I am not truly interested in reviewing Dr. Strangelove. That has been done before, by many people. Everyone agrees it is a masterpiece of cinematic satire. I agree with this position, so why bother writing a review explaining why it is a masterpiece? No, I instead want to explore a much broader topic that few seem to address. Everyone who has seen it agrees it is funny. But why is it funny? This is a film that ends with the world being utterly annihilated by nuclear devices. Hardly the normal subject of comedy. I don’t recall, say, Animal House or a Wes Anderson film ending with “everybody dies.” So what is it?
Perhaps it is the sheer inevitability of it all. The humans in power in the film are dim bulbs who can barely see what is in front of them. They try their best to avert the nuclear disaster, despite the fact that it seems destined to happen no matter what they do. The fact that Buck Turgidson tries to lead a prayer of thanks only to be informed that the crisis isn’t over yet is not beyond the point. Humans cannot turn back the clock, no matter how much they desire too.
Maybe it is the emphasis on male sexuality and the desire for their testosterone fueled minds to cause war. Most of the names are derived from some sort of slang for genitals (Merkin Muffley, Buck Turgidson) and some are named after sex criminals (Jack Ripper). General Ripper, who causes the whole situation to come to a boil, seems to be stemmed by his impotence (or his closeted homosexuality…I am still not sure which). Strangelove himself is still quite obsessed with sex, despite his possibly inability to use his genitalia. It is he who suggests a ratio of “10 females to every male” and stating that, for the survivors “there will be little else to do” aside from breed.
Most likely though, the satire is far broader than that. These situations were frequently depicted in the media from the day. They were usually as absurd (any baby boomers remember the insipid Duck and Cover shorts?) but treated as deadly serious. The techniques shown could save your life, it was said. People needed to fear Russia…again, to save their own lives. Strangelove took these trends and turned them into the stuff of comedy by playing them straight.
Slim Pickens’ Major Kong may be the funniest character in the film for that very reason. Every other character seems almost aware of the joke and play it as such. Not Kong. He is fully convinced that he is about to save the world by his actions rather than destroy it. He makes several motivational speeches to his crew. Each speech is absolutely hilarious, because Pickens takes them so seriously. And the final appearance of Kong, with the riding of the nuclear bomb, is famous because it epitomizes what the film is so good at. Here is a man, celebrating his macho bravado, not realizing that he is about to die and that he is about to destroy the world. It is about the leaders of the world trying to out do each other. Not for any particular reason, but to show that they can.
It all comes down to a basic credo: Acting dumb in a serious situation is never, ever funny. Acting serious in a dumb situation…that’s what’s funny. And that is what makes memorable satire. Kubrick knew this and delivered beautifully.