Irony is at the center of every unbelievable scenario in Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove”, from the famous “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”, to a soldier worrying about answering to the Coca-Cola company if he destroys one of their machines to get spare change for a payphone call to the President (!). This hallmark of dark comedy is not necessarily laugh-out-loud-funny all the time, rather, it derives its hilarity primarily from how the humans in the story are so absurd — not entirely unlike, well, all humans.
All anxiety breaks loose in the U.S War Room after insane Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) issues a special sneak bombing on Russia that only he can recall; to make matters worse, he proceeds to shut down his base to all outsiders who may try to force the recall code out of him. The stakes reach their peak when it is learned that Russia has built a doomsday device capable of annihilating all life on earth, and set to go off automatically if the U.S cannot recall the faithful B-52s.
Along the way we meet hilariously exaggerated characters that sometimes border on being cartoons: the loony conspiracy theorist, Jack D. Ripper (so fittingly named), the neurotic Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), the gum-smacking General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the all-American army man, Major Kong (Slim Pickens, who was literally a cowboy before becoming an actor), and, of course, the unbelievable Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers). This is primarily a character-driven film despite almost all of the plot appearing to be based on many unfortunate coincidences. Most of the humor comes from these absurd characters reacting to such absurd situations that — even if they do not realize immediately — they put themselves into; the fact that neither Ripper’s orders can be easily recalled, nor that the stupid doomsday machine can be stopped once triggered — all things seemingly beyond human control — were nevertheless caused by the characters in the story! Thus, Kubrick gives us a riotous comedy on the power of (human) errors.
Stanley Kubrick is known for being a visual virtuoso with his camera, but this movie showcases his expertise in both writing and visuals. His clever script takes the driver’s seat here, but “Dr. Strangelove” is never lacking a healthy dose of Kubrick’s visual expertise. For example, one purely visual joke happens when the camera is set behind a field of firing soldiers, but in the same frame it includes a massive billboard in front of the soldiers that reads “Peace is Our Profession”. Combined with the knowledge of who those soldiers are actually shooting at (which I dare not spoil here), this becomes the entire concept of irony embodied in a single shot.
The darkness of this dark comedy comes from how un-funny these dire situations really ought to be, yet every element of the film makes them all rather humorous; it’s that — sometimes uncomfortable — clash of something so serious being taken for comedy that can only result in laughter. Rather than just a social/political commentary, “Dr. Strangelove” is primarily a human commentary; the film believes that the demise of our world will come from human error — equally from the highest leaders and the lowest followers. We laugh also because something like this plot should never happen, but we know there are these sorts of characters out there and maybe, just maybe, they would do such things. Granted, this movie is built on exaggeration, but exaggeration is built on truth. It takes an incredibly smart filmmaker to put a meaningful and effective dark comedy to the screen, and Stanley Kubrick was the perfect man for the job.