The world can end in many ways: a super-volcanic eruption, an asteroid impact, a gamma ray burst, a devastating pandemic (that one’s still on the table), even a rogue black hole. But while those are all a vengeful mother nature’s doing, nuclear warfare could only be placed on humanities’ shoulders.
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a 1964 dark satire based on the fears surrounding the Cold War between the Russians and Americans at the time. When insane General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his B-52s to attack Russia, the fate of the world rests upon President Muffley (Peter Sellers), General Turgidson (George C. Scott), former Nazi Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers), Group Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) and Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens) to try and stop a nuclear holocaust.
Now, while this is a Kubrick, it’s pretty much unlike any Kubrick after. In 1964, he was not yet an egocentric, obsessive, crazed perfectionist. Of course, while some of those qualities were simply just part of his nature, Dr. Strangelove almost has a… playfulness to it. Which is surprising if you’ve ever visited The Shining or 2001.
Peter Sellers’ love for improvisation clashed directly with Kubrick precision, but he embraced that maverick feel, and helped produced some of his most free wheeling work. While there are similarities to the computer dependency in 2001: A Space Odyssey and savage warfare in Full Metal Jacket, this a completely unique Kubrick because, shockingly, he makes us laugh. Unlike all the rest of his films, it wasn’t about him.
Of course, you couldn’t talk about Dr. Strangelove without mentioning Sellers. His performance is already legend for the multiple-character tour de force, and doesn’t only show what a brilliant comedian he is, but also how incredibly versatile an actor he is.
The neurotic and gloomy President, the absent minded, perfectly accented Mandrake and the twisted Nazi nuclear expert Strangelove are all so different because they’re not spoofs, but true performances. All his dialogue is supremely delivered (“Hello? Uh, hello Di- Hello Dimitri?”), and all his visually astounding moments are unforgettable.
Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!President Muffley
But, of course, it’s not just Sellers – the whole ensemble gives masterful and detailed caricatures. George C. Scott is perfect as a Commie hating, rampant general, gurning and stretching in a way unmatched until Jim Carrey did The Mask; Pickens gives a dogged, relentless show of Southern charm, perfectly contrasting the futile advisors in the Pentagon, and will forever be remembered for the moment of King yee-hawing his way down into nuclear oblivion; and Sterling Hayden provides genius in a patriotic, serious but ultimately maniacal role. Not quite as good as a corrupt police officer in one the greatest scenes of all time, though.
And this brilliant comic acting is needed, because Dr. Strangelove relies upon it: it’s basically only filmed in four locations (an office, the perimeter of an Air Force base, the War Room, and the interior of a B-52 bomber), with the viewer just seeing faces, words, and a lot of complicated airflow. There’s also some incredible sets by Ken Adam which compliment the black and white cinematography of the film perfectly.
The colourless cinematography is great for many reasons as we slowly near the end of the world, but the way the earliest scenes are narrated, the subject matter at hand, and the way it’s shown in an achromatic gloom brings to mind a traditional newsreel. Kubrick’s whole career was built on the art of visuals, and that’s no different here. Of course, he was a brilliant black and white photographer.
I always find the release to be one of the greatest things about this film. In 1964, the world is rife with paranoia and fear over the possibility of annihilation, and all by our own hands. The Cold War and nuclear threats are all the rage. Kubrick feared viewers would be apathetic to any sort of serious portrayal of global extermination. So what did he do?
He made it provocatively and outrageously funny. It’s a satirical take on the stupidity, irresponsibility, arrogance of the few crazy men who we handed the power to lead our world and hopefully not end it. Unfortunately, in a scarily realistic, uncomedic comedy, everything that could go wrong does.
The ending is domineering. It is cinema of the highest order, with Strangelove’s Nazi temptations finally shining through as he describes the incredible opportunity for a master race. In fact, it could be argued that Dr. Strangelove doesn’t have an ending at all, but just cuts to reality, showing all the nuclear explosions ever set off to Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again. It’s the perfect definition of satire. If you can take such a serious and scary subject for so many people, and make them giggle, then it’s a job well done.
All I can really do is congratulate Kubrick. He made us laugh at the end of the world. And he sure as hell made us love the bomb too.
Dr. Strangelove – 8 out of 10