Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Release Date: January 29th, 1964 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Stanley Kubrick Actors: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones, Tracy Reed
estern leaders have been suspecting the construction of a doomsday weapon by Russian armies for over a year. Uncovering the Soviet Union’s secret project is a top priority for General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who fears catastrophic action is now unavoidable. He orders Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) to instruct the lead B-52 aircraft over Russia, piloted by Major Kong (Slim Pickens), to engage in Wing Attack Plan R – the dropping of an atomic bomb. Nuclear combat has been initiated.
All communications with base commander Ripper have ceased, with the officer having holed himself up in his air force fort, bidding his men to trust no one and to shoot first and ask questions later. He’s completely dedicated to starting a war – and totally unhinged. General Turgidson (George C. Scott) is called upon to devise a plan to stop the insanity of such a drastic strike. The chain-gum-chewing superior is brought to the war room before the President of the United States, Merkin Muffley (also Peter Sellers), to explain that Ripper has gone rogue and ordered the nuclear offensive, which cannot be recalled. A few emergency options are still available, but the likelihood of escaping the rapidly arriving moment of truth, in which the government either makes an aggression to support Ripper, or attempts to defend extreme retaliation by the communists that could result in 150 million casualties, is nerve-wrackingly slim.
The situations are, of course, quite terrifying (so much so, a disclaimer had to be added to the opening credits). The President and his advisors all approach the subject matter with an undeniable measure of seriousness and perhaps even authenticity. This pitch-black avenue of comedy makes “Dr. Strangelove” a dark, cynical satire. Fortunately, as the film progresses, the hectic nature of their countermeasures becomes increasingly more ludicrous, and therefore lighter in tone. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the war room!” The introduction of the black-gloved, wheelchair-bound Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers) is wildly hysterical, completely altering the once sinister mood. The direction of the movie is no longer questionable – it’s purely comedic, even when following lines of dialogue are delivered sternly and without tongue-in-cheek silliness.
George C. Scott is perfect as the outspoken, military-minded man intent on reasoning with the outrageous situation, struggling to understand the inaction of committee decision-making and refusal to acknowledge their true position. He also dismisses the importance of involving the Russian ambassador and seethes at the insolence of inviting him into the caucus. Peter Sellers is equally impressive in each of his multiple roles: as Mandrake, who desperately needs to make a collect call to the President of the United States; as Muffley, who timidly talks with Dmitri the drunken USSR leader, as if old friends debating a sporting event; and finally as Strangelove, the high-pitched German advisor with unclear allegiances, qualifications, and mad scientist intelligence (afflicted notably by alien hand syndrome).
A decent portion of the film is spent focusing on details of the air strike and evasion of missiles, the defense of Ripper’s base, and the flight to the Russian targets. These scenes don’t add to the humor or the causticism of the parliamentary arguing, and only reinforce the gravity of the premise. It also works tirelessly to build tension and aggravation with countless futile efforts to halt the unstoppable mission. While still politically relevant, the Cold War audiences of the ‘60s were better primed to welcome the irony and, although funny and admittedly a well-conceived, thought-provoking lampooning, “Dr. Strangelove” ultimately sacrifices entertainment value for commentary and purpose.
– Mike Massie