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In 1964, Dr. Strangelove transformed existential dread into biting comedy

Political farce is equal parts unhinged hilarity and drama, which is why it’s time to watch Kubrick’s Cold War movie again.

Peter Sellars played Dr. Strangelove in Kubrick’s 1964 farce.
Peter Sellars played Dr. Strangelove in Kubrick’s 1964 farce.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for February 18 through 24 is Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, and Google Play.

Political farce is weird: It’s both comedy and drama — or maybe tragedy. Ordinarily funny circumstances are elevated to a kind of desperate hilarity by the seriousness of the matters beneath their surface.

And this accounts for the feeling of apocalyptic hysterics and terror that permeates many current political conversations lately, especially in the month following the inauguration of President Donald Trump. The heights to which this week’s headlines have soared — what with Michael Flynn’s resignation and allegations of repeated conversations between Trump campaign aides and Russian intelligence during the campaign — have left some people feeling nostalgic for the good old days of Mustardgate and disputes about helicopters:

Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Which is exactly what Stanley Kubrick was trying to achieve when he made Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964. The Cold War was on, and fears of nuclear obliteration were running high.

So Kubrick made a movie (loosely based on the novel Red Alert) that skewered the people in charge by showing just how easy it would be for an unhinged, power-hungry general to start a nuclear war that would wipe out not just the Soviets but the Americans, and how helpless the president and his advisers would be to stop him.

The film smartly ties the machinations of an incompetent government to shows of power and dominance by insecure or just ineffective masculinity. Characters have names like President Merkin Muffley, General Buck Turgidson, Colonel Bat Guano, and General Jack D. Ripper. Phallic imagery abounds.

Where the big men make the big decisions.
Where the big men make the big decisions.

There is nothing particularly subtle about Dr. Strangelove. It’s very funny. But it’s serious, too: The film’s final moments are filled with images of explosions and, presumably, the decimation of the US and the Soviets alike, all due to one man’s insatiable need to show the world who’s boss (and not inform other officials until it’s too late to pull humanity back from the edge).

That’s the terror beneath Dr. Strangelove, and the idea behind the movie is that if you can laugh at it, maybe you can live in the midst of it. The parallels between 1964 and 2017 aren’t clear-cut, of course. And what’s actually going on is still under investigation.

But a cathartic laugh might be in order anyhow.

Watch the trailer for Dr. Strangelove:

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