"Goldie, how many times have I told you guys that I don't want no horsing around on the airplane?" - Major T.J. 'King' Kong
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern
Principal cast members:
Filmed at the height of the Cold War, Stanley Kubrick's masterful farce on the typical nuclear holocaust story is one of the darkest and funniest films ever made. It relies heavily on the comic brilliance of Peter Sellers at the height of his comedic powers but it also benefits greatly from knockout work by George C. Scott and Slim Pickens.
The essence of the story is that a paranoid Air Force base commander has inexplicably ordered the alert bombers of America's nuclear attack force into the air for a pre-emptive strike on the Soviet Union. The American president hastily calls together his advisors to respond but one of the American planes fails to receive the attack recall. Because the one plane cannot be called back, it will evoke automatic full-out retaliation from the Soviets which will result in the destruction of both countries.
Made in 1963 and released the following year, the plot of Dr. Strangelove should have been a deadly serious warning to the world. By making the movie an absurd comedy filled with manic performances and memorable one-liners, Kubrick might have created something more deeply disturbing and ultimately more powerful than if he had treated the story seriously.
In large measure, Kubrick rides the powerful comedic chops of Peter Sellers playing three distinct roles. As Lionel Mandrake, a British RAF liaison to General Ripper, Sellers does a masterful job of portraying the stiff upper-lipped Brit who is a benignly calm voice of reason even when dealing with a paranoid madman who is engineering the end of civilization. As Merkin Muffley, he is a compassionate, utterly peace-loving American president whose very name is designed to create the image of an emasculated leader.
In his final role, Sellers plays captured German scientist, Dr. Strangelove, a bizarre maniac in a wheelchair who reveals that the Russians are using a doomsday device that assures any American attack will result in an all-out Soviet counterattack. Strangelove suffers from a psychological disorder known as "alien-hand syndrome" in which one hand seems to have a mind of its own, disobeying its owner to the point of occasionally delivering Nazi salutes.
Sterling Hayden provides a totally serious performance as a man whose delusions have led him to launch the nuclear strike. Despite his deranged theories and perceptions, Hayden comes across as the hard-bitten movie tough guy that he so often is. It contrasts brilliantly with some of the other comic characters. Most of his scenes are played opposite Sellers in the Mandrake role and the stoic, rational Brit creates a perfect contrast with the tough-as-nails American maniac.
In a role that is one of his favorites, George C. Scott plays General 'Buck' Turgidson, a military advisor to the president. Scott plays the role as the epitome of the late 50s gung-ho military men who actively sought a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Scott plays the general as a swaggering, antagonistic leader whose approach to world politics is apparently compensation for sexual inadequacy.
Stealing much of the movie is venerable cowboy actor Slim Pickens as the commander of the errant B-52 bomber. Pickens' exhortations to his crew, including a careful read-through of the contents of their survival kits is comedy gold. The ending, with Pickens taking matters into his own hands when the bomb jams in the bomb bay doors is a priceless movie memory.
Kubrick is a director whose use of lighting and visuals often overshadows the actors, but in this case, the opposite is true. Filmed in black and white and shot almost entirely with studio interiors, there is a stark militaristic tone that emphasizes the seriousness of the subject. It is only in the eccentric performances of the actors that we grasp the comedic absurdity being shown here. In ways, it is the utter opposite of what we expect from Kubrick, but in reality, the drab, monochromatic look of the film is perfect for his message.
Sometimes, the only way to get your audience to understand the gravity of an issue is to reduce it to utter absurdity. The tactic of reductio ad absurdum is used masterfully here by Kubrick. In some ways, the dark humor of the film is shocking and appalling which is precisely why it works so well as a cautionary tale. Despite the fact that the film is over forty years old, the message holds up surprisingly well today. It is a movie that still evokes laughs while triggering some deep contemplation.
Coolness factor: 7
Overall entertainment: 7