Friday, 17 May 2013

Movie Review: Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)

A black comedy imagining a hot end to the cold war, Dr. Strangelove is a caustic epic. Through the story of a rogue American general launching an unprovoked nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, Stanley Kubrick deliciously dismembers the culture of war, exposing the infantile incompetence of the generals and their politicians.

President Muffley: Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!

General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) gives orders for a group of nuclear bombers under his command to attack targets in the Soviet Union. Major T. J. Kong (Slim Pickens), a commander of one of the bombers, receives the orders, confirms them, and sets off to drop his nuclear payload on the target assigned for his B-52. Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), a British exchange officer and Ripper's second in command, realizes too late that Ripper has gone mad and is bent on starting a global nuclear war.

General Ripper: I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

Once the magnitude of the crisis becomes clear, US President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) convenes his advisers in the War Room, where a large wall screen shows the real-time progress of the bombers as they approach their targets. General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) is a warmonger who would like to seize the opportunity and launch an all out war. Dr. Strangelove (Sellers once again), a wheelchair-bound nuclear scientist and a former Nazi with a gloved and occasionally out of control right arm, informs the President that the Soviets have an unstoppable "doomsday machine" that will automatically detonate and destroy the planet if the Soviets are attacked. With the Americans helping the Soviets to destroy the incoming bombers, and American troops frantically attacking Ripper's base to seize the recall code, Major Kong has to evade enemy fire and stoically make his way towards his target.

President Muffley, discussing Ripper with Turgidson: There's nothing to figure out, General Turgidson. This man is obviously a psychotic.
General Turgidson: We-he-ell, uh, I'd like to hold off judgment on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in.
Muffley: General Turgidson! When you instituted the human reliability tests, you assured me there was no possibility of such a thing ever occurring!
Turgidson: Well, I, uh, don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.

One of the best comedies of all time, Dr. Strangelove is 90 sharp minutes of biting satire. Based on the book Red Alert by Peter George, the film is filled with classic moments as Kubrick takes every opportunity to peel back and crumple the pompous absurdity of war and the men who wage it.

Filmed in black with just some white, Kubrick and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor provide the movie with a shiny darkness, whether inside the cavernous war room or on board Kong's claustrophobic bomber. The world is about to be destroyed from decision rooms painted black, filled with shiny equipment, indirect light and men who look good making all the wrong decisions.

President Muffley, speaking to the Soviet Premier: I'm sorry too, Dmitri. I'm very sorry. All right, you're sorrier than I am. But I am sorry as well. I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri. Don't say that you're the more sorry than I am because I am capable of being just as sorry as you are. So we're both sorry, all right? All right.

The opening credit sequence, with beautiful music accompanying war machinery, sets the scene and points the way to Kubrick's majestic artistry with classical music and futuristic man-made marvels in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Also in Dr. Strangelove, Vera Lynn's poignant Second World War song We'll Meet Again is an ode to a planet on the verge of self-destruction. The Fallout post-apocalyptic game series picked up on this theme, using songs of the past (notably Louis Armstrong's A Kiss To Build A Dream On and The Ink Spots' I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire) as the soundtrack for the end of the future.

Dr. Strangelove: The whole point of the doomsday lost if you keep it a secret!

The performances are uniformly pitch perfect, knifelike comedy delivered with a straight face. Peter Sellers was never better, his three roles forming three sides of the war triangle: soldier, politician and weapons expert. Mandrake is a man in uniform swept up in events he has no control over, Muffley is the president who approved the command system that allowed Ripper to go rogue and now has to deal with the resulting mess, while Strangelove is the mad (in many ways) weapons scientist, almost gleeful that his nuclear industry is again and finally being used in anger. That he is also an ex-Nazi and not in control of his own rampaging right arm is just a layering on of commentary on the inner circle trusted to advise on matters of war. And yes, humanity's love of deadly conflict is, indeed, strange.

Dr. Strangelove: Mein F├╝hrer, I can WALK!

George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson inflates the warmongering general stereotype to fill the war room with his breathless anti-commie rhetoric, whipping himself up into a bloodthirsty frenzy. For Turgidson, acceptable casualties are calculated with a margin of error in the tens of millions, and it's all a victory as long as the enemy's losses are greater.

Slim Pickens is a cowboy in the sky as Major Kong, and despite his eccentricities Kong is faithful to his orders, skilled in leading his crew, determined to fulfil his mission, and willing to go to extremes to ensure its success.

War is hell, and it's also ridiculous. Dr. Strangelove takes aim and riddles its target with a barrage of piercing mockery.

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