Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Stanley Kubrick (USA/UK, 1964, 95 min.). Few films have responded to their times as much, or in as unlikely a fashion, as Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Its darkly satirical story turns the fearful days of the Cold War upside down, revealing a dangerously irrational world in the process. The plot revolves around desperate attempt to prevent World War III when a deranged U.S. general dispatches an American bomber to drop nuclear bombs on Moscow. With life on earth in the balance, U.S. leaders try to stop their own bomber before it triggers a deadly Soviet doomsday device.

The events in Dr. Strangelove are fictional, but the premise was not far-fetched. Throughout the Cold War, officials in both the U.S. and Soviet Union worried about the possibility that human error might accidentally cause a nuclear war. If that happened, the results would have been catastrophic.  A defense policy had emerged that would have made that outcome a near certainty, and it is that doctrine that Dr. Strangelove takes as a starting point. The strategy of mutual assured destruction–a doctrine that was often called by its macabre acronym, MAD–concluded that the best way to prevent life-ending global conflict would be to make it impossible for either side to use nuclear weapons without triggering a massive counter attack leading to the annihilation of both sides. At a time when the arms race was accelerating out of control, it was a policy of stalemate taken to the extreme. As fictionalized in Dr. Strangelove, the unplanned events caused when the strategy goes wrong shows a world of absurdity that is well beyond human control.

In his novel Nausea, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “A madman’s ravings … are absurd in relation to the situation in which he finds himself, but not in relation to his delirium.” One could imagine such words being written about Kubrick’s film, which similarly exudes an existentialist worldview in which existence is absurd unless humans act in a way to give it meaning. But doing that can be a supremely difficult task. As Simone de Beauvoir, another existentialist writer, once wrote, “The more widespread … [human] mastery of the world, the more they find themselves crushed by uncontrollable forces.” Indeed, the project to orchestrate experience and create genuine meaning has no guarantees and can lead to failure. And in Dr. Strangelove, the potential for failure is on a colossal scale.

Gordon Arnold
Professor of Film and Social Science
Montserrat College of Art