General Jack D. Ripper attempts to make sense of the world from his office at Burpleson Air Force Base. He has at his disposal a wing of bombers capable of reducing cities to rubble and megadeaths. However, he is not a free agent. Ripper may give his wing orders to strike only if a complex system of "if-then" statements resolve in a certain manner. When this system gets to him there are only two possibilities that would result in a strike: if the president says "strike" or if the Soviets strike first, destroying Washington, New York, and a whole lot else.
Meanwhile, the House Committee On Un-American Activity is a bunch of patsies. They claim to be accomplishing something by rooting out Communists from positions in government and Hollywood. But no one is doing anything about water fluoridation, an insidious Commie plot to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
Is it possible that everyone, from the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks to President Merkin Muffley, is totally blind? Or are they so anesthetized by constantly rationalizing their positions relative to everyone else that they have forgotten who the good guys are? The orbit of Ripper's psychological gyroscope is certainly eccentric, but it is unaffected by anyone else.
Ripper decides to give the world a wake-up call. He will solve the problem of the Communists by launching an attack, against all protocol, on the Soviets. He is certain that this will snap the brass at the Pentagon out of their funk. Truth, justice, and the American way will prevail.
Kubrick found the military to be an excellent canvas. Paths Of Glory and Full Metal Jacket also use the theme of war as an apt metaphor for the failure of human systems. Paths Of Glory depicts French military officers who dance a sort of minuet around one another attempting to accomplish their own agendas. Most of these minuets end with one man turning on his heel and dramatically marching out of the deepest point of filmic space. Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (illustrative character names are a Terry Southern trademark) makes a futile attempt at one of these dramatic exits. A wide-angle lens makes Ripper's office seem cavernous, like the chateau in Paths Of Glory. When Mandrake reaches the door he realizes that Ripper had just bolted it; besides, Mandrake does not know the recall code. This is no time for ballroom dancing. The music has stopped and Ripper controls the turntable.
The first of Ripper's soliloquies on Commies and their relation to bodily fluids follows this impotent attempt to thwart him. Kubrick films Ripper from a low camera position to convey his sense of moral superiority. The wide-angle lens warps and distends Sterling Hayden's face, creating a grotesque, mask-like visage. Mandrake stands completely befuddled in the face of such a lunatic.
The grotesqueness of this scene distances the audience from the film, preventing us from identifying with the characters in any way similar to the way that we were to presumably identify with the Raths. The only character we might identify with is Mandrake. Ripper's grotesqueness should disgust us the same way it disgusts Mandrake. But Mandrake is difficult to identify with due to his effeteness and his Britishness (if there is a difference). Just what is he doing there anyway? Why is an R.A.F. officer Ripper's second-in-command? Is there such thing as an "officer exchange program"? These questions demand answers, but we've no time for that. Kubrick immediately confronts us with more grotesque figures in the War Room.
The lunacy of Ripper's rant is soon undercut; President Merkin Muffley is a horrific illustration of Ripper's rebutal of Clemenceau's comment. Sniveling and innefectual, Muffley lacks the "time, training, (and) inclination for strategic thought." These are not the kind of skills that earn a man a spot behind the desk in the Oval Office. He is a people-pleaser who is concerned about his standing in the eyes of the public. When faced with the option of total commitment to nuclear war, Muffley objects on the grounds that he does not want "to go down in the history books as the worst mass murderer since Adolph Hitler." He does not find mass murder empirically wrong. It is wrong because the hegemonic peer group would frown upon it. He would lose his bid for re-election. No one would visit his library.
General Buck Turgidson is Ripper's doppelganger in the Pentagon war room. This is another cavernous space, rendered more cavernous by a wide-angle lens, in which grotesque figures play act. With the possible exception of Doctor Strangelove himself, Turgidson is the most grotesque figure in the room. George C. Scott contorts his face into a wide range of choleric expressions. The spine of the binder in front of him among candy wrappers reads "World Targets In Megadeaths." He discounts Ripper's out-of-bounds behavior as "a single slip-up." He defends the system, but allows: "the human element seems to have failed us here."
