July 17, 2004

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Grade: 98/100

Major T.J. King Kong (Slim Pickens) is fired up about his new mission. "Well, boys, I reckon this is it," he tells his men. "Nuclear combat, toe to toe with the Ruskies." He later adds, "I'd say that you're all in line for some important promotions and personal citations when this thing's over with." As if the lives of millions of innocents is made positive by the stamp of military approval.

Pickens' bluster entertains because it satirizes the gung-ho motivating speeches to soldiers familiar to movie fans. It is as if Pickens is a football coach imploring, 'Win one for the Gipper!' But the stakes are preposterously higher. The Russians have a doomsday machine that can obliterate all life on the planet.

President Eisenhower warned of a sinister (albeit necessary) 'military- industrial complex' in his 1961 farewell address. Kubrick extends the threat to farcical extremes. Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is a lunatic who sees 'Commie plots' in benevolent events such as fluoridization, while General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is an opportunist eager to win the Cold War at the expense of "no more than 10 to million killed, tops!" Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) is suspicious but dense and unimaginative.

Royal Air Force Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) is the only military man who sees the coming apocalypse and wants to prevent it. His cagey handling of Ripper is ineffective, however. While Ripper is insane, his madness has method, and he sees through Mandrake's every device.

Sellers also plays President Merkin Muffley, who may look like a milquetoast but has the means, perception, and energy to stop a nuclear holocaust. Muffley is an ideal President for the crisis despite his unimpressive appearance. Unfortunately, no one man is a match for the array of misguided patriots that have placed country above humanity.

It is appropriate, then, that Sellers' third role, that of Dr. Strangelove, takes over the final reels of the film. For President Muffley, the cause is lost. Dr. Strangelove, however, is gleefully optimistic. Hydrogen bombs may grow like mushrooms and doom all those on the surface, but Strangelove proposes a Nirvana safely concealed in deep mine shafts.

The handpicked survivors would consist of a harem of hot young women, and of course great military minds (such as Dr. Strangelove himself) to provide 'leadership' and prevent the Russians from creating a 'mine shaft gap.' The dreadful outcome of World War III is transformed into an underground state-sanctioned stud farm.

The mocking tone of Dr. Strangelove is in contrast with Fail-Safe (1964), another Cold War nuclear disaster film that was released about the same time. The real-life showdown of the Cuban Missile Crisis apparently inspired both films, but Fail-Safe was deadly serious, and deadly dull as well.

Although the talented Peter Sellers was well known by 1964, one future star made his film debut in Dr. Strangelove. James Earl Jones is among the plucky crew of the B-52 bomber. His role is secondary to Slim Pickens, however, whose career-defining moment is the wild, hat waving ride to his demise aboard a nuclear bomb. A grand exit, not with a whimper but the biggest bang of all.

Not as celebrated as such surreal films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), Dr. Strangelove nonetheless represents Kubrick's best work. The dark humor present throughout would have added spice to some of his later projects.