This piece is the first in a week-long series about the end of America in fiction. For the full archives of the series, check back here throughout the week.
When thinking about the apocalypse, my mind always drifts to the absurd. And there’s no more absurd consideration of the end of America than Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 classic, “Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”
“Dr. Strangelove” was part of a spate of thrillers that imagined the extinction of life on Earth as a result of nuclear war. Sidney Lumet’s “Fail-Safe,” out the same year as “Dr. Strangelove,” took the same basic conceit as Kubrick’s film — in which a portion of the Strategic Air Command attacks its targets in Russia without proper permission — and played it straight, rather than for laughs. Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach” (1959), meanwhile, was a Very Serious Film about the end of the world concerning a coterie of people coming to grips with their limited time left on the planet.
Why has “Dr. Strangelove” persisted in the public imagination — most recently, earning a spectacular new Criterion Blu-ray release last month — while the others have faded? It’s not solely because Kubrick is a revered auteur; Lumet and Kramer are both quite well regarded. Allow me to suggest that it lives on in large part because of its absurdism. Treating mutually assured destruction as the MAD-ness it was is the only logical way to handle such an existentially horrifying situation.
Critics at the time were somewhat split over Kubrick’s willingness to poke fun at the literal end of the world. Sure, there were raves. Brendan Gill, writing in the February 1, 1964, edition of the New Yorker, called it “the best American movie I’ve seen in years,” a sentiment echoed that same week by Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic, who called it “the best American picture that I can remember.” Praise for the film in industry rag Variety (“an ideal vehicle for exploitation, and should do very well at the b.o.”) notwithstanding, Columbia Pictures was nervous; screenwriter Terry Southern recalled in a 1994 article included in the new Criterion set that “Even when ‘Strangelove’ received the infrequent good review, [the studio] dismissed the critic as a pinko nutcase.”
The studio was perhaps right to be worried, as many critics expressed concern over the film’s worldview. The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther wrote on January 31, 1964, that his “reaction to it is quite divided,” praising the performances and the humor but deriding its failure to send a proper message: “When virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane — or, what is worse, psychopathic — I want to know what the picture proves. … Somehow, to me, it isn’t funny. It is malefic and sick.”
One might expect such a reaction from noted stick-in-the-mud Crowther. But his bête noire, Pauline Kael, reacted quite similarly. “’Dr. Strangelove’ was clearly intended as a cautionary movie; it meant to jolt us awake to the dangers of the bomb by showing us the insanity of the course we were pursuing,” Kael wrote in 1967. “But artists’ warnings about war and the dangers of total annihilation never tell us how we are supposed to regain control, and ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ chortling over madness, did not indicate any possibilities for sanity. … It is not war that has been laughed to scorn but the possibility of sane action.” Kael’s nemesis Andrew Sarris dismissively wrote of Kubrick’s work in “The American Cinema” (1968) that he “has chosen to exploit the giddiness of middle-brow audiences on the satiric level of Mad magazine.”
Some friendly reviewers were put off by the film’s tone, in part because the tone might not convey the seriousness of purpose that great films are supposed to hold. Writing in the Nation in 1964, Robert Hatch concluded his piece by suggesting that “[Kubrick] and Terry Southern take a pleasure in flaying their contemporaries that may be more effective as sadistic humor than as adult education.” And even Kauffmann lamented, “It does not tell us what we must do to be saved.”
Allow me to suggest that it’s this tone and these lack of answers that have allowed “Dr. Strangelove” to endure. Considering the end of all life on Earth is a fundamentally absurd proposition; the death of one man is a tragedy and a tragic film may best suit the telling of his story, but the death of billions is a cosmic joke, one whose punchline needs no explanation.
I can’t help but think that the longevity of absurdity is one of the reasons that Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy” has not only endured but also thrived since its box office failure 10 years ago. Expressing where American culture is headed in humorous terms, as both Kubrick and Judge do in their own way, does more to cut through the psychic clutter than insisting upon teaching a lesson or showing us how to fix the problem.
Absurdity resonates through the ages. A six-point-plan for fixing the bureaucracy? Not so much.