Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Dir. Stanley Kubrick; Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C Scott
[4 out of 4 stars]
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!” Political satire doesn’t get much better than President Muffley’s perfectly-timed line from Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick, known for dark, intense films like The Shining (1980) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), can also be credited with what is, in my opinion, the greatest satire ever made for film. Dr Strangelove revolves around US-Soviet Union relations during the Cold War and satirizes the preoccupation with nuclear weapons (the “bomb gap”), while highlighting just how ridiculous the protection surrounding them was. Although the film is hilarious, it is also a reminder of a time of fear. Released not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis, fear of “mutually assured destruction” was a genuine concern for many of its viewers. Kubrick’s genius is in turning this fear on its head and showing that what we should really be afraid of are the human factors in our own homeland; it’s not the distant, Russian “Doomsday Machine” but a crazed American General who nearly destroys all human life.
Dr Strangelove pokes fun at how unstable the situation was by basing its plot around the single action of a crazed Strategic Air Command General, Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). Ripper is a fanatic, concerned with the Communist influence on his everyday life, and in a supremely terrifying act, he orders his bombers to turn off all communications and head straight for Russia. Puffing on a giant, phallic cigar, he explains his reasons for ordering the attack. Communists, he says, are poisoning Americans via fluoridation: “A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids, without the knowledge of the individual….That’s the way a hard-core Commie works.” When his subordinate officer, Mandrake (Peter Sellers), asks how he came up with the theory, Ripper explains that it was from a “profound sense of fatigue” during the “physical act of love”, and we realize that another World War was almost started because of one man’s feelings of sexual inadequacy. In the end, the joke, morbid as it may be, is that he’s successful; nothing, not even the combined forces of President Muffley and the Russian leader, Dimitri, can stop him.
Peter Sellers is absolutely brilliant in the film, acting in three hilarious and very different roles. As Mandrake, a British exchange officer with a mustache and personality reminiscent of Sellers’s role the previous year as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther (1963), his easy-going nature directly contrast Ripper’s. Sellers also plays Dr Strangelove, a former Nazi scientist, at times unable to control his own arm from giving a Nazi-salute, who first informs the Pentagon of the possibility of a Doomsday Machine. His role is particularly amusing to the modern-day viewer who notes the irony of employing a Nazi as the Director of Weapons Research and Development. It’s almost as bad as the giant “Peace is Our Profession” billboard clearly present in the background of the scene where the US army invades the Strategic Air Command to remove General Ripper.
Sellers’s funniest role, however, is as President Merkin Muffley, who, after discovering that Russia is being invaded, resigns himself to picking up the phone and calling the Soviet dictator. The scene would be quite dire if it weren’t for Sellers’s delivery. When he makes contact, we hear Muffley and Dimitri bicker and interrupt each other like an old married couple. The President’s weak nature is made even funnier by the irony of the situation: “Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?” and after a brief but pregnant pause, “Of course I like to speak to you!”
But Sellers’s roles aside, I have to give George C. Scott credit for the best acting of Dr Strangelove. His overdramatic eyebrow-twitching alone deserves an Oscar. Scott plays General Turgidson, the officer in charge of presenting Ripper’s actions to President Muffley, and he does so as an overlarge schoolboy, constantly cramming chewing-gum into his mouth, and excitedly waving to the “Big Board” in the background of the iconic War Room set. He excitedly warns them of the dangers of the “Russkies” and loses track of the situation easily. While explaining that there is a chance of the bombers making it through the Russian radar system, he proudly boasts, “If the pilot’s good sir, I mean, if he’s really sharp, he can barrel in that baby so low. You oughta see it some time it’s a sight!” When pressed about the chances, he laughs giddily and says, “Has he got a chance? Hell yeah!”, before his face falls in realization as he looks around at the stoic expressions around him.
What makes Dr Strangelove a great film is its flawless combination of a brilliant and pointed screenplay, comedic genius on the part of its actors, and Kubrick’s well-known craftsmanship: the War Room scene, for instance, demonstrates Kubrick’s ability to create a perfect scene. Although the film is over fifty years old now, it has become timeless, and I find that it remains particularly relevant today. Watching the film in 2017, we know the fear of a fanatical, “preverted” clown with access to nuclear weapons first-hand. Although Trump has so far not mentioned his fear of fluoridation, it can be assured that he has gone “a little funny in the head. You know, just a little…funny.”
— Nathan Modlin, 2017