Stanley Kubrick made two darkly comic films more than 20 years apart. The more recent (has it really been 35 years?) Full Metal Jacket is still an uncomfortable movie to watch today. the deep cruelty of war and man’s inhumanity to man still have the power to distress, distract, and disturb us deeply. We laugh uncomfortably at R. Lee Ermey’s constant and loquacious stream of insults and abuse. We look around guiltily as we chuckle at being told Adam Baldwin’s character just needs someone to throw hand grenades at him for the rest of his life.
On the other hand, Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, has in past 30 years or so lost some of that tension with the ending of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. God send that it never return to haunt us again! The humor and awkwardness in Dr. Strangelove arose from the juxtaposition of incompetence in the bureaucratic political sphere and military poised against the high stakes of a nuclear stand-off between superpower states.
The plot is pretty straightforward. George C. Scott plays General Buck Turgidson (yes, really), an Air Force four-star who is alerted that a Strategic Air Command bomber wing has sent an unauthorized “go” order to its planes and they will soon enter Russian airspace. Sterling Hayden is General Ripper, the commander of the base in England who has decided to sneak attack the Russians on his own authority. His plan we come to learn is to force the rest of the US forces to commit to a first-strike and “win” by achieving a decisive victory before any response can be made. Why now? Oh, well, he’s come to the realization that through fluoridated water and other methods the Communists have infiltrated the West and begun a program of weakening it by sapping the vitality of men and their…vital essences and…fluids. Yeah.
Peter Sellers appears in a triple role performance as the titular Dr. Strangelove, a German scientist originally working for the Nazis and drafted in to serve US interests after the end of World War II, as US President Merkin Muffley (I know, I know), and British liason to the USAF and aide to Gen. Ripper, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake. (Look, I’m pretty sure all the sexual puns are a way of subtly indicting the obsession with a macho image in the military compared to a perceived lack on the political side.)
While the plot is probably not truly spoiled by spoilers in the traditional sense, I’ll refrain from them anyway and just add that the other major plot thread (other than the USAF base and the US war room command center) is following a specific B-52 and its crew as they attempt to fly to their target in the USSR. Slim Pickens is the pilot Major “King” Kong and James Earl Jones has a small part as radio operator or navigator. Through a series of mishaps, circumstance, and coincidence the fate of this plane ends up also ruling the fate of the world. Despite the bleak topic, we’re intended to be torn between laughter and despair at our precarious condition. Indeed, the film seems to suggest that we must laugh, so that we will not cry.