Having by now seen Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) more times than I can remember, it surprises me to meet someone who’s never seen it at all. When I do, my first impulse is always to suggest a screening right then and there. This would seem to put me in company with Oliver Stone, who in recent years has been documented engaging in at least one instance of high-profile Strangelove evangelism. As for the new inductee into the Strangelove viewership, he went more than 60 years without having seen the film, but for the last couple of decades had the credible excuse of busyness: it isn’t just a part-time gig, after all, being the president of Russia.
Stone seized the opportunity to watch Dr. Strangelove with Vladimir Putin in the course of filming The Putin Interviews, a four-part documentary series broadcast on Showtime in 2017. This wasn’t the first time Stone had made a subject of his own interactions with a head of state whom many Americans consider malevolent: in 2008’s South of the Border, for example, he attempted a humanizing cinematic portrait of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. At Showtime’s Youtube channel, you can watch a variety of clips from The Putin Interviews, including Putin giving Stone a tour of his offices, Putin’s reaction to the election of Donald Trump, and Putin checking in with Stone before skating out onto the ice for a game of hockey.
The viewing of Dr. Strangelove comes at the series’ very end, which is presumably an effort on Stone’s part to save the “best” for last — and as Cold War American cinema goes, one could hardly hope for a better selection. Based on Peter George’s Red Alert, a straightforward thriller novel about American and Soviet protocols of nuclear-defense management gone disastrously wrong, the film only took shape when Kubrick realized it had to be a comedy. As he later recalled, “I found that in trying to put meat on the bones and to imagine the scenes fully, one had to keep leaving out of it things which were either absurd or paradoxical, in order to keep it from being funny; and these things seemed to be close to the heart of the scenes in question.”
As Joseph Heller realized while writing Catch-22, certain ridiculous truths about war simply can’t be portrayed non-comedically. As realized through the painstakingly exact filmmaking of Kubrick and his collaborators, Dr. Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies. “There are certain things in this film that indeed make us think,” Putin says to Stone after the closing montage of mushroom clouds. He even credits Kubrick with technical foresight: “Modern weapon systems have become more sophisticated, more complex. But this idea of a retaliatory weapon and the inability to control such weapon systems still hold true today.” Not much has changed since the days of Dr. Strangelove, he admits, and now that he’s undergone his own bout of geopolitical brazenness, let’s hope that he remembers how the movie ends.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.