12 September 2008

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

d. Stanley Kubrick / UK-USA / 94 mins.


Of all the memorable moments in Stanley Kubrick's jet-black satire Dr. Strangelove – and to be sure, there are many – I can't believe I'd forgotten this:

It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurence [sic] of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.

That's the disclaimer that runs across the screen before the film begins. Re-watching Dr. Strangelove for what must have been my seventh or eighth time, I was floored by its presence. Why didn't I remember that being there? I'm not sure if it was required by Columbia Pictures or the U.S. government, or whether it was might have even been inserted voluntarily by Kubrick as an opening knock-knock to one gigantic joke. All I know is this: without putting that disclaimer at the beginning of such an incendiary political satire on nuclear warfare, the military-industrial complex, and the nightmare scenario, Dr. Strangelove might have come across as an actual horror film.

Officially, of course, it's the longest film title most people know by heart: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It ponders out-loud just how chaotic it might be if the general overseeing the nuclear fleet went absolutely crazy and sent the bombardiers to pre-emptively attack Russia. The rational president discovers he is helpless. The military advisers are predicting the best-case scenario – "getting our hair mussed" – is "ten to twenty million dead, tops!" A Russian doomsday machine can't be turned off. And the top weapons specialist has a right hand that not only wants to heil Hitler, but also apparently wants to strangle the specialist himself.

Kubrick might have been the most idiosyncratic of all directors. He set out to make a cold war apocalyptic thriller, but it was only after he dug his fingers into the material that he saw the potential for razor-sharp satire. (Terry Southern, writing a profile of Kubrick for Esquire magazine, was brought in as a co-writer.) It was the right decision on his part, and Dr. Strangelove is, in my opinion, probably his best film. It has an utterly memorable and simplistic visual style, some of the best comic performances from the 1960s, and a knock-'em-dead script.

The film weaves three stories together. In the first story, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has finally cracked. Believing the communists are "sapping and impurifying all of our precious bodily fluids," he orders the launch of a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and locks down the military base, holding his British air force adviser Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) captive. In the second line, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickins) leads his squadron with the bombs on board. And in the third story, an emergency military meeting is convened in Washington, D.C., by President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), who discovers from Gen. Buck Turgidson (George S. Scott) that, short of a miracle, there's nothing that can be done about the bombers. Muffley also discovers from the Russian ambassador (Peter Bull) that their doomsday device cannot be turned off and a counter-strike is inevitable. This all true, says the president's Nazi émigré weapons expert, Dr. Strangelove (again Sellers, in his smallest but most memorable role).

The performances are stellar across the board, due in large part to Kubrick, who coaxed the right stuff out of his actors. As a comedian, Sellers was never better than his triple-play in Dr. Strangelove. Each of his characters are memorable and remarkably different from one another, from the egg-headed Muffley to the schizoid Strangelove. (He was to play Major Kong in the original planning, and there are numerous reasons cited for his withdrawal.) It is one of the Oscars' great, great errors that he lost Best Actor to the star of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison, who had already been given numerous accolades for his stage performance.

Lest we forget the wonderful supporting cast: Hayden, impeccably stern as he chews his cigar and spouts his purity-of-essence philosophy, and Scott, who famously wanted to act as a straight man but whom Kubrick convinced to shoot scenes a little too fast and a little too loose. Scott's hyperbolic Turgidson (based in part on real-life, hot-headed, drop-the-bomb U.S. Gen. Curtis LeMay) is crazy-eyed and paranoid, worried the Russian ambassador will "see the big board" of projected flight paths, and whose bloodlust for warfare literally seems to be borderline lustful. At times it is hard to believe that Turgidson says the things he does, but it works because Turgidson himself seems to find it hard to believe everyone else is apparently so oblivious.

A few technical details merit mentioning: The opening credits are written in one of the most memorable fonts of all film credit sequences. The art direction and set design are shockingly simplistic but highly effective and give the film a surprisingly feel of accuracy (although it was filmed on sound stages in London). The war room is essentially a round-table topped with lights and set in front of gigantic maps of the United States and Russia, decorated with flashing light bulbs. Ripper and Mandrake essentially stay in an office room for the entirety of their storyline, and Kong and his air force men stay in the belly of their B-52 bomber. The art direction won a BAFTA Award, and Dr. Strangelove was named the Best Picture of 1964 in Britain. (In America, the film was nominated for four Oscars, losing Picture, Direction, and Sellers's acting to My Fair Lady, its director George Cukor, and Harrison, respectively. It lost the Adapted Screenplay category to the historical drama Becket.)

The sorest spot in Dr. Strangelove today is the question of whether it is still timely. It is without question dated. From a historical viewpoint, the U.S.S.R. is dissolved, Russia and the United States are no longer embroiled in the cold war, the arms race is over, and to the best of the public's knowledge, the nuclear war-games are at a standstill (although certainly more countries possess nuclear capabilities than this writer would like). Its lack of any substantial female characters is noticeable, although for being 1964, kudos goes to having a prominent character of color, played by James Earl Jones in his film debut.

