How 'Dr. Strangelove' Predicted the Emptyness of Twitter and Facebook

The prescient humor of Stanley Kubrick's political satire forecast social media miscommunication.


The beauty of legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War satire Dr. Strangelove is that 50 years after the initial release, the jokes cracked are relevant today. We are long past the Cold War subject matter, but Kubrick’s perfectly structured film, the every scene of which drips with biting metaphor and satire, can teach us a lot about our own troubled times. With the Criterion Collection set to release an updated restoration of the film on June 28, it’s a perfect time to look at how the film’s humor reflects the realities of our dopey digital age.

Strangelove is, above all, a movie is about the consequences of miscommunication and misdirection. It’s this kind of failure to say exactly what one person means that leads to the apocalypse in the film’s hilariously cheery finale. It just so happens that the characters are (appropriately) always talking on phones or via radio communications. But fast forward three or four decades and you could just as easily imagine Kubrick and screenwriter Terry Southern forcing Peter Sellers’s bumbling President Merkin Muffley to negotiate with the contemporary equivalent of the fictional Soviet premier Dimitri Kissov on Snapchat or through Twitter DM.

Their one-sided exchange (in the film’s own failure to communicate with the audience, we never hear Kissovs’ voice) about the nuclear fate of the world recalls something like an awkward Skype call. Muffley, about to plead on the hotline to warn the Premier of an impending B-52 bomber attack, resorts to nervous pleasantries: “I’m coming through fine, too, eh? Good, then… well, then, as you say, we’re both coming through fine…good,” Muffley clumsily intones. “Well, it’s good that you’re fine and… and I’m fine… I agree with you, it’s great to be fine.”

Social media and the internet is how culture is supposed to communicate on a grand collective scale. These technological wonders are tools that are supposed to open up the transmission and free dissemination of ideas, and yet they’re more often than not just limiting forums that devolve into shouting matches and uninformed opinion dumps. It’s great to be fine” is also the kind of meaningless 140-character nugget that people use to make it seem like they’re really saying something when, but as with Muffley in Strangelove, such futile attempts don’t really accomplish much of anything, even when facing global annihilation.

Facebook, meanwhile, is home to conspiracy theories and bunk political nonsense that goes viral, thanks to your crazy relatives. It’s the sort of thing that Sterling Hayden’s anarchic character General Jack D. Ripper might rail against; his famous lament against “Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion,” and “precious bodily fluids” could be grafted onto any current crazy social media rant.

His horrifically absurd pontification to Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (in another role by Sellers) about fluoridation could just as easily be a cockamamie Facebook post: “Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh?” he tells the quivering British expat. “It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works,” he forces onto him.

Ripper is, as the movie posits, totally insane, but his kind of paranoid, misinformed thinking now regularly finds its way to social media. That’s the genius of Strangelove — it used wild and insane statements as punchlines. Its why Muffley’s exclamation of “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!” is the funniest line in the entire movie.

Weirdly enough, Kubrick (or, more specifically, Kubrick’s estate) just started a Twitter page, which is perfect timing. but Dr. Strangelove is about what happens when people passively participate in political situations that require an active, rational mind. That’s basically what social media is all about, especially when it comes to politics: Some legitimate information can be found there, but it usually devolves into theories about about how someone is trying to steal our precious bodily fluids.

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