A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

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.

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May 15, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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