Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
!!! A+ FILM !!!
For a movie that closes with the end of civilization as we know it, Dr. Strangeove is awfully comforting. I know that in 2012 we like to know that even if things were not quite as fucked up forty-eight years ago they were still fucked up; I don’t think of that as comforting but depressing. What moves me is the presence of people who understood how stupid it all was, the violation of rights and outright murder that stemmed from ideological differences of long-term irrelevance, things that in some cases seem all too familiar now, some that seem silly and bizarre. Many of them were silly and bizarre then, which is why this movie is a comedy. Telling the truth about nuclear war and international relations required absurdity, because our world was and is absurd.
Make no mistake, the ’60s were a vastly important time for us; I wasn’t there, so what the culture and art of the era means to me is confirmation of people who have not succumbed to insanity. Without any of the mass-media lines of communication we enjoy now, for anything with humanist vitality to penetrate the consciousness it had to worm its way into films, magazines, popular music, newspapers, television. It’s not about subversion, really, it’s about there being people out there who aren’t indoctrinating or preaching or damaging anybody… people to whom we can relate. 1964 is the explosion, described — your choice — in pop music (look at the #1 hits for the year, and fuck Petula fucking Clark) or film, with two big black & white sticks of dynamite. One is the most humbling and exciting film ever made, A Hard Day’s Night. The other, Strangelove, is the most prophetic. All Quiet on the Western Front reached its great truth differently, but Stanley Kubrick’s film, the one that would permanently seal him as a master and frankly remains his most immediate work, is equally salient.
When adapting Peter George’s novel Red Alert Kubrick and Terry Southern arrived at the conclusion that telling the story required making fun of it. You can’t mock war through exaggeration because the grave stupidity of it cannot be exaggerated. But you can display it for what it is, and then satire becomes truth, truth becomes wisdom. Containment is everything here, the Kubrickian methodology of a controlled environment for that insanity — codes and standards and lines of defense and chains of command, all drummed-up ways for grown men to play with their dangerous toys. Russia has a Doomsday Machine, it’s revealed eventually; it will annihilate the world if the U.S.S.R. is attacked. Why would they create such a thing? Because they heard America was working on one and had to keep up. Naturally.
We begin when madman General Ripper (Sterling Hayden, terrifying and uproarious) sends out planes to bomb Russia just for the hell of it, and for incomprehensible reasons involving his obsession with protecting his “bodily fluids.” His character is a portrait of the misguided patriot, the one the Usual Gang of Idiots attacked for claiming to love his country while hating 93% of the people in it, the one who hides his utter contempt for humanity behind a team-player worship of a piece of fabric or, worse yet, a glare up into the skies at his UFO of choice, generally with plenty of challenging rules to follow. Hayden’s delivery is something monumental; as earnest Captain Mandrake, one of his three plum roles, Peter Sellers manages to subsume himself into being the straight man (except in that one bruising improvisation about “the string,” of course), desperately attempting to correct his psychotic boss’s slide into mass murder, while Hayden goes to town with all this dangerous kookiness about infertility and purity of essence, again whipped up into macho-speechifying shape. On both writing and performance counts, Ripper’s a haunting, freakishly recognizable, nervously amusing creation. Kubrick shoots him from below, awash in shadow and cigar smoke. He’s a lost man, whose distance from reality ultimately destroys the known world.
Sellers’ powerhouse performance for Kubrick is in fact his Quilty in Lolita; two of his three characters in Strangelove, though brilliant, are arguably a Kind Hearts and Coronets-like background work, the voices of normalcy and sanity in an increasingly off-the-rails situation. His embodiment of the title character is one of those moments of peerless inspiration that can’t really be knocked down into words, except to say that one’s heart goes out to the actors behind Sellers who have to keep things stonefaced in his lengthy final shot as Strangelove, a feat better than any special effect. Across the chair in the War Room, where government denizens convene to discuss the crisis, he is also the President of the United States, struggling with asthma, several excruciating phone calls to the Soviets, and the unstoppably fanatical Buck Turgidson, George C. Scott in a pre-Patton cartoon, who accuses everything he disagrees with of “commie” tendencies, patting his stomach and bowing his head in comical prayer in between seductive growling at his secretary.
