Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, & Peter George (screenplay), Peter George (novel)
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens
Stanley Kubrick never made an original movie. What he did was take works of literary fiction and make them his own, whether it was altering the plot altogether (most prominently in The Shining) or simply telling a story visually.
In the case of the latter, he was one of the most gifted American directors the world has ever known. Dr. Strangelove may be his greatest film, although Kubrick devotees each have their personal favorite. However, I’ll ask you to consider what he did with this movie. He made a comedy, a genre that today seems stuck in visual purgatory, that is just as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears. Considering Dr. Strangelove has one of the funniest screenplays every written, that is quite an achievement.
The plot focuses on a scenario that you suspect we came dangerously close to on several occasions during the Cold War. A rogue U.S. general (Sterling Hayden) sends planes armed with nukes on a one-way mission to end the Soviets. A buffoon of a president (Peter Sellers) surrounded by an equally inept group of generals and ambassadors, attempts to reverse this apocalyptic breach of protocol.
That is the set-up, and if it were played straight it would probably be a fairly forgettable exercise in Cold War paranoia. Kubrick is poking fun at that though, and as a result he’s created a film with lasting relevance and bite.
Dr. Strangelove is less about a forward-moving story than it is about how the characters react within a set scenario. It doesn’t move forward because that would suggest that the characters progress along some sort of developing arc or even change at all as people. The characters are set, and the clock is ticking.
Abrupt, forced character change is something that Kubrick was particularly fascinated with in his career. Usually it was the environment or some opposing force that changed the characters with it (See The Overlook Hotel in The Shining or the oppressive regime of A Clockwork Orange.) In his two best movies, this one and 2001: A Space Odyssey, he released characters with predetermined morality into an environment that was changing and challenged them to keep up.
“Kubrick, a virtuoso of glittering surfaces, never bothered to dig deep, to excavate meaning,” Manohla Dargis wrote in her level-headed but critical review of his last film, Eyes Wide Shut. “That’s why his greatest films- Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, Barry Lyndon- are seamless fusions of content and form. Their form is their content.”
This statement is probably the best way to sum up Kubrick’s career, no matter if you agree or disagree with Dargis’ picks as “his greatest films.” Kubrick’s eye for visualizing a story is key to understanding his career. His best adaptations are the written stories with the most potential for visual appeal. That is why Dr. Strangelove plays out like the most beautifully haunting black comedy you’re ever likely to see.
Another reason Dr. Strangelove works so well is, to put it simply, Peter Sellers. His brilliant triple-performance as the evil Dr. Strangelove, the imbecile President, and a sane British exchange officer has him present in nearly every scene of the movie. Even to this day you sometimes have to double-take to realize it’s the same man. His inspired performances in the War Room (as Strangelove and the president) are endearing, classic comedic performances.
Any actor that can run the gauntlet of Kubrick’s perfectionist lunacy deserves a medal. In addition to Sellers, George C. Scott also delivers a wonderfully maniacal turn as the General in the War Room who’s in on the whole loony enterprise.
Though the most interesting scenes take place on the Air Force Base and in the War Room, the plane sequence featuring the clueless order-following pilots still has merit. Yes, from a modern standpoint the scene-establishing shots of that plane look quite dated, but what goes on inside has not diminished in relevancy. Slim Pickens plays the gung-ho cowboy of a commander who is all too eager to obey an order that will end the world.
When standing back and looking at the three main settings where things happen in Dr. Strangelove, it’s fairly easy to see what Kubrick was getting at: there is madness in control of deadly weapons, soldiers who will obey that madness, and leaders who are ultimately too dumb to stop it. Thankfully, this Dooms Day scenario has never actually played out. What’s really scary is that it still could, and that’s why Dr. Strangelove is still important 47 years after it came out.