Between Iran, North Korea, Russia, and the United States, the threat of nuclear holocaust needs to be laughed at again.
If you don’t know what to watch next, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) is available on Amazon Prime. The political satire black comedy was nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
As producer, director, and co-adapter, the filmmaker himself was up for three out of the four.
Paranoid that the Soviet Union is fluoridating American water supplies to poison our “precious bodily fluids,” General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), the Burpelson Air Force Base commander, circumnavigates the Pentagon and orders a nuclear strike against the USSR.
In the War Room, General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), President Merkin Muffley (Oscar nominee Peter Sellers), and their scientific adviser, the former Nazi German Doctor Strangelove (also Sellers), scramble to stop Jack from triggering the Soviets’ “doomsday machine.”
Meanwhile, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (once more Sellers), a Royal Air Force exchange officer, discovers the general’s code to call off the mission, but only after a surface-to-air missile destroys the radio equipment for Major T.J. “King” Kong’s (Slim Pickens) B-52.
In keeping with his style of adapting literary works, Dr. Strangelove is Kubrick’s interpretation of Red Alert by Peter George.
The Writers Guild of America ranked it as the twelfth greatest screenplay ever written, and it was among the first films selected for preservation at the United States Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in 1989.
Although this critic still regards A Clockwork Orange (1971) as the auteur’s masterpiece, Kubrick’s versatility with genres is readily apparent in this dark comedy, listed as number three on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years… 100 Laughs.”
A unifying theme throughout all of Kubrick’s works, despite their diversity, is a cerebral, pessimistic take on the human condition. The picture’s resemblance to the nuclear brinkmanship coloring international diplomacy today immortalizes Kubrick’s Cold War art.
But that he can alchemically make of it an entertainment suggests there is hope to be found, even if we must create it ourselves.
The signature Kubrickian style exists not only in the topical fabric of the text, but also in the aesthetical presentation.
The crazy-eyed “Kubrick stare” will never make you laugh more nervously than when you see Sellers construct it via the titular Doctor Strangelove, transcending across genres.
Each frame is blocked as rigidly (which isn’t to say “lifelessly”) as a painting, summoning a cold, sterile, perfectionistic mise en scène.
And the performances under Kubrick’s direction are equally controlled according to his genius; just ask Malcolm McDowell from A Clockwork Orange or Shelley Duvall from The Shining (1980) how “method” a filmmaker he was.
Neither Scott nor Pickens knew their performances were being played for laughs, conflicting a tension against the absurdity of their material, and Sellers makes the most out of his three roles, even though he was only cast in them because of studio interference and not authorial intent.
Scott refused to ever work with Kubrick again when he saw the final product.
Kubrick’s dramatic immersion could be physically as well as psychologically abusive, but it’s only because he was a creative obsessively devoted to fine-tuning his craft, with an ear for soundtracking and an eye for literature, who did so much for filmmaking with so few films.
That said, the representation in this film (or lack thereof) dates it somewhat. Buck’s secretary and mistress, the unnamed Miss Scott (Tracy Reed), is the only female character in the cast, and even then, again, she’s his nameless assistant and lover.
As the only person of color, King’s lieutenant, Lothar Zogg (James Earl Jones), plays second fiddle, too.
But not all representation is good representation, and only white men could be fragile enough to end the world over a pissing contest.