Scott and Hayden in this film are every quack we’ve ever known. Fools at any point, they have focused their energy on wrongheaded patriotism, the former a politician who doesn’t practice what he preaches but can’t accept everyone else’s failure to live up to his own fake principles, the latter simply a nutcase, who conquers personal pratfalls with pie-in-the-sky bullshit; after an unsatisfying orgasm, he realized his sexual disappointments were the fault of the Russians. As he tells Sellers, “Luckily, I was able to interpret these feelings correctly.” Dr. Strangelove himself, meanwhile, stands as the nonchalant specter of true fear, true destruction. Based on Edward Teller but uncomfortably suggestive of Henry Kissinger, he’s our villain if we have one (Hayden seems a sick man), but we still laugh. Maybe a bit nervously.
Up in the air an episode of backfired intentions that will result in crisis is beginning. A bravura Slim Pickens gives his all; he purportedly didn’t know the film was a comedy until it came out, which makes his juicy, overblown work all the more rewarding. It is only through such understatement that the film finds such warmth in its black humor. Pickens is piloting one of the aircraft that is set to drop a hydrogen bomb in the USSR. An attempt to shoot him down fails. He is invisible on radar screens. He, at the end, is the man in the iconic shot who rides the bomb to the doom of the world. The bomb squad’s heroism is serious and unquestioned — scenes in which James Earl Jones’ Lt. Zogg was to question the rationale behind their actions were cut for this reason — to contrast the serious-minded duty of good men who believe they’re doing the right thing with the frivolous-minded blanket hatred on the ground. “Ten, twenty million killed tops,” Scott cheerfully announces, “depending on the breaks.” The military itself is shown to be a highly competent and sophisticated weapon; it’s just that it can so easily be driven to be a destructive and habitually murderous force. This returns us to All Quiet and Kubrick’s own Paths of Glory. To put America’s own might under the microscope, though, was something new, one reason the film has remained so potent and relevant.
This was the first film Kubrick produced himself, without involvement from longtime partner James Harris; in a sense it marks a rebirth, the first film of his highly idiosyncratic, striking graphic style, assisted by brilliant production designer Ken Adam and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor. It’s fair to say he’d never again make a film with such a match of ambition and economy, but there are other indications of his future to be found here. In his indulgences in details, he finds the strength in the off-kilter comedy here, which only makes itself explicit in the sense that it duplicates everyday reality so beautifully: Mandrake struggling with a telephone and a drink machine; the fate of the world hanging in the balance of a mundane three-letter code only a dead man knows; the politics of the banquet table in the War Room taking precedence over the fate of the country; how light music on the radio proves that nothing is amiss; and of course, Answering to God for What You’ve Done. If the humor comes in copious amounts from Sellers, a hero and a genius by any measurement, the poignance is all in the screenplay and the delicious angle from the recruited Southern and its clash with a society that isn’t just stuffy but inhumane and unjust. Kubrick infuses all this with the same strength as always. Like Sellers, he is keyed into compassionate instincts and as much as he plays the proceedings for angst-ridden comedy, these two mavericks know the importance of its message. They’re gone now and they are missed, but Strangelove is never going anywhere, and no one can stop it. This timebomb — the most important political message of our time — is forty-eight years old and sitting on Best Buy and maybe Wal-Mart shelves all over the country. Anyone who sees it now will still leave it laughing, worrying, hoping for the best.
And scared. Without overreaching, this wonderful film has a broad scope that remains effective because in its minute examination of bureaucracy it doesn’t diffuse the tension by emotionally confronting how serious the situation is… except at one crucial moment, tinged with silent angst. In the war room after the gravity takes hold, George C. Scott whispers to his mistress over the phone: “Don’t forget to say your prayers.”
[Revised version of an essay posted on my old site in 2004.]