Bosley Crowther, chief film critic for the New York Times, didn’t quite know what to make of Dr. Strangelove at the time of its release in January 1964. Stanley Kubrick’s dark antiwar satire was “beyond any question the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across,” he wrote. But if the film had its hilarious moments, Crowther found its overall effect distinctly unnerving. What exactly was Kubrick’s point? “When virtually everybody turns up stupid or insane — or, what is worse, psychopathic — I want to know what this picture proves.”
We may find it odd for an influential critic to expect a movie to “prove” anything. Kubrick’s aim was manifestly not to prove, but to subvert and discomfit.
With feature-length hyperbole — not a wisp of subtlety allowed — Dr. Strangelove made the case that a deep strain of madness had infected the entire U.S. national security apparatus. From the “War Room” that was the Pentagon’s holiest of holies all the way to the cockpit of a B-52 hurtling toward its assigned Russian target with a massive nuclear bomb in its belly, whack jobs were in charge.
A mere two years after the Cuban missile crisis, few Americans viewed the prospect of nuclear Armageddon as a joking matter. Yet here was Dr. Strangelove treating this deadly serious topic as suitable for raucous (and slightly raunchy) comedy. That’s what bothered Crowther, who admitted to being “troubled by the feeling, which runs through the film, of discredit and even contempt for our whole defense establishment, up to and even including the hypothetical Commander-in-Chief.”
Read the full piece in TomDispatch.