of the excesses of the human ego, if not specifically the male kind.
Dr. Strangelove stays true to its tagline. It is a hot-line suspense comedy that is not only rich in laugh-worthy antics but also in socially significant meaning.