Personality tests were intended to keep men like Ripper and Turgidson out of their positions. Human rationalism fails itself, granting flawed individuals positions of great responsibility. Tom Rath's friend told him that all he needed for a job in Public Relations was to bathe regularly and wear a clean suit; apparently all you need in to be a general in this world is to bathe and wear a spiffy uniform with bars on it. The clothes make the man in the eyes of the hegemonic peer group; Kubrick proves otherwise.
The system collapses in on itself. In order to save the world the Army must fight the Air Force and the American brass must help the Soviets shoot down American planes. Kubrick had used a hand-held camera that he himself operated to capture battle scenes in Paths Of Glory; Dr. Strangelove recalls these scenes. While the infantry invades Burpleson A.F.B., Kubrick scuttles along with a hand-held. The result is a sort of cinema verité, newsreel footage effect. Audience members who recalled World War II and Korean War newsreel footage would realize the madness as the other-directed society implodes.
The base guards surrender. Ripper suffers a breakdown. His faith in the righteousness of his scheme assured him that it would succeed. Good would prevail over evil. When the troops surrender he reveals that he felt like a father to them. He reacts like the classic inner-directed father who demands fidelity from his children, especially his sons: whereas an other-directed father only hopes that his children will be proud of him. Ripper feels that his boys have let him down. Kubrick continues to treat Ripper with a wide angle lens and low-key lighting. The camera angle, however, is now almost at eye level and the shot-up office is visible around him. Clammy skin, damp from exertion, and the extinguished cigar that is no longer so jaunty combine with the new camera angle to convey Ripper's collapse. The once assured man is now impotent.
Still, he refuses to surrender to the will of the peer group. As Mandrake says, they all died thinking of him, "every man Jack of them." Ripper is still convinced that he is empirically correct. He has always been the "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" type. Ripper would prefer to kill himself, trusting that God will see that he is provided for. The fact that the world is against him does not suggest to Ripper in any way that he might be wrong.
Without venturing into greater detail regarding other magnificent characters, including Doctor Strangelove, Major T. J. "King" Kong, and Colonel "Bat" Guano (played by Keenan Wynn, who played Sergeant Caesar Gardella in The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit), we can generalize that these grotesque characters create a sense of unease in the audience. This sense of unease is exacerbated by their propensity to alternately come accross as lunatics or to make a lot of sense, as well as the extremely realistic settings in which they operate. All of this makes an otherwise outlandish farce seem remarkable plausible, straight through to the mushroom clouds accompanied by Vera Lynn singing "We'll Meet Again."
For the most part this film was well received. His previous films, particularly Spartacus and Lolita, drew the sort of attention that gives even an unimpressed reviewer pause before panning a film. While some reviewers dubbed Dr. Strangelove an instant classic, others were ambivalent. Many found the film hilarious and cinematically brilliant, but unpleasantly disquieting.
The most noteworthy of these detractors is Bosley Crowther. Crowther, who loved The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit, published essentially the same review of Dr. Strangelove twice in The New York Times. Upon the release of the film on Thursday January 29, 1964,"A Shattering Sick Joke" appeared on the entertainment pages. A few days later "Is Nothing Sacred?" appeared atop the front page of section two of the Sunday edition. As Crowther sums up in his first review: "My reaction to it is quite divided, because there is so much about it that is grand, so much that is brilliant and amusing, and much that is grave and dangerous."
Crowther's chief objection seems to be that the system does not win, and that the president is incompetent. Crowther would be comfortable with a film in which a lunatic general launched an attack that was thwarted by Uncle Sam himself. The nihilistic humor of the film's closing moments completely escapes Crowther: "Somehow, to me, it isn't funny. It is malefic and sick." The touch of ambivalence in this comment points to Kubrick's success, that even his detractors leave wiggle room.
There was a definite cognoscenti, however, who got the message loud and clear. Among this group are serious heavyweight names in the world of social criticism. Although we cannot ignore that their politics are left-of-center, and that they may be easily construed as apologists for Kubrick, they presciently observe how non-political the film really is. A week following Crowther's second negative review The Times gave some space to letters from opinionated readers. Alongside two concerned New Yorkers who shared Crowther's views stood a predictably well-reasoned letter from one Lewis Mumford. Mumford's letter argues that the film does not mock any single individual or institution, but the entire society that would allow itself to become so degraded. It reads, in part:
The Cold War myth of Communist infiltration was less a political struggle than a compulsive necessity of which some hoped to be cured.