But as I see it, timeliness and relevance are two separate phenomena. Dr. Strangelove, particularly during the last decade, has perhaps never been more relevant. Its apocalyptic fears seem astute in a millennium born of the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many nations with strong antipathy toward the United States have attempted to develop nuclear weapons. Where the film departs foreign policy and enters into pure philosophy and sociology, however – the fragility of life, the cautionary tale of technology gone wild, the triviality of mankind when seen stacked against devices meant to kill widely and instantaneously – is a fear I'm sure won't be leaving our minds any time soon.

What hasn't faded with time is that Kubrick managed to make one of the best comedies out of such a bleak subject. It is satire of the highest order, on par with Swift, Pope, Twain, and Bierce, and is perhaps the definitive 20th-century satirical work. It is incredible enough to make us laugh and grounded enough to make us wince. Talk about achievement.

8 comments:

darkcitydame4e 13 September, 2008  

I really like Director Stanley Kubrick's films and of all the films in his oeuvre...You can just add this 1964 (black comedy) which I just recently watched for the first time. (Dr.Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.) to my list along with his 2 films that are often cited as film noirs... his 1956 film "The Killing" and the 1955
film "Killer Kiss."

FilmDr 13 September, 2008  

An engaging celebratory essay. Have you seen the recent documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures? Dr. Strangelove strikes me as the ultimate Mad magazine satire of nuclear gamesmanship. I like the ironic use of music throughout the movie, from the "When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again" drumbeat of moron patriotism on the jet to "We'll Meet Again" adding some exhilarating jazz swing to beautiful shots of apocalyptic mushroom clouds. It seems appropriate that Kubrick would turn the end of civilization into an all-too plausible absurdist joke, and yet the film is so artfully made, he somehow redeems humanity, at least in terms of its capacity to make self-mocking films.

nick plowman 14 September, 2008  

Great write up, I love this film beyond words, one of Kubrick's finest imo.

Tony Dayoub 14 September, 2008  

I enjoyed your essay. I do disagree with two assessments.

The first is your opinion that it is his best film. In a career that has proven to be an embarasment of riches, I find it difficult to pin this one down as his best film. One of his best, yes. But with classics like "2001" or "Clockwork" being even more groundbreaking, I find the point to definitely be arguable.

The second is your opinion that it "is perhaps the definitive 20th-century satirical work." It might be the definitive 20th-century satirical film. But there are many other literary works that might supersede "Strangelove", like Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" or Heller's "Catch-22" or even Chaplin's "The Great Dictator".

Still a fan of the film, and I still consider it to be one of the best ever made. But I'm just disagree with your perspective on it.

T.S. 14 September, 2008  

All's fair in love, war, and film criticism. :)

I'm actually surprised it took as long as it did for someone to disagree with my assertion that it's Kubrick's best film. My take on Kubrick's other work will come later. I take your point on Catch-22, but disagree on Bonfire of the Vanities (like Heller, tend to dislike Wolfe). I do think Chaplin's The Great Dictator is an extraordinary piece of satire, although one that seems to take a fundamentally different path than Strangelove – particularly insofar as Chaplin's film was made before the true horrors of Nazism were known, whereas Kubrick's seems to be a bleak response to what we already knew about the dangers of the atomic bomb and the arms race. Chaplin's might succeed beyond Kubrick's on courage and prescience alone ... who knows.

Farzan 15 September, 2008  

Great review my friend. I love how you started reviewing the Kubrick films. Cant wait for more.

MovieMan0283 28 September, 2008  

When I first saw Strangelove, I was a kid and thought it a great satire of a historical era. I watched again when Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense, and shook my head in disbelief.

Dean Treadway 01 November, 2008  

I still remember excitedly watching STRANGELOVE on TV one Saturday afternoon, not long after I had officially fallen in love with Kubrick's works in 1977 after seeing 2001 for the first time. I was ten years old, and I found it to be revelatory. I was smashed in the gut with conflicting feelings: excitement at catching this film for the first time, giddyness over its humor, wonderment over its craft (the Pablo Ferro credits, the Gilbert Taylor photography and Anthony Harvey's editing all made deep impressions), and horror over its subject matter (I don't think that, up until that time, I had ever thought seriously about the possibilities of nuclear holocaust, even though I was a very smart and with-it kid). I still remember the chills I felt at the silence that greets us right after Major Kong rides his bomb to its final destination, and then we hear the explosion. And with those final moments--Strangelove achieving full erection at the thought of the world's destruction, the montage of bombs looking bizarrely beautiful as they detonate to the sounds of Vera Lynn, and then silence again as the final credit card tells us this was made at Shepperton Studios. I must have walked around in a daze for a week or so. Same thing when I saw it at The Silver Screen in Atlanta a few months later, on a double bill with LOLITA. I could have walked straight through a plate glass door and not have even flinched--it was that stunning. Thanks for reminding me with your well-written essay.

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