Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War black comedy is more clever than funny. Still, it is one of the great films you should see at least once.
Should I see it?
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George
Starring: Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn and James Earl Jones
Rated PG for content, including sexual references
As a child of the Cold War, I can tell you there were times when people went to sleep honestly concerned about a nuclear apocalypse. The United States and the Soviet Union spent decades living under ‘mutual assured destruction’, a military strategy where both Super Powers understood that if one were to attack the other, both would die in the resulting bath of fire and radiation. In other words, you pray the other guy is as interested in living as much you are and/or no one screws up. While this strategy did help keep the world from the real Climate Change™ that is a nuclear winter, it did funnel our conflict into numerous side adventures and proxy wars.
The Cold War, like other conventional wars, was one fought by leaders divorced from the reality and consequences of their decisions. Stanley Kubrick brought attention to this disparity in his brilliant anti-war film Paths of Glory. Much like that film about a WWI unit commander dealing with his men’s mutiny while under the foolish, né murderous direction of a glory hungry general, Dr. Strangelove focuses primarily on the foolhardy, sometimes outright insane results of incompetent, self-serving leaders.
This black political satire is set in motion when General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), suffering from a psychotic attack, orders his B-52s to bomb the Soviet Union.British attache, Capt. Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) desperately attempts to get the general to hand over the recall codes for the planes only to have the madman cite Alex Jones’ style conspiracy theories.
I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.
At the Pentagon’s War Room, President Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers) attempts to gain control of the situation with his generals, including the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott). Gen. Turgidson (my favorite name of any character in film history), in his gruffly belligerent style, reluctantly explains the limited options available to stop the imminent attack on Russia. The President’s strategic advisor, Dr. Strangelove (yet again, Peter Sellers) alerts everyone that the Soviets employ a ‘Doomsday Device’ which will automatically initiate WWIII if Russia is bombed. Pres. Muffley calls the Soviet Premier in an attempt to warn him and to find a peaceful resolution following a nuclear first strike.
In the air, the B-52 crew, led by the unquestioning Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens playing a role intended for…you guessed it, Peter Sellers) goes through their bombing run with mechanical proficiency. Unlike Kubrick’s Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket, the lowly soldiers in this film are flat and uninteresting pawns simply doing as they are told. It isn’t until the final moments when Kong rides the nuclear bomb like a bronco, in one of the most famous images in cinema, that the front-line men get any personality at all.
That goes to my main criticism of the film as a whole. Kubrick intends this to be a comedy, and it does have some laughs. What it is missing, however, is humanity. The aforementioned flight crew is little more than biological extensions of their plane. They have brief moments of concern, but these moments are shallow and uninspiring. The leadership at the Pentagon is populated with caricatures more than characters. Turgidson is a gum chomping bully, Muffley an ineffectual, fatigued manager who is more concerned with politeness than results and Dr. Strangelove a former Nazi technocrat pervert. They are fun to watch and deliver memorable lines, but they are ultimately two-dimensional. Perhaps this is intentional given Kubrick’s absurdist take on the subject matter. After all, the only sane character in the film is the hapless Brit Mandrake who, like the rest of the world during the Cold War, sits by mortified that his life is in the hands of madmen.
Despite my issue with the fullness of the characters, this deserves its place in the classics of cinema. The performances alone are worth the price of admission. Peter Seller’s multiple roles are a marvel to see. Most of his lines in the film are improvised which means the success of his scenes rested on his creativity. It is not an overstatement to say that his performances in this film are equivalent to many of the works of the great artists of the 20th century. He was a unique, powerful artist in full command of his gifts and Kubrick managed to draw them out in full.
The opposite is true of George C. Scott’s General Turgidson. Scott was hesitant to meet the needs of Kubrick’s vision. To get around this, Kubrick asked Scott perform Turgidson in an over-the-top fashion during ‘test’ shoots. Kubrick then used Scott’s uninhibited takes in the final cut. In this instance, it isn’t the actor that deserves credit, but his director who was smart enough to handle him.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a unique film that explores the shared horrors of the Cold War. Audiences who were not alive during that time may miss out on some of the thematic punch. They will find a slow, but creative satire that still delivers over fifty years after being released.
Outside of the sexual references, there isn’t anything terribly shocking about the content of the film…well, that and the annihilation of the entire population of the Earth.
I think this quote from Kurt Vonnegut sums up the foundation of the film:
True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country.
At the heart of this quote is the understanding that those in charge are as petty, incompetent and flawed as the rest of us. Often those who rise in rank do so simply because they’re better at getting others to believe they know what they’re doing.
Once I was flown out to Beverly Hills to give a speech at an event. It was a high-end deal where I was set up in a rich hotel, given a personal assistant and a limo for the duration. I arrived at the location to find celebrities in the green room and industry professionals waiting in the audience. Trust me, I was well outside my element. I assumed that given A-List Hollywood types were on the program and we were in the heart of the entertainment industry that I was witnessing real professionals at work. When I speak, I tend to meander backstage. I like to get a feel of the venue and get a good look at the crowd I am speaking about before going on. While being a fly on the wall I witnessed the backstage of a Hollywood show. It wasn’t a circus, but it certainly wasn’t the controlled production I expected. Honestly, it reminded me of the haphazard college plays of my youth, just with faces I’ve seen on television for decades.
What I took away from that experience is that the illusion of competency is all around us. Simply because people are in the right place, it doesn’t mean they are the right people to be there. Dr. Strangelove underlines this by showing those in charge of the systems that decides life and death are small minded fools. Turgenson explains the existential threat of humanity to the POTUS one minute and pathetically pleads with his lover over the phone the next:
I told you never to call me here, don’t you know where I am?… Well look, baby, I c-, I can’t talk to you now… my president needs me!… Of course Bucky’d rather be there with you!… Of course it isn’t only physical!… I deeply respect you as a human being… Some day I’m gonna make you Mrs. Buck Turgidson!… Oh, listen uh, you go back to sleep hon, and Bucky’ll be back there just as soon as he can… All right… listen, sug, don’t forget to say your prayers!
“Don’t forget to say your prayers” as if he is talking to his daughter, let alone a grown woman who is about to die in a nuclear fire.
The problem with military leaders – scratch that, leaders in general, is they aren’t better than the rest of us. Even the ultra-alphas in society aren’t a measure great enough to be worthy of deciding if the entirety of humanity should continue to exist. In fact, if you review the attitudes of elites, they seem the least likely inclined to keep us safe.
The distant, unattached leadership of Dr. Strangelove stands as a reminder to the peons as to why we should never accept total rule. Something most people don’t know is that the situation in this film isn’t that far away from the truth. President Eisenhower was confronted with the reality that if he were to be incapacitated his staff would be too delayed to act in response to the very real Soviet threat. He chose, in secret, to expand lethal military retaliation to the Joint Chiefs. This expansion of war powers was a shock to JFK and other following presidents, but ultimately it was logical. Logic aside, it also increased the chances of the extinction of humanity
Opponents to George W. Bush, Barack Obama and certainly Donald J. Trump will all understand asking the question, can we really trust those we have entrusted with our lives?