Satire in Dr. Strangelove

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

Learn to stop worrying and love the bomb, so said film director Stanley Kubrick. Discover the political and social dimensions of Kubrick's 1964 comedy film ''Dr. Strangelove.'' Explore the literary devices used to satirize and critique political and military strategies.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, director Stanley Kubrick's foray into the genre of comedy, begins with the truth and then bends it ever so slightly. The film dramatizes what would happen if competing superpowers both had their trigger-fingers on a doomsday device. With pithy humor that verges on the absurd, Dr. Strangelove builds up a momentum that explodes with exaggerated dialogue once the dreaded doomsday device promises to bring about not just World War III, but total global annihilation. That's how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb!

Dr. Strangelove presents an indictment of war, military power, and blind hubris in the form of a hilarious, understated satire. Satire is a literary genre that uses comedy for social commentary. It has a long tradition as an acceptable form of political critique. It's more likely that a critic of any given political regime will have luck presenting his views under the guise of a comedy than as a blatant rejection of the ruling powers that be. In this lesson we will consider how the film reflects its sociopolitical context, and how the imagery and storytelling in the film reap the benefits of the genre of satire.

Sociopolitical Context

Tensions were high in the early years of the Cold War. Following World War II and coming to an end after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, the Cold War refers to a period of conflict in which there was no active military engagements, and no outright fighting. Nobody knew if or when war might break out. The Americans and the Russians both had their fingers on a dangerous, potentially catastrophic button that at any moment could blast either country into oblivion. The threat of nuclear war was imminent.

The Cuban Missile Crisis exemplifies this tension. Cuba sided with Communist Russia, so it made for a particularly tricky situation when Americans found out that they were stockpiling weapons off the coast of Florida. For thirteen nervous days, it seemed like we were going to destroy each other. It was the closest we came to all-out war during the entire length of the Cold War. Imagine that your life was being threatened every day with the possibility of nuclear annihilation. In the 1960s, there was a real possibility that a powerful enemy would attack with the force of a thousand nuclear bombs. In situations like this it becomes hard to gain clarity and perspective.

Range of missiles if launched from Cuba
Cuba map

Dr. Strangelove critiques mutually assured destruction, a military strategy that posits that the use of nuclear weapons can only lead to the annihilation of both sides in a conflict. The Cuban Missile Crisis lingered in recent memory in 1964, when Dr. Strangelove opened in theaters across the country. Kubrick utilizes satire in the film to critique the political climate of the early Cold War. Satires provide the kind of critical distance that comes with exaggerating a situation enough to be able to step back from yourself and have a laugh at the absurdity of it all.

Dr. Strangelove presents a biting indictment of the military. For example, the opening credits show airplanes refueling in flight. Do you see how such a visual composition, as depicted in the picture below, could be interpreted as a sexual position? The film's opening sequence plays on these visual similarities. The phallic imagery connects to implicit themes of masculine pride within the military.

side view of an aircraft refueling in flight

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