Dr. Strangelove or: What Lights Sheds Kubrick on Today’s Union

Gonçalo Martins de Matos (Master in Judiciary Law by the University of Minho) 

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Stanley Kubrick’s political satire black comedy film, completed, in the past Monday, 60 years of age since its release on 29th January 1964. Often considered one of the best comedies ever made and, arguably, the best political satire of the 20th century[1], the depths of human stupidity are surgically dissected by the keen, sagacious mind of Stanley Kubrick. More than that, Kubrick’s cautionary tale about nuclear apocalypse exposes humans in what they tragicomically have more contradictory, hypocritical and idiosyncratic.

Encompassing a wide spectrum of themes, Dr. Strangelove remains very present, shedding, like all great Art, some light on contemporary issues and events. More so in recent years, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, bringing to the Old Continent the dark fog of war again. Since Russia is a nuclear power, the fear of nuclear escalation invaded once again people’s hearts, reminding the great powers of the Cold War’s Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD – a fittingly ironic name, as well) doctrine. NATO members have been (well) cautious, as to avoid a backslide to the obscurity of the Cold War. Obscurity is the right word to describe the surroundings of war: freedom is suffocated, barricades are erected, and truth is the first victim.

All of these themes are present in Kubrick’s film, and the poignant criticism he makes of humans’ relationship with the causes and the consequences of war is today resurrected due to what we have mentioned above. That is why we must look at the European Union (EU) and draw some comparisons and some lessons from what Kubrick warned us about 60 years ago. And we shall do that by looking at three distinct topics which find some level of direct or indirect reference in Dr. Strangelove: i) the strive towards global peace through cooperation, ii) the fight against disinformation, and iii) the enforcement of fundamental rights. These three themes reflect the general idea of a Union built for a free, egalitarian and prosperous society. The EU strives as well to justly spread these values around the world, and that is why Kubrick’s message and the EU’s efforts align. Awarning, for those who have not yet seen this masterpiece: spoilers for the film ahead.

 Mistrust is one of the main issues analysed by Kubrick. Especially, mistrust derived from the surroundings of war. Usually, it is mistrust, allied with the right amount of disinformation and malignancy, that sets the scene for a bellicose escalation. In Dr. Strangelove, mistrust derives from the Cold War ambience, leading to brigadier general Jack D. Ripper, an ill-intentioned paranoid, to deploy a secret plan of his own making to drop an atom bomb in soviet soil. The launching of the bombers leads to the President of the United States of America having to reach to the Soviet Premier, first through his ambassador, and then through telephoning him directly. Although the diplomatic solution saves the inevitable catastrophe, one of the bombs is dropped, due to a failure in communication, activating the Soviet’s “Doomsday Machine”, causing the feared nuclear apocalypse. However, the lesson Kubrick is conveying is that cooperation and communication help avoid these critical situations; more: the filmmaker explicitly correlates the lack of cooperation with the eventual downfall of humanity.

In the EU, cooperation is both a goal and a necessity. The Union constantly explores new ways to open and deepen cooperation with the aim of bettering humanity’s future. Without cooperation, humanity is as good as lost. Kubrick warned us and the EU constantly draws on that lesson, furthering national and supranational cooperation. Cooperation is built on mutual trust, an essential feature in national, supranational and international relations. The structure of the EU has functioned based on mutual trust between member-States, but mutual trust requires tools to guarantee it, tools that the EU has had to develop and implement in its internal and external functioning. Cooperation based on mutual trust is a goal and a modus operandi of the EU, as well as Kubrick’s hope for humanity.

Disinformation is at the core of the inevitable end of humanity as seen by Kubrick’s lens, and nowadays it has become a true global problem. Within the EU, several initiatives aim to tackle such concern, in order to ensure transparency and allow space for mutual trust. Mutual trust requires overall transparency between all parties, and that can only be achieved by ensuring that information is as transparent and unbiased as possible. That can be pursued through many forms, be it regulating information technology, be it ensuring media and journalistic freedom. Kubrick’s lesson is that transparent information is key to mutual trust and, consequently, cooperation. And the EU is also at the forefront of those concerns.

