Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Dr Strangelove

A Kubrick classic, Dr Strangelove is a black comedy that satirizes the Cold war doctrine of mutual assured destruction. The doctrine was based on the principle of deterrence, and provided in essence that a full-scale use of nuclear weapons by either super-power would effectively result in retaliation by the other and would lead to the destruction of both; and thus, knowing this, both parties should refrain from using these weapons against their opposing bloc. Dr Strangelove exposes the fragility of this principle by showcasing the ease with which a nuclear attack may be set in motion even without the intention of knowledge of the principals.

In the film, a mad US army general, hoping to force the US into war with the USSR, sends the airforce bombers to attack the Soviet Union's military bases. Without a psecial code, known only to the general these planes cannot be recalled.

The horrified US President, establishes contact with the Soviet Premier, through the Russian ambassador, only to discover that the Russians have been building a secret ‘Doomsday’ machine which will obliterate all life on Earth within a few months of an attack on USSR. Further, the Russian cannot deactivate the machine.

The President turns to Dr Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound, former Nazi, to advise him on the potential impact of the doomsday machine. Dr Strangelove is quite the mad scientist who is also suffering from the alien hand syndrome. His right hand alternates between trying to strangle his neck and performing the Nazi salute. Strangelove explains its capacity for total annihilation of human life; he also points out that when shrouded in secrecy it has no value as a deterrent – thus pointing out that even within the framework of deterrence, lack of intelligence regarding a nuclear build-up results in a situation of potentially more horrific consequences, unaccompanied by greater stability.

The President then cooperates with the Russians in shooting down the planes, but one plane succeeds in bombing a base.

In one of the most popular scenes of the film, Major TJ King Kong, commander of this plane is swept onto one of the bombs while trying to get the ejection doors open, and falls to his death, waving and whooping all the way down – in part a tribute to the single minded devotion and courage of the soldiers, and in part a reflection on their vulnerability to brainwashing and exploitation by the higher military and political echelons, a theme also seen in a Few Good Men.

The Doomsday machine is thus triggered and the Americans and Russians alike are now faced with the prospect of total annihilation. Faced with this calamity they remain united for the five minutes it takes for Strangelove to come up with a proposal for saving some lives – a deep underground bunker where about 200,000 people can be housed for a century, while the earth regenerates. The Russians decide to follow this plan and construct their own bunker. The last few scenes show senior American officers worrying that Russian bunker will be better than theirs and that Americans will thus emerge at a military disadvantage a century later. They start discussing how they must prevent a ‘mine-shaft gap’ (A reference to the Cold war preoccupation with "missile gap")

Kubrick had initially intended to make this a serious film about the instability of the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, but realized that a black comedy was a more effective way of exposing its absurdities:

"My idea of doing it as a nightmare comedy came in the early weeks of working on the screenplay. I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question."

The result is a gripping, often tongue-in-cheek film that explodes comfortable myths about the improbability of nuclear war, and the instability of deterrence. Issues it touches upon repeatedly are

  • failure of intelligence – not only did the Americans not know about the Doomsday machine, limited information resulted in troops believing they were at war;
  • the Cold war climate of deep suspicion – while this is evident in nearly every frame featuring the American war room and in Ripper’s speeches; it is also evident in the reaction of the Russian premier, who when contacted by the US president does not directly relay information about the Doomsday machine to him, he only mentions it to the Russian Ambassador who sees it fit to let the President know;
  • the power play between the Americans and the Russians – even at the end with annihilation imminent, the Americans are worrying about a mine shaft gap, and the Russian ambassador is taking surreptitious pictures of strategic maps in the war room;
  • tension between the realpolitik notion that ‘might makes right’, and rule of law, an issue which continues to be relevant today. This is reflected in the film through the contrast between the suggestions of the President’s advisors who want to follow General Ripper’s airstrikes with a full scale attack since they have the capacity to severely disable Russian capabilities, and the President’s actions in refusing to do so and instead inform the Russians of the strike.
  • repeated hailing of the President as Fuhrer by Dr Strangelove, ex-Nazi – to drive home the total irrationality which gripped the US and the USSR leading to the long drawn out Cold War. Indeed Strangelove’s suggestion for selecting people for the underground bunkers also hints at eugenics.
True, the details are different. During the Cold War, the Russians did not have a “doomsday” machine and it is not known whether the US ever embraced a plan R; and today the Soviet Union no longer exists and Russia per se is not a threat; nevertheless nuclear armament continues, several countries have acquired the bomb in the last decades, many, especially neighbors, remain in a state of deterrence with each other; and the escalation of ongoing conflicts into nuclear war, whether through government intent, or through inaccurate intelligence, remains a grim reality.

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