Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Finally, a movie that has a sense of humor about the end of the world. Lighten up, Deep Impact.
Dr. Strangelove starts with a nutjob General in the US Air Force who orders a nuclear air strike on Russia because politicians don’t know a damn thing about what’s best for civilization, because he’s got some deep-seeded women problems, and because there’s no way in hell you can trust a nation of people who have vodka running through their bodies instead of water. Unbeknownst to the said General, the Russians have secretly developed a “Doomsday Machine” that will trigger a worldwide nuclear holocaust if anyone from any country tries to bomb the old USSR. Word about this unfortunate chain events reaches the President of the United States, so everyone gathers in the War Room at the Pentagon and starts scrambling to figure out how in the hell they’re gonna prevent the impending apocalypse.
So for a guy who never quite made a name for himself as the funniest director on the lot, what with all the ultraviolence and bear suit bee-jays that are coming to mind, it’s somewhat surprising that Stanley Kubrick decided to go the comedy route on this one. What might be even more surprising is that it’s funny as hell for subject that could have fallen on the total opposite end of the spectrum. Yeah, it looks like a Kubrick movie with all the wide open indoor spaces and super-intense close-ups on faces that look like they’re chiseled out of granite, and that’s all good, but that’s actually the least of the things he does well here.
God, it’s hard to pick out the biggest strength amongst the cast, the script, the premise and the execution because they don’t really shine on individual fronts, they all just melt together.
Well, let’s just talk about Peter Sellers. Initially slated to play four different roles (but the dude just had to sprain his ankle and give up one of ’em to Slim Pickens), Sellers plays meek British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake; the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley; and invalid, ex-Nazi weapons expert, Dr. Strangelove. Man, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in this movie and most of ’em definitely belong to Sellers. From a phone conversation between President Muffley and the drunken President of Russia, to Lionel Mandrake harassing Col. Bat Guano (“If that is your real name…”) to shoot open the lock on a Coke machine, I was making a damn scene at the laundromat while I was watching this. But whether it’s Strangelove, Inspector Clouseau or Chauncey Gardiner, Sellers was always a seriously funny guy and he gives each one of these three uniquely eccentric individuals his all.
And he also might have one of the best final lines of all-time. Could not have picked a better moment to cut to that final montage.
Then again, that’s just Sellers. George C. Scott is perfect as the warmongering General Buck Turgidson; the forgotten badass that is Sterling Hayden is perfect as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper; and even though he’s no Peter Sellers, I can’t really see anyone else fitting the bill of Major “King” Kong quite like Slim Pickens does. Now that’s a guy with some great lines.
But it’s just so damn crazy! With the exception of maybe A Boy and His Dog, I can’t come up with one other movie that’s so gloriously absurd and has such an effing blast with a premise that most writers and directors tend get pretty heavy with. And while there is something heavy about it because over the course of almost 50 years this still stands as a regrettably fresh satire on global nuclear relations and the trigger-happy puppet masters who’ve got access to the launch codes, the end result seems to stand out a whole lot more since it has such a good time with it instead of moping about all that extinction crap.
And that’s where the script comes in. Like I said, I’m thinking the script wouldn’t really send it home without the unreal cast it has to deliver it, but it’s smart as a whip and is that much funnier because everyone is just taking themselves so damn seriously. Just look at everyone’s names: you’ve got “Merkin” (go ahead and Google that term), “Bat Guano”, “Jack D. Ripper”, “‘King’ Kong”, and a guy who changed his name from “Merkwürdigeliebe” to “Strangelove”. You don’t even really need to hear them talk to realize that everyone here is a bit off their rocker, but that’s why it works. After all, war is crazy, it only makes sense that the people behind it are, too.
I’d like to say it’s totally unlike anything Kubrick ever did, but Kubrick was never much for doing the same movie twice anyway. All the same, who knew the guy had such a sense of humor. So if you’ve ever loved anything by Kurt Vonnegut, if you have a mean jones for dry, deadpan humor, if you still get a fuckin’ hoot out of the Cold War, then Dr. Strangelove should be right up your alley. There’s always something to be said for a movie like this that doesn’t feel dated in the least so many years later after it was supposed to be relevant, but that’s just one of the many reasons why it’s a classic. Not quite sure how this lost Best Picture to My Fair Lady, and while I’m sure that’s a fine motion picture in its own right, sounds like comparing chalk and cheese to me.