Seriously Strange

by Jessie Roberts

A half-century after its release, Eric Schlosser revisits Dr. Strangelove. He notes that “Kubrick’s original intention was to do a straight, serious movie,” but the director “gagged on the idea of a straight version” once he began working on the screenplay:

Pauline Kael wrote that “‘Dr. Strangelove’ was clearly intended as a cautionary movie: it meant to jolt us awake to the dangers of the bomb by showing us the insanity of the course we were pursuing. But artists’ warnings about war and the dangers of total annihilation never tell us how we are supposed to regain control, and ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ chortling over madness, did not indicate any possibilities for sanity.” In the same vein, Susan Sontag asserted that, in future decades, “the display of negative thinking” in the movie would seem “facile.” And Sontag wrote that “Dr. Strangelove is nihilism for the masses, a philistine nihilism.”

I find both of these sets of remarks strange. Why should a popular artist have any obligation to propose “sane” solutions to an intolerable situation?

Surely it’s enough to expose with overwhelming comic energy the contradictions and paradoxes of “mutual assured destruction.” Sane actions are the business of scientists, the military, and Presidents, a few of whom may have been roused to act by this movie. (When Ronald Reagan entered the White House, he wanted to see the war room. This gives one pause. But, later, working with Mikhail Gorbachev, he brought about a partial reduction of nuclear weapons by both sides.) And Sontag’s distaste for “Strangelove” feels off. It’s actually a “cheerful film,” she says. Well, yes, that’s the point of the joke. The movie teases the many Americans acquiescing in a mad logic. At the end, Strangelove leaping out of his chair, and General Turgidson warning of a “mine-shaft gap” with the Soviet Union, are continuing their assertion of high acumen. For them, the game of “strategy” just continues. Sontag wanted a serious film, but I don’t see how anyone could miss, under all the buffoonery and juvenile joking, a furious sense of outrage.