Dr. Strangelove (1964)—The Absurdity of Agenda

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Watched from the perspective of the twenty-first century, one of the most interesting details in Dr. Strangelove is the date within the opening credits: MCMLXIII. That is just 18 years after nuclear weapons were used for the very first time, and here is a comedy—a successful comedy, one of funniest satires put to film—premised on the threat of nuclear annihilation.

As I write these words, we are not far from the 18-year anniversary of another history-making moment of mass violence. Yet when the 18-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks comes, it is hard to imagine we will have a comedy in the theaters premised on the threat of a massive terrorist attack.

There are differences. America was the attacker with the atom bomb and the attacked on 9/11. America sought to end a war with one and was drawn into war with the other. Do these differences point to a reason why we apparently found our way into humor over the aftereffects of one, but would not imagine finding humor in the wake of other?

In at least one important way, both events were alike. After both, a previously held sense of safety was lost.

Indeed, given one difference in particular—the vastly greater scale of death and loss in the nuclear attacks—it seems as though our resort to humor should have been even farther away in 1963. Unless.

Unless incomprehensible destruction actually makes humor more accessible.

In fact, herein might be another key to the lasting effect of the 9/11 attacks, to the “success” of these attacks in terms of the impact they have had on the American sense of calm and security. These attacks, large as they were, were also small enough to be comprehensible, small enough that each of us could personally understand them and envision them well enough to fear them.

In Dr. Strangelove, the viewer does comprehend, to an extent, the scope of the threatened violence within the story. We are aware that the actions being taken by one comically deranged general (Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper played by Sterling Hayden) are careening the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. toward mutual annihilation.

The characters understand this, too, including the President (Peter Sellers), General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), and the Soviet Premier “Dimitri” whom we know only from hearing the President’s side of the phone conversation with him. But in the case even of each of these characters, they somehow do not feel the scope of what is to happen, or they do not rise to it. Instead, their self-interest, their various personal agendas, invariably come to rule each moment.

This is a movie about agendas. In the story, a giant system is moving in the background of each of the little lives we see. Planes are moving toward bombing the U.S.S.R. on a mistaken mission, and the U.S.S.R. can be expected to retaliate. It is a system threatening to destroy all involved, yet it is still the self-interests of all these little people that fill the screen.

One of the more captivating such characters appears in only one scene. Tracy Reed plays Miss Scott, General Turgidson’s secretary and mistress. While the general is off-camera, she takes a telephone call from another officer, and the audience quickly comes to understand she is the lover of this man as well. The system in her background is somehow the military, its culture, the chain of command—and it all doesn’t matter. In alternating speaking tenderly to one lover into the receiver while relaying news to the other just out of the frame, we see her pursuing her own agenda against this backdrop.

Hayden as General Ripper
Agendas built the system across which the entire movie plays out. Self-interest fed two countries’ mutual pursuit of a superior ability to annihilate each other, leading (in the movie) to the U.S.S.R. developing a weapon that would destroy all life automatically if the country was ever significantly attacked. This is the outcome the characters are aiming—against the distractions of their own still-active self-interests—to avoid.

The movie’s subtitle is “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Seeing the characters in this film, we do love the bomb somewhat. Not because we hate these characters, but because the knot of human machination portrayed here is so impossible to disentangle that utterly ending it all feels as though it is, if not the best answer, an option to seriously weigh.

That world, tied by that knot of human machination, is not the world we live in. It could be. But the world we live in is hopeful. The inconceivable solution to that machination has been given to us: In Christ, human beings are remade. By faith, human beings have been lifted—are being lifted—out of agenda. “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind,” wrote the apostle Paul. People are being transformed in just this way, and the world is being transformed with them.

Dr. Strangelove is a Christian story in this way: It brilliantly portrays the inevitable logic by which the world would be doomed if it knew only human will and nothing else.

Our world is not the world of this story. Our world knows grace; our world is being remade. To be sure, our world is still far fallen. It includes elements scary enough that we do not bring ourselves to humor about them.

The darkly humorous development that sets off the story in Dr. Strangelove is General Ripper’s sending a bomber off to attack because of his blaming the Soviets for, of all things, fluoridated water. His crazy agenda was not anticipated by the larger system, and so his move sends the system careening off-course. Before this, the existence of that system and its seeming stability were—in their way—a comfort.

And therein lies another difference between then and now, between the time period that produced this movie and the times today. There is the sense now that systems have gone awry, or gone away. We are more exposed now, more fully and directly aware of our plight, because in the dangers and in the problems that face us today, it increasingly seems as though there is no system to meet them. Even when the danger is smaller now, it is nearer to us when the agendas are all there are.