A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 441 – Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb – May 15th, 2011

This is one of those movies that’s become so deeply entrenched in popular culture that some references to it are now their own beasts, detached from their original context and living a life of their own. It’s always strange when that happens and you know the roots. It’s also a movie deeply entrenched in the culture of the time it was made, not long after the erection of the Berlin Wall and well into the Cold War. The threat of nuclear war was quite present and the Cuban Missile Crisis was only a couple of years in the past. That’s a whole lot of fear going on and here comes a satire about nuclear annihilation with a title exhorting us to stop worrying. Brilliant.

It isn’t often that I’m reminded that there’s an age difference of several years between myself and Andy. It just isn’t something that impacts our lives on a regular basis and it hasn’t for some time now. But for this movie it happens to be a crucial difference between what we grew up with. I was still a fairly young kid during the end of the Cold War. By the time I was old enough to really start to understand the geopolitical forces behind it and its implications it was drawing to a close with perestroika and glasnost and so for me? It was all in the past. My parents sheltered me from talk of nuclear weapons and war when I was a child. Prior to the restructuring of the Soviet Union the most I knew about the USSR and atomic power was that something horrible had happened called Chernobyl. I vividly remember watching news footage of the Berlin Wall coming down (though mostly metaphorically) and knowing that it was something momentous and huge and meaningful, but not quite grasping it and having to be given a rather large chunk of history education in a very short time. So what I’m saying is that I never grew up scared of nuclear war. I didn’t know where my local fallout shelter was (though I can name two within walking distance of my house now, oddly enough) and I never had nightmares about atomic bombs. It’s all fairly historical for me where as for Andy? He’s just that much older than me that it was part of his youth.

That sort of thing can drastically change how one relates to a movie like this. It’s satire, yes, but the point of satire is to poke at something serious. It’s to take something somber and light it in a way that exposes ridiculous and darkly humorous crevices you wouldn’t otherwise notice. But how you see the revelation of that humor can differ depending on how you’ve seen the serious part first. For me? It’s largely academic. I’ve read a lot about the history and the science but I never lived in fear of it. And a whole lot of this movie depends on that fear and that dread and that possibility. The plot is built upon the idea that somewhere something could go wrong and for no good reason at all, plus complications and communications glitches, we could all be blown to bits. And somehow it seeks to make that very concept funny.

Maybe it’s because I never lived it that I’ve always found this movie to be funny but have to view the satirical portions of it through the lens of historical context. Sure, a lot of what’s being made fun of here are military attitudes that can translate to modern times, but the specifics are pretty clear. We begin the movie with a voiceover telling us that it’s entirely possible that the Russians have made a “doomsday device” capable of killing everything on the planet. Then we meet Brigadier General ‘Jack’ Ripper, whose paranoid delusions about fluoridation lead him to set in motion a nuclear air strike on the USSR and make it nearly impossible to avert. He figures that when the President and his men realize they can’t stop the attack they’ll have to simply press forward. It would seem to be the end except that his second in command, an exchange officer from the UK (Group Captain Lionel Mandrake) manages to puzzle out the code to stop the planes carrying the bombs and get the information to the War Room in time. Or so they thought.

Now, that all sounds like it could be deadly serious. A taut drama about nuclear war and the dangers of not enough failsafes and checks on power. Indeed, the original text the movie was based on was a serious story about accidental nuclear war. But from the names, like the previously mentioned Ripper and Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano to the President telling the drunken Soviet Premier that of course he enjoys talking to him and will call to say hello sometimes, well, it’s clear that this isn’t an entirely serious movie. Ripper’s fears of fluoridation (leading him to drink only rain water and grain alcohol) are wildly exaggerated. The characters, aside from the President, perhaps, are all caricatures. Or rather, they’re meant to be. Take a peek at the trivia about the military figures some of the characters were based on for some frightening reading. But then there’s the Russian ambassador and Dr. Strangelove himself, not to mention Major ‘King’ Kong, who so famously rides the bomb while whooping it up. There’s no fighting in the war room and animals will be bred and slaughtered. It’s a movie full of iconic moments of humor formed from the most serious and frightening moments.

Of course a huge amount of the humor that I personally love here comes from Peter Sellers, who played three different roles in the movie: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, President Merkin Muffley and of course Dr. Strangelove himself. And while the first and third of those roles deliver some hilarious moments and lines (and I can see why Strangelove’s final scene would cause the cast to start corpsing), the role of the President is a little different. All of his humor comes from being the most reasonable and soft spoken of characters in the scenes he’s in. His interactions with George C. Scott’s General ‘Buck’ Turgidson are some of the best in the movie. They play off each other brilliantly and I love every moment of it. Some people might find Slim Pickens as Kong to be more wildly funny, but it’s Scott and Sellers all the way for me.

One of the things I love about this movie is how focused it is on its locations. We really don’t move around much here. There’s the interior of the B-52 carrying the two bombs Dear John and Hi There! (nuclear warheads – handle with care). There’s the Air Force base, Burpleson, where Mandrake and Ripper spend most of their time. And there’s the War Room. We get one scene in Turgidson’s bedroom but that’s it. Everything is so closed off from everything else. Isolated and cut off, which is part of where the tension of the movie comes from. It’s a fantastic way to set the mood in such a way that adds to the situation so that the humor of it all plays off even stronger.

