Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Provost's Film Series

September 27, 2010

Introduction written by Toddy Burton


Isaac: Has anybody read that Nazis are gonna march in New Jersey? Y'know, I read this in the newspaper. We should go down there, get some guys together, y'know, get some bricks and baseball bats and really explain things to them. 

Party Guest: There is this devastating satirical piece on that on the Op Ed page of the Times, it is devastating. 

Isaac: Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point. 

Party Guest: Oh, but really biting satire is always better than physical force.

Isaac: No, physical force is always better with Nazis. ‘Cause it's hard to satirize a guy with shiny boots.


Excerpted from Manhattan (1979), written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman


Why make ‘em laugh?

One of the most renowned directors in the history of cinema, filmmaker Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999) was known for his precise and stylish use of the camera, his obsessive attention to details, and for the large variety of genres in which he worked. His 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is a surrealistic science fiction film which paved the way for George Lucas’s Star Wars almost a decade later, while Full Metal Jacket (1987) remains one of the defining films about Vietnam. From the sweeping historical epic Barry Lyndon (1975) to the horror of The Shining (1980), Kubrick created new worlds with each genre he tackled.

Dr. Strangelove (1964) encapsulates the brilliant madness of Kubrick’s talent. Listed by AFI as the #3 comedy of all time and #26 in their list of 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time, the film remains a pinnacle of both subversive satire and visual style. After completing Lolita in 1962, Kubrick became obsessed (along with many Americans) with the possibilities of a nuclear holocaust. With the height of the cold war escalating in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the reality of nuclear war became a potent presence in the lives of Americans. Kubrick consumed dozens of books on the subject and set out to create a dramatic thriller. But after completing the initial version of the script as a straight suspense story, “he realized that this stuff was so incredible, that it could only be taken in and absorbed through a comic lens, through a satiric lens.” (Lee Minoff, executive producer).

What began as a literal film about the games people play with nuclear weapons became a nightmare comedy, inspired by the lunacy that Kubrick studied. Oozing from every pore with thick satire, the resulting film was a critical and commercial success in which Kubrick showcased his brilliance as a cinematic architect. Through the juxtaposition of raw realistic looking documentary style footage with the clean lines and vast antiseptic spaces of the war room, Kubrick subversively manipulates the audience’s expectations of the genre. We find ourselves laughing in the midst of our genuine fear. And despite ourselves, we root for the pilots to reach their goal even though we know it means the end of the world. Through absurdity, the audience is thrust into reflecting on the strangeness of the human condition.

Critical Reflections

“Such was Kubrick’s genius, and also the course of his emptiness: he wanted to make everything new – the plushest costume drama ever, the most baroque science fiction, the war to end all wars – but, for all his erudition, he rarely paused to ponder what might lie in the bedrock of the old, or the ordinary, or the much loved.  

By the end of the sixties, many people were on their knees before the Kubrick phenomenon, or out of their heads; to me it feels as if he opened the air lock. There is something majestically unbreathable in his conception of cinema. His notorious devotion to the multiple take—actors have frequently spoken of shooting a scene thirty or forty times, and the men’s last meal in Paths of Glory required sixty-eight roast ducks—speaks not of Flaubertian accuracy but of a furious refusal to accept that the world cannot be bent to his will.”

- Anthony Lane, Obituary for Stanley Kubrick, March 22, 1999 

"Dr. Strangelove remains a great movie. It’s up there with Shakespeare and the complete works of Monty Python when it comes to iconic lines and scenes. The leading actors—Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Keenan Wynn especially—gave it the best performances of their careers. But now . . . Strangelove is something of a period piece. The particular danger that gave the movie much of its oomph—‘nucular combat, toe to toe with the Russkies’—is a curiosity from the past.

But if an all-out nuclear ‘exchange’ between global superpowers is no longer a live possibility, the danger of some sort of lesser, if that’s the right word, nuclear catastrophe has gotten worse.”

- Hendrik Hertzberg, Senior editor, The New Yorker, April 24, 2010