Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott and Sterling Hayden
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern (screenplay) and Peter George (novel)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
The 60’s were a pretty scary time. There was an unhealthy obsession with awful colors in our clothing and furniture, and pop culture started to wake up from the sleepy, naive optimism of the previous decade. Our scientists were starting to learn more about how atomic power worked, and what really happened with the after-effects of the atomic weapon we had created. But by the time we knew about fallout and cancers and the insane, destructive power we wielded the Cold War was in full swing and both the US and Russia were stockpiling an arsenal so large surely it could destroy pretty much everybody. And in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was terrifyingly feasible that we would push the button.
A ton of novels about the threat of all-out nuclear holocaust sprung up in the late 50s, once the honeymoon was over with the bomb. One of them was Red Alert by Peter George, the tale of an Air Force general deciding to launch a unilateral nuclear strike against the USSR. The novel was fairly heavy and tense, hoping to illustrate the absurd ease with which nuclear war could be triggered. Kubrick adapted the novel for Dr. Strangelove, and in doing so actually improved on its source material. By actually highlighting the absurdity of the situation and contrasting it against the stakes (nothing less than the end of the world), Kubrick manages to make nuclear war all the more terrifying.
The basic set-up is the same. Col. Jack D. Ripper (Hayden), who swears that the fluoridation of the US water supply is a Communist plot, launches a pre-emptive strike on several USSR targets, hoping to knock out the Soviet strike-back capability in order to minimize losses. Using a fairly obscure fail-safe in the US nuclear command, he actually makes it next to impossible to call back the planes making their way into Soviet airspace. A panic ensues in the upper echelons of American power, bringing the President Muffley (Sellers) together with Gen. Buck Turgidson (Scott) in the War Room to avert a worldwide catastrophe.
We flip between three concurrent stories from here — the struggle between Ripper and British exchange officer Capt. Lionel Mandrake (also Sellers) to call off the bombers; the President, Russian ambassador (Peter Bull) and various military leaders scrambling to find a way to call off the attack themselves; and the crew of one of those bombers, determined through hell or high water to carry out their mission. There’s a running theme between the three stories, of a breakdown in communication. No one knows what any of the other groups is doing, and any attempts to reach them are stymied. So much of the story involves characters just trying to reach one another — sometimes in the same room. Even though Ripper and Mandrake are in the exact same room, for example, their point of view makes it almost impossible for them to communicate effectively.
It feels a little weird to deconstruct the movie like this, but there’s a lot going on here. Beyond that, it’s funny as hell — George C. Scott is incredible as Gen. Turgidson, and Col. Ripper is masterfully, wonderfully insane. Just about every scene in the War Room is packed with quotable lines (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here — this is the War Room!”), and everyone with the power to do anything is hamstrung by the system that they put in place. It’s fascinating to watch them trying to navigate out of a trap of their own design.
When the movie premiered, Congress actually took notice — they began to have serious discussions about their nuclear policy and installed additional safeguards (uh oh) to make sure that a Ripper situation could never actually happen. It’s pretty neat that a satire of a movie actually drove us to realize how silly we were being before. Dr. Strangelove showed us to exercise a little restraint during a time where brinkmanship was a matter of national policy. For that alone, it deserves its spot on the list.
But it’s also a very interesting anomaly in Kubrick’s filmography. It’s his only outright comedy, and the messy chaos of the plot seems to fly right in the face of his very tight, controlled directorial style. The way he coaxed such over-the-top performances from Scott and Slim Pickens is nigh-legendary, and the making of the film is just as interesting as the final product. It’s an incredibly potent piece of filmmaking in its own right, and quite probably the most successful satire ever put to celluloid. It makes you wish Kubrick had tried his hand at comedy a bit more often after this.
One thought on “The AFI Top 100 Films: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (#26)”
Something I did not notice about Dr Strangelove the first few times I saw it, but which made me all the more impressed ever after: the film takes place in real time. Or close to it, anyway. The world goes from normal to doomed in not quite an hour and a half, and we see all the steps. I think even before people notice this, the lack-of-time-compression gives the events a bit more of that element of credibility that makes the satire and the comedy ring more securely.
I understand that at one point around 1960 Billy Wilder was talking with the Marx Brothers about making a “Duck Soup for the nuclear are”, although the ages (and declining health) of Chico and then Harpo pretty well dashed that. It’s hard to imagine the results of that being much better than this film, though.