What the wacky characters in 'Dr. Strangelove' are saying is precisely what needs to be said: This nightmare eventuality that we have concocted for our children is nothing but a crazy fantasy, by nature as horribly crippled and dehumanized as Dr. Strangelove himself. It is not this film that is sick: what is sick is our supposedly moral, democratic country which allowed this policy to be formulated and implemented without even the pretense of open public debate.
Writing in Partisan Review, Susan Sontag seems to sum up the situation best. Sontag, who has ambivalent feelings of her own regarding the effectiveness of Kubrick's sense of humor, contrasts Dr. Strangelove with The Great Dictator. This is her reading of Dr. Strangelove's popularity:
The only rational reaction to an irrational society is to laugh in spite of oneself. Nihilistic, cathartic laughter is anxious laughter; this is the laughter that all dark humor, all subversive satire, produces when effective. In a way, Ripper's decision to go outside the bounds of other-directed society is an over-internalization of the dictates of that society. Ripper signed a murder-suicide pact with the society that allowed him to achieve a position of influence.
Intellectuals and adolescents both love it. But the 16-year-olds who are lining up to see it understand the film, and its real virtues, better than the intellectuals, who vastly overpraise it. For Doctor Strangelove is not, in fact, a political film at all. It uses OK targets of left-liberals (the defense establishment, Texas, chewing gum, mechanization, American vulgarity) and treats them from an entirely post-political, Mad Magazine point of view. Doctor Strangelove is really a very cheerful film. Certainly, its fullbloodedness contrasts favorably with what is (in retrospect) the effeteness of Chaplin's film. The end of Doctor Strangelove, with its matter-of-fact image of apocalypse and flip sound-track reassures in a curious way, for nihilism is our contemporary form of moral uplift. As The Great Dictator was Popular Front optimism for the masses, so Doctor Strangelove is nihilism for the masses, a philistine nihilism (291).
These sixteen-year-olds of whom Sontag writes were much like the three Rath children, obsessed with television and death. They were the first generation to grow up with television, and they also grew up with the harshest mythologies and realities of the Cold War. Just as the box of volatile atomic material in the film Kiss Me Deadly was an unspeakable McGuffin, the threat of nuclear annhilation was sacrosanct. Such a thing can only go unspeakable for so long. After a time, it can become fodder for subversive satire. Dr. Strangelove came along at just that time, even if not everyone got the joke.
Considering all of this, some popular reactions to Dr. Strangelove seem positively dangerous. Take for example the February 21, 1964 issue of Senior Scholastic, which comes in separate editions for students and teachers. The two editions are entirely dissimilar. Advertisements are among the major differences. While the student edition pushes Cliff's Notes, blue jeans, and hygiene products, the teacher edition mostly offers educational products.
The film reviews in each edition are particularly notable. While the two reviews in the student edition cover the Bob Hope film Global Affair and the Don Knotts vehicle The Incredible Mr. Limpet, Dr. Strangelove is the only film reviewed in the teacher edition. Philip T. Hartung is another reviewer who found the film humorous, although sophomoric, and who felt the film was off-target. Hartung ends his review with this bizarre observation: "Strangelove goes so far out in its conglomeration of brilliant moviemaking, tasteless jokes, and sardonicism that it becomes irresponsible and misses the important goal at which it's aiming" (10-T). At what target does Hartung believe the film is aiming?
This advertisement in the student edition places the question of who is being irresponsible squarely into question. It appears directly above an ad for "Old Spice Short Cut," which promises to put "more girls in your hair." Just who is brainwashing whom? This paper could certainly be valuable to the debate team. But how responsible is it to frighten schoolchildren with the possibility that they are vulnerable targets of "Communist captors"? Are they waiting in the bushes to nab you on your way home? Worse still, the same publication downplays the issue to educators.
Other-directed society relies on the hegemonic peer group to maintain an even keel. If one person breaks from the group too drastically he might doom the whole mob. If the entire group goes off kilter, you have a bunch of Nazis. Riesman's ultimate solution is that everyone reach a stage of autonomy that would be a compromise between inner-direction and other-direction. This is a rather Platonic ideal that is difficult to imagine, even in a filmic world.