Doctor Strangelove: A Classic Satire

Over the next three posts my intention is to look at three narratives, two of which have become classics and one that I predict will become a classic. The two confirmed classics are Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Doctor Strangelove and Tony Jay and Jonathan Lynn’s television series Yes Minister and Yes Prime Minister, and my predicted classic is Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary about the life of Robert McNamara The Fog of War.

Doctor Strangelove deals with a real public management concern in the early Sixties, the possibility of unintended nuclear war occurring in the context of the cold war between NATO and the Soviet Union. Director Stanley Kubrick carefully studied the literature on nuclear arms control and originally intended to make a thriller, but ultimately turned to satire. At its core, the film has a plausible scenario, namely unintended nuclear war due to inappropriate decentralization of authority. On the American side, it assumed air force base commanders had the authority to order their planes to attack the Soviet Union in the event that the President’s command capability had been lost, say due to a Soviet nuclear attack on Washington. On the Soviet side, it assumed the existence of a doomsday device which would automatically launch a nuclear attack on the US if the Soviet Union was attacked. The events are set in motion when a deranged American base commander orders the bombers under his control to attack. Once that fateful decision has been made, the situation is out of control, despite the Herculean efforts of both the Americans and Soviets to bring the situation under control. The management lesson here is that there are situations in which decentralization of authority, either to individuals in the field or to an automatic technology, is inappropriate.

The satire comes in because all the individuals play their roles seriously in a disastrous situation. They are not winking at the audience and playing for laughs, as in the case in much satire, but rather are playing their roles straight-forwardly and making us laugh at the absurdity of the situation into which they have been cast. The American military characters are all overly zealous about their responsibilities. The deranged base commander who orders the attack does so because he is concerned that fluoridation of the water supply – which the far right at the time saw as a Communist plot – has impaired him sexually. The air force general, when presented with the opportunity for a first strike against the Soviets, urges the President to go for it – which indeed was the thinking of Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The one bomber that gets through the Soviet air defenses is led by a determined and resourceful pilot who, believing that the US has been attacked, goes far beyond the call of duty to ensure that his crew retaliates. The President is thoughtful, creative, and empathetic with the Soviets, but he cannot control the situation.

The movie has a lot of satirical markers, such as allegorical names (base commander Jack D. Ripper, Air Force Chief of Staff Buck Turgidson, commander “King” Kong of the one B-52 that “succeeds” in its mission) and ironic music. Scenes on the B-52 are always accompanied with the Civil War tune “when Johnny comes marching home again” – of course on this mission Johnny won’t come marching, or flying, home again – and the final collage of nuclear bombs exploding is accompanied by Vera Lynn singing “We’ll meet again,” one of the iconic tunes of World War II.; after a nuclear war, we won’t meet again. And the movie has the structure of a thriller, as the movie builds to its climax with the scene continually shifting between Kong’s B-52 and the situation room in the White House. But, ultimately, the humour comes from the plausible situation Kubrick has created, which he then lets over-the-top characters play out seriously to an absurd conclusion.

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