February 24, 2011

#39: Dr. Strangelove

Stanley Kubrick's satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, loosely based on Peter George's novel Red Alert, as been called "the best satirical film ever made" by Roger Ebert. Whether or not you agree, you can't argue that the film alternates between quietly and raucously hilarious. You wouldn't know it from my roommate's reaction, or mine for that matter, on a murky Sunday evening, but I enjoyed it all the same.

Company: Kecia, roommate and enthusiast for comedy who did doze a little, but she can be forgiven because of this:

Cuisine: beef tips sauteed in pesto, onions, zucchini and cherry tomatoes in whole grain pasta topped with Feta. Wow. Delicious. Has NOTHING to do with a nuclear scare except that I was scared I would cry from how good it was.

Fear of the Soviets is at an all-time high, and for reasons that remain unclear except for a Communist plot to contaminate "everyone's precious bodily fluids," a paranoid army general, Jack D. Ripper (a fantastic Sterling Hayden) initiates a plan that will set in motion a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Captain Lionel Mandrake (Oscar nominee Peter Sellers, in one of his three roles) issues the attack on Ripper's orders, but, later realizing it was not issued as retaliation, vows to recall the planes. Ripper refuses to give him the information necessary to stop the attack and locks the two of them in his office. Peace is our profession, indeed.

The men on the bomber jets on the outer borders of Russia respond at first with disbelief that they've been called into action, since most of their daily existence involves chewing gum and reading Playboy. Once "Plan R" is activated, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) dons a cowboy hat in preparation for "nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the Russkies," which 50+ years after the film's release hearkens contemporary recollection of our last president's cowboy persona and similarly folksy catchphrases. Kubrick portrays these men of the Air Force as rogues, biding their time until the inevitable attack is launched and ready to rough up' dem Russians at a moment's notice.

"War is too important to be left to politicians."

The film imagines an America (not, in Kubrick's view, too far from the true one) in which the military actually outranks the chief executive officer, where high ranking officials in the armed forces are paranoid, arrogant and trigger-happy. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson's expansion of the Vietnam War was keeping America on perpetual edge, with the Cold War ever near, and in a politically volatile time, this film may not have seemed so far from the truth.

"Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the war room!"

As the implementation of Plan R is made known to the Pentagon, the Cabinet convenes in the War Room with President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) to plot a course of action, but General Buck Turgidson (a brilliantly sharp George C. Scott) has bad news: Ripper has taken advantage of the contingency plan for Soviet attack on Washington D.C. by deploying Plan R without provocation, and unfortunately there's no recall available to them. The strike will happen. Muffley scoffs that no such plan should ever have been considered, but Turgidson reminds him that he supported its original implementation. Blurg.

Well, what now!? Turgidson defends the plan, saying that it's "unfair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up" (nuclear holocaust would be quite a slip-up, wouldn't it?) and urges the president to launch a full-scale attack to obliterate the Soviet air force. Now that a provocation is inevitable, you might as well go all out. Muffley gives information to the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) which he could use to shoot down the offending planes, but the Soviets alert the ambassador to the presence of a Doomsday Device that will detonate at the first signs of a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. Whoopsie.

At this point, President Muffley in desperation calls on Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once more!), a weapons expert and former Nazi official whose right hand remains a Nazi and occasionally salutes the F├╝hrer, to help them out of this mess. But Strangelove offers little in the way of help and explains the philosophy behind the Doomsday Device while the planes fly inevitably towards their targets overseas. The planes are finally recalled with the help of Mandrake and some spare change from a Coke machine -- all except one, whose radio was damaged by an anti-aircraft missile.

(I have to mention that I'm a huge Peter Sellers fan, but know him almost exclusively from the Pink Panther series, as my dad had us grow up on those movies and quoted Inspector Clouseau often. One for my pops.)

"We'll keep our fingers crossed."

Soon most if not all hope is lost, and we the audience are exasperated at the futile attempts to recall the final plane and the mismanagement of this "slip-up" that could destroy the planet. But with little choice, the men of the War Room stare at the Big Board and hope and pray.

Major Kong rides the bomb down to earth in an iconic image, but the Doomsday Device doesn't detonate right away. A contingency plan for repopulating Earth is considered by Strangelove and the War Room, but it's too late: the final moments of the film depict nuclear holocaust to the haunting tune of Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again."

It's dreary subject matter turned farcical, but what do you expect, babies? This is Stanley Kubrick, fresh off Lolita and beginning to shift from the naturalism of his earlier films to the surrealism of his later work (his next film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, is yet to come on this list).

I realize that a large amount of this entry has been recounting the complex plot, which normally I hate doing, but for this film, the screenplay is everything. There's little in the way of action; the film's effectiveness is almost entirely thanks to its snappy dialogue and biting satire. You can't really fully experience that by reading my dopey blog, so just go rent it and see for yourself.

You know, maybe my next project after this AFI goal will be retrospectives of different directors -- I'd love to work my way through the rest of Kubrick's filmography... maybe even starting at the beginning and working my way to Eyes Wide Shut. Could be interesting!

Next up: three films I know little about, the first of which was a trivia answer the other week at my local watering hole that I miraculously guessed correctly without any knowledge of the film. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.


  1. Great blog! You write very well. And I love your project idea of blogging your way through the AFI' Top 100 Movies list.

    Dr. Strangelove is one of my favorite Kubrick movies. It's the ultimate dark comedy. I've seen all of his films (starting with The Killing) except for Spartacus, Lolita, and Eyes Wide Shut. Speaking of The Killing, have you seen it? You really should. Sterling Hayden is great in it, and the story unfolds masterfully.

    By the way, do you have a twitter account? I'd like to follow you. Mine is http://twitter.com/eggiweggs

    Cheers :)

  2. I appeared as a special performer in the stage production of this a few years back with Nautilus. It took place in an old casket factory in NE Mpls. Kind of cool. The movie is amazing, but long and can get confusing if it's not really your thing.

  3. Thanks for reading, Nick! I'm maxthemuppet on Twitter. This film really inspired me to get through the Kubrick filmography -- might be my next project after the AFI!

    Susan: wish I could have seen that!