More indirectly, but still clearly resulting from the subtext, Kubrick also had something to say about fundamental rights and the rule of law. Group Captain Mandrake, the exchange officer from the Royal Air Force who is trapped with an increasingly lunatic General Ripper, has to endure Rippers deranged views based on his own insecurities, managing to discover the code that will call back the bombers, only to then be confronted with Colonel “Bat” Guano’s suspicion of his “perverseness” (the sixties’ euphemism for homosexuality), creating yet another obstacle for critical information to reach the US President. The only female character in the film, Miss Scott, is relegated to a background role, as General Turgidson’s secretary and mistress. In our view, Kubrick is indirectly addressing non-discrimination and equality rights, and their importance in countering the acephaly of insecure warmongering characters. The LGBT+ coded character saves the day (apart from the bomb that got away), and no woman is seen in any power outlet, begging the question: would these problems be the same if they had an equal opportunity to reach the seats of power?

The EU strives to achieve a completely free and equal society, freed from prejudice and retrograde ideas that only hold back human potential. Kubrick’s film warns us about the triumph of stupidity, and the only way to stop it is to humanise society, protecting and enforcing human rights. The EU has several initiatives and frameworks that aim at protecting equality and ensuring non-discrimination. Several of the Court of Justice of the EU’s case law has tackled the issues of LGBT+ rights and women’s rights, widening their scope and deepening human rights’ protection within the EU.

On the other hand, we interpret Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (brilliantly interpreted by Peter Sellers) as a warning about illiberal ideologies hidden within democratic societies. Dr. Strangelove calls the President “Mein Führer” two times, and his hilariously incontrollable hand springs into the nazi salute several other times. Dr. Strangelove is a reference to Operation Paperclip, the assimilation by US military institutions of Nazi engineers and scientists to develop technologies in exchange of pardons and indulgences. The truth is tolerant and pluralist societies are always at risk of those who wish to destroy it, because democratic societies can only be considered so if they include the anti-democrats. It is a famous paradox: tolerance encompasses being tolerant towards the intolerant, but the intolerant wish to end tolerance. So, the way to ensure tolerance is to strengthen tolerance’s means of defence, such as effective judicial protection and checks and balances on power. In other words, the rule of law is the way to strengthen and enforce tolerance. The illiberal ideologues have shown their faces, more so after Putin’s invasion (“Mein Führer, I can walk!” screamed Dr. Strangelove as he rose from his wheelchair), and the EU has been trying to tackle their rise.

In the EU, protecting the rule of law is of paramount importance. European Commission initiatives like the Rule of Law Framework, the Rule of Law Reports or the rule of law conditionality mechanism aim at strengthening the rule of law against those who parasitise democratic tolerance in order to end it. The Court of Justice has inclusively been at the forefront of this objective, issuing groundbreaking jurisprudence that has deepened the protection of the rule of law.

There is a wide number of other topics and themes that one could draw from Dr. Strangelove and apply to the EU (and the world) of nowadays, but we decided to focus on these, as they seem particularly present in contemporary times. In short, Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant cautionary satire is still shedding lights into our contemporary issues, and the lessons contained within this sexagenarian film must be listened to and applied. Our point is that the EU has been able to predict and act upon the issues Kubrick had foreseen sixty years ago. We can only strive to ensure that the EU keeps this work, to reinforce democratic values and secure a free, egalitarian, prosperous and peaceful society for future generations to thrive on.

Or, as Vera Lynn sings at the paradoxically positive ending of Dr. Strangelove:

“We’ll meet again

Don’t know where

Don’t know when

But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day”

[1] Roger Ebert, “Dr. Strangelove”, RogerEbert.com, July 11, 1999, https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-dr-strangelove-1964.

Picture credits: Pixabay on Pexels.com.