Dr. Strangelove is one of those rare acclaimed movies I actually saw pre-blog. I’ve hesitated to review it since then, but the time has finally come. Not only is this one of my favorite films (currently in my top ten), but it also blends top-notch comedy with a social conscious. The argument of the film is simple and all the humor flows from there: what is the point of nuclear deterrence if it’s just going to get us all killed anyway?
The premise of the film is simple. A General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone insane, and dispatched nuclear bombs to Russia. His plan is that once they are headed to Russia, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) will have to commit to the attack if he wants to avoid “red retalliation.” In the war room at the Pentagon, Muffley, the Russian Ambassador (Peter Bull), and several political and military aides including ex-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) and General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott), try and figure out how to avoid total annihilation. As fail safe after fail safe backfires, this proves increasingly impossible.
The humor escalates wonderfully as the film goes on. As the characters put themselves into more and more danger, the film just becomes that much funnier. The story goes that Kubrick originally intended the film to be a straight-up drama, but the topic of nuclear deterrence was just too ridiculous and insane to be portrayed seriously. A good thing this decision was made too, because the satire is what makes this film so great. The satire allows the plot and the characters to be exaggerated, which makes the point better and is more funny than it would be otherwise. I have a feeling if the film had just been a drama, it would seem a bit silly anyway, but unintentionally so.
The film is filled with great performances and characters. The most obvious standout is Peter Seller in a triple role, and he’s fantastic in all of them. Sterling Hayden gives a perfectly serious performance as General Ripper, but of course you can’t take him seriously. Slim Pickens satirizes the cowboy archetype as Major Kong, the pilot of the fatal bomber plane. But topping them all, you have George C. Scott in a comedic role for the ages. He overacts perfectly to the tone of the film. His face seems to be made out of rubber; he stretches it into goofy faces throughout. He seems to be inexplicably chewing a new piece of gum every few minutes. He satirizes the war hawk mentality perfectly; most of his suggestions to avert crisis consist of sending more bombs.
Kubrick shoots the film in a much less showier way than many of his other pictures. I can’t really call to mind any long impressive tracking shots, or any trick shots like in The Shining. However, that’s not to say the film isn’t visually compelling. The production design is top notch, with the typical Kubrick attention to accuracy. The design of the War Room is one everyone will recognize, even if they haven’t seen the movie, because it’s been reused so many times. The grim black and white serves the film perfectly; even though its a comedy it still deals with a dark subject. The closeups (especially the low angle ones of Sterling Hayden) are as memorable as ever.
Dr. Strangelove is a brilliant film. It’s one that pokes fun at the Cold War practice of deterrence, and it spares no one its merciless satire, be it the right or the left. The film still holds up wonderfully today as a satire and just as a plain old comedy. The performances are great across the board; the cast has perfect timing and doesn’t miss a beat. Kubrick is in top form for this one.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
Long story short: 4/4 stars
For Further Reading: