FILM REVIEW: Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (USA, 1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Starring Peter Sellers, Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, James Earl Jones

After a decade in filmmaking, Stanley Kubrick was just beginning to get the public recognition he deserved. His earlier works, like The Killing and Killer's Kiss, had received critical acclaim but were modest box-office hits. His two brushes with the mainstream had been both ambivalent: Spartacus was heavily criticised, and the censorship scandal surrounding Lolita made him regret the whole process of making it.Dr. Strangelove was the film which finally catapulted Kubrick into the public eye, giving him both critical adulation and huge commercial success. His classic satire of the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction struck a chord with audiences, who had just seen the world teeter on the brink with the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. But even outside its original context, Dr. Strangelove remains not only the greatest black comedy ever made, but also the very best film of the 1960s (with 2001 a close second).The secret to Dr. Strangelove's success can be found in its production history. Kubrick and his producing partner bought the rights to Peter George's novel Red Alert with the intention of making a straight drama about the threat of nuclear war. Kubrick's obsessive reading of Cold War literature gave the production a certain weight, but as the writing sessions went on, his mind began to wander into absurdist territory (e.g. wondering what the Russian Ambassador would eat when visiting the War Room).This shift from straight drama to black comedy results in a film in which everything is played so straight that you can't help but laugh. Every aspect of the Cold War and the 'logic' of nuclear deterrence is justified on its own terms, and taken so deadly seriously that the entire construct becomes totally absurd. Kubrick constructed the production carefully, so that everyone who was 'in on the joke' was made to feel like it was the real thing. With George C. Scott, Kubrick constantly beat him at chess on set, making the former work harder on his performance. In the case of Slim Pickens, who was drafted in to play Major Kong, he didn't even tell him it was a comedy.

Like Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket either side of it, Dr. Strangelove is chiefly concerned with the futility of war and its destructive power on the individual. But where those works conveyed this through the psychological trauma of the central characters, this film is more instructed in structure, showing how nuclear deterrents have put at greater risk the very people they were designed to protect. General Turgidson talks about secret studies showing that there would be 'only' 20 million casualties should the Russians retaliate. When the President cites the comparison with Hitler, he asks him to put the American people before his place in the history books.From this thesis Kubrick takes a dive deep into Freud, arguing that all politics and conflict have a basis in sexual frustration. Sex runs throughout Dr. Strangelove, from the coital act of planes refuelling in mid-air to the deadly multiple orgasms of the Doomsday machine. The film is constructed like a sexual act, with things starting slowly but confidently and gradually building to a breath-taking climax.The idea of sex and sexuality permeating every human act is conveyed subtly in every line and image in the film. General Jack D. Ripper orders the deadly attack because he believes that fluoridation of water is a Communist plot that has made him impotent. In Ripper's mind, adding fluoride to water will reduce Americans' ability to reproduce, and therefore its ability to produce soldiers to keep fighting the Russians. Under these circumstances, he decides that if he cannot reproduce, then no-one else should be allowed to either: at least, that way, there would be peace on earth.There are Freudian undercurrents elsewhere too. There is frequent talk from Ripper about "precious bodily fluids", and from Dr. Strangelove about radiation never "penetrating" deeper mine shafts. The President is named Merkin Muffley, 'merkin' being another term for a pubic wig, while 'Turgidson' could easily be a euphemism for an erection. And Strangelove's plan for living space (more on that later) involves a ratio of 10 females to each male, reflecting how the desire for sexual satisfaction shapes the way men govern themselves.Within this there is an underplayed comment about the objectification of women. With the exception of the Playboy centrefold and Turgidson's 'secretary', all the characters in Dr. Strangelove are men. The women are treated as sex objects in either situation, so that it may as well be the same actress playing both women (and, in fact, it is). Their fate would be no better under Strangelove's plans: on top of mandatory polygamy, they would be selected according to fertility and sexual stimulation, so the men can set an example by sitting around breeding all day.This final section is Kubrick at his most cynical, arguing that even when faced with disaster, political structures and attitudes irrevocably persist. Just as the German scientists who built V2 rockets were enlisted to send America to the Moon, so Strangelove is a war criminal who has become accepted simply by changing his name. His essentially Nazi plans for lebensraum and an Aryan race are met with enthusiasm on both sides - something which is doubly ironic considering Muffley's earlier comments about Hitler. And as soon as the plan is agreed upon, the US military start suspecting the Russians of planning a sneak attack to create a "mineshaft gap". The same arguments are being had even in the last seconds before everyone and everything is destroyed, like vultures picking at a rotten carcass.As always, Kubrick's direction is magnificent, fleshing out all these ideas but never at the expense of the characters. The integration of stock footage is so seamless that when the troops attack Ripper's base, it could be actual news footage from urban warfare, like that in Full Metal Jacket. In many of Captain Mandrake's scenes, where he is surrounded by computers, Kubrick tilts the lens so that he always looks small and insignificant compared to the technology which dominates him. Such shots, together with the failure of the CRM-114, hints to Kubrick's work in 2001 about perfect machines that go wrong.

The last 20 minutes with the B52 bomb run is an editing master-class worthy of D. W. Griffith himself. These scenes are scored by a recurring riff with a military drum beat, a simple device which gives us the rhythm needed to make all the technobabble tense and interesting. And then there is Major Kong riding the bomb, an image which encapsulates our response to the film: we shift from laughing out loud to an awkward chuckle and finally open-mouthed horror at what is unfolding.The performances in Dr. Strangelove are all terrific. For all his good work in Being There, Peter Sellers was never better. Being allowed to freely improvise, he nails all three characters, managing to be ridiculous and down-right hilarious while constantly seeming reigned in. Sterling Hayden is pitch-perfect as Jack D. Ripper, and George C. Scott is brilliant as Turgidson: even at his most (unwillingly) exaggerated, he still seems grounded in reality.Dr. Strangelove is an undisputed masterpiece which still looks and feels as fresh and as radical as in 1964. Kubrick marries career-best performances from his cast to strikingly constructed visuals and a script with substance and sardonic wit coming out of its ears. It holds up on every conceivable level, as a black comedy, as a piece of socio-political commentary, and above all as a damn fine piece of filmmaking. It is, beyond any doubt, a stupendous work and the best film of the decade.

Rating: 5/5

Verdict: The greatest film of the 1960s


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