Almost Everything in “Dr. Strangelove” Was True

Eric Schlosser for The New Yorker:

This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy about nuclear weapons, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Released on January 29, 1964, the film caused a good deal of controversy. Its plot suggested that a mentally deranged American general could order a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the President. One reviewer described the film as “dangerous … an evil thing about an evil thing.” Another compared it to Soviet propaganda. Although “Strangelove” was clearly a farce, with the comedian Peter Sellers playing three roles, it was criticized for being implausible…

I actually didn’t watch Dr. Strangelove until nearly 10 years ago, when I saw it for the first time. Even though I knew it was supposed to be a farcical comedy, I don’t think I laughed even once. I felt it needed to be more exaggerated to be actually funny.

I was a child of the 80s. The Iran-Contra trials showed that even absurd conspiracy theories were less bizarre than what was actually going on behind the scenes. All through my childhood, the possibility of nuclear annihilation and Soviet invasion, hung over my head. The Berlin wall fell as I entered high school, and I saw that that icon of oppression and strength was made of nothing but shoddy concrete that you could practically destroy with your bare hands. The whole Cold War was a facade covering nothing of substance.

The absurdities of that time meant that Kubrick’s fiction was hardly different from the reality of my formative years. Similar to Poe’s Law, it’s almost impossible to distinguish a parody of government and military policy from the real thing. After all, as Tom Lehrer correctly pointed out in his satirical songs in the 60s, the US missile program was built by former Nazis like Wernher von Braun, and the MLF (Multi-Lateral Forces) treaty proposed giving former enemies like Germany and Italy nearly autonomous control of American-made nuclear weapons.

It comes as absolutely no surprise that Dr. Strangelove was pretty solidly based in reality. I knew that on such a deep level that the humor barely made me smile, and I felt slightly depressed at the end of the viewing.