Dr. Strangelove is a milestone in the history of American cinema for many reasons. One of those reasons it is that it was the first major Hollywood production to actually make a comedy out of nuclear devastation. Just a few years earlier and just the suggesting that concept would be the plot of your film would have been enough to have you hauled up to Congress to face questions about your patriotism before leaving the U.S. Capitol a few hours later with your career over and your legacy in tatters.
The 1950s was filled with movies that turned nuclear war into subjects of horror and science fiction film, but nobody had ever thought to look to the end of the world resulting from war between the America and the Soviet Union as something to make fun of. One of the biggest reasons for that was that the 1950s was also the decade in which the Red Scare reached its peak. Bryan Cranston revealed his range as an actor by going from meth-king Walter White in Breaking Bad to playing the real-life title character in a movie about the Hollywood Blacklist titled Trumbo. The blacklisting of Hollywood actors, writers and directors who were suspected of being members of the Communist Party was one of the most famous aspects of the Red Scare. Coincidentally, one of the movies that finally brought the Hollywood Blacklist to an end was Spartacus which was written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by…Stanley Kubrick! Not coincidentally, perhaps, one of those reasons that Dr. Strangelove has managed to stand the test of time is that it is a very subtle satire of the overarching level of insipid cowardice and bottomless stupidity characterizing the Red Scare.
Dr. Strangelove could never have been willed into being were it not for the comprehensive inanity of vast right-and-left wing acceptance of the campaign of propaganda created with such inexplicable precision by the otherwise frighteningly imprecise Military-Industrial Complex. As a horror show intended to literally frighten Americans in a state of petrification, nothing Hollywood ever created can hold a candle to the Red Scare and everything it entailed. Americans who don’t believe in ghosts or witches or demonic possession were easily manipulated into believing in the existence of a ridiculously vast conspiracy in which communists had or could succeed in infiltrating every aspect of their daily life.
For instance, the whole plot of the movie gets a jump start by the craziness of General Jack D. Ripper. He decides to start World War III all on his own because he is convinced that a communist conspiracy is behind his women problems. Dr. Strangelove is a fantastic satire of this truly weird period in American history where millions of people actually thought the same thing as Gen. Ripper: that the country’s supply of drinking water was being poisoned through fluoridation as part of a commit plot. It is probably much easier to laugh at this type of satire that was truly edgy and pushing the envelope at the time because history has shown that so much of what Americans were scared of as part of the Red Scare was absurd. It is easy to imagine that audiences that went to the theater to see Dr. Strangelove when it first came out may have been laughing just as much, but out of nervous laughter. Kind of like if Hollywood made a comedy today about the threat of ISIS. We might find satirical scenes based on common suspicions about terrorist threats amusing, but most of us would probably seriously wonder if those suspicions were really something to be concerned about.
That may be why the scenes in Dr. Strangelove about communist conspiracies theories like fluoridation and the whole idea of a bomber pilot riding a nuclear bomb down to the Soviet Union like it was a rodeo horse are so amusing. The audience learns pretty early on in this movie about something called the failsafe point and the recall code. The failsafe point is the line at which bombers carrying nuclear warheads can be recalled before their presence will be alerted to the Soviets that Russia is under attack. Once the planes pass this point, there is way to stop the course of future events, but right up until the planes do reach that point everything can be avoided by sending them a recall code.
What makes Dr. Strangelove such a really weird sort of comical look at the culture of American in the 20th century is that in the very same year another movie was released that was actually titled Fail-Safe. Also shot in black and white, Fail-Safe has a plot that is nearly identical to Dr. Strangelove: a mistake sends bombers flying toward the failsafe point under the mistaken belief they are to drop their bombs. The only real difference between the two movies is that Dr. Strangelove is a comedy and Fail-Safe is a drama. But the fact that an identical plot results in a comedy in one movie and a drama in the other is not even the weird part. The really weird part is that both movies feel the same. One of the greatest aspects of Dr. Strangelove is that it doesn’t feature the kind of scenes or gags or jokes normally expected in a comedy. Actually, there really isn’t anything in particular about Dr. Strangelove that lets you know it’s a comedy and Fail-Safe is a drama. The comedy is in the difference between how the characters react. The characters in Dr. Strangelove seem oddly unconcerned with the threat of a nuclear war compared to those in Fail-Safe. The characters in the drama behave hysterically at times in a way that would be more at home in a comedy.
Of course, it is not entirely accurate to assert that Dr. Strangelove is a film entirely absent of the sort of humor that traditionally separates a comedy from a drama. The names of the characters pretty much give away that the movie is supposed to be funny. Or, at least, they seem as though they were intended to let people know it’s a comedy. Perhaps it says something about the culture of American in the early 1960s that the makers of the movie felt compelled to provide characters with names that indicated it would be okay to laugh at the traditionally non-comedic subject of the narrative as the plot proceeds to unroll. What may be even more frightening than anything that actually takes place on screen in Dr. Strangelove is the idea that that some members of the audience in 1964 might have watched the movie without realizing it was not only okay to laugh, but desired. Then again, when one takes into consideration that those very same audience members may very well have actually believed that fluoridation was part of a communist conspiracy, perhaps endowing characters with absurd names like Gen. Jack D. Ripper, Col. “Bat” Guano and Soviet Premier Kissov was done out of necessity.