This really is a fantastic movie and well deserving of its place in cinematic history as far as I’m concerned. The acting, writing, directing, cinematography, it’s all wonderfully done and hits every satirical note perfectly. Satire can be difficult. In the wrong hands it can be sloppy and overdone. But in these hands? It is sharp and witty and fun. It’s full of fantastic and eminently quotable moments and since it’s rooted in the Cold War fears of the United states it’s had a history of appeal that’s hard to beat. I don’t know how a younger audience seeing it for the first time now would approach it, but I’d be curious to hear if it plays this far removed from its historical context. I hope truly hope it does, because it’s far too good to be dismissed and unwatched.

May 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

May 15, 2011

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

I’m guessing that this movie doesn’t resonate with the youth of today the way it did with me when I first saw it in the Eighties. I saw this fir the first time in eighty-four or eighty-five. I would have been about twelve years old, and like any twelve-year-old at the height of the cold war I was scared to death of the threat of nuclear Armageddon. I lay awake in bed contemplating my impotence in the face of the possibility of being obliterated by capricious forces completely outside of my control. As such I am probably part of the last generation to appreciate this movie for how terrifying its subject matter is.

I didn’t appreciate it at the time that I saw this (because I was horrified by the events portrayed however farcical they may be) but it really is brilliant how this movie does actually help you to stop worrying. It takes a certain mad brilliance to find comedy in our most dreadful nightmares, and Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick have just that right kind of genius.

The plot of this movie involves a rogue General sending the bombers under his command on a mission to bomb the USSR. He has no authority to do so, but he’s able to issue orders under a plan that allows independent action should the command structure in Washington be destroyed by a sneak attack nuclear strike. Of course the command structure is still very much in place and as General Ripper is sealing his base and warning his men that the Ruskies might well come disguised as American soldiers to confuse them the President and his chiefs of staff are gathering in the war room to figure out how best to avoid catastrophe. To add to the tension it is revealed when the President contacts the Soviet premier that the Soviets have just installed an ultimate weapon. It is a doomsday device that will shroud the entire Earth in nuclear fallout and destroy all life on the planet if even a single bomb should be detonated inside the Russian boarders.

It’s a marvelously uncomplicated film. The primary action takes place in three locations. In Ripper’s office he is holed up with his XO, a RAF officer named Mandrake on loan from the UK as part of an officer exchange program. In the skies above Russia we follow the valiant crew of one of the B-52s as they fight what they believe to be the last war, completely cut off from all communication with home. In the war room under the Pentagon President Muffley tries desperately to avoid war and the end of all life on Earth, although his efforts are hampered by many of the people who should be assisting him like the Russian Ambassador de Sadesky, gung-ho General Buck Turgidson and his absolutely mad ex-Nazi science advisor Dr. Strangelove.

Because this movie is so stark, with its harsh black & white presentation and few simple locations, the entire thing is carried by the performances of the cast. It’s a good thing that those performances are so memorable and brilliant. Sterling Hayden plays Jack Ripper completely straight as a man who has lost his grip on reality and in his paranoia and delusions actually believes he is doing the right and honerable thing by precipitating World War III. He’s creepy and frightening as he flatly declares that this is what must be done to prevent the Communists from tainting our precious bodily essences. Slim Pickins is Major Kong, the pilot of one of the bombers sent on this fatal mission. Again – he plays the role seriously and the plight of his plane and his crew is a stirring adventure story – except that if they succeed there will be dire results for every person on the planet. (There are parts of his plot which are humorous, but the jokes are less blatant and more sly – like the contents of the emergency survival kits.) On the other end of the scale there’s George C Scott with an uncharacteristically over-the-top and insane portrayal. (Apparently it was a source of much tension between him and Kubrick that his most outrageous takes were the ones cut into the final film.) It might not be the performance he wanted to give or the version of the character he felt comfortable with, but it does make for great viewing, and he’s one of the best things in the movie.

Of course it is Peter Sellers who really headlines the film and makes it all work. He is the desperate, intelligent and harried RAF officer Mandrake. He is conciliatory President Muffley. And his outrageous and hilarious portrayal of the titular Dr. Strangelove is pure classic Sellers. You can’t help laughing.

In my youth I loved the madcap physical humor of the Dr. Strangelove character (I loved all the Pink Panther films for the same reason.) As I’ve aged I’ve mellowed somewhat and nowadays although Dr. Strangelove gets the most laughs out of me it is President Merkin Muffley who is my favorite character in the movie. He’s the rational one trying to sort everything out, the lone voice of reason. His one-sided phone conversations with the distraught and drunken Soviet Premier Kissoff are for me the highlight of the movie. I love his quiet desperation and determination to somehow turn this dreadful situation around.

This movie is so iconic and memorable. It has brilliant writing with such classic lines as “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here – this is the War Room!” It has a host of fantastic performances. It tackles an uncomfortable subject and manages to allow us to laugh at the preposterous dilemma of the cold war. I love a good dark comedy, and this of the darkest and the best.

May 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment