Friday, February 06, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

"Gentleman! You can't fight in here! This is the War Room!"

-President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) attempts to defuse an international brawl inside the Pentagon in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964).

This classic film from the auteur of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Shining (1980) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999) remains a bit of a paradox. It's a comedy concerning deeply unfunny matters, particularly nuclear war...and the end of the human race.

However, the film didn't start out as an absurd comedy. In fact, the movie's screenplay is based on a serious, carefully-researched Cold War literary thriller from author Peter George.

However, as history records, when Kubrick started investigating how easy it would be to trigger an accidental global nuclear war, the director registered and collated the "absurdities" involved in the doomsday scenario. Those absurdities became the bedrock of a new script...and a blistering satire was born.

In its new format Dr. Strangelove is a black comedy of human errors, serving specifically as a scathing critique of something utterly irrational: an entire (profitable...) industry and hierarchy devoted to the destruction of our very species. Kubrick's targets in Dr. Strangelove are politicians, soldiers, the press, intellectuals...even the scientific community itself. All of these folks dutifully play their assigned (incompetent) roles in the film's Global Annihilation, just cogs in a vast machine devoted to the End of Life on Earth as We Know It.

As you may recall, Dr. Strangelove involves a plot by psychotic U.S. General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), stationed at Burpleson Air Force Base. Ripper transmits false orders -- "Wing Attack Plan R" -- to a fleet of B52s comprising America's "Airborne Alert Force," instructing them to drop their nuclear payloads across the Soviet Union.

Unfortunately, Ripper is also the only man with the correct recall code, an inconvenient fact which necessitates some high-level one-on-one telephone diplomacy between daft American President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and drunken Soviet Premier Kisov (pronounced Kiss Off).

Meanwhile, aboard one airborne B52, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) breaks through the Russian defense net and prepares to drop two nuclear bombs on Russian targets, blissfully unaware the world is not really at war. When the bomb bay doors jam, the patriotic Kong activates them manually...and exuberantly rides a warhead down to its terrestrial target. Yee Haw!

But there's another level to this global crisis. Even one nuclear detonation on CCCP soil will trigger the Soviet Union's new "doomsday machine," a defensive device that will eradicate all human and animal life on Earth.

Still, all is not lost. President Muffley's scientific advisor, the wheel-chair bound German, Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers again), offers a contingency plan if tomorrow is indeed doomsday. It involves retrofitted mine-shafts, an American eugenics program, and a ratio of ten women to every man...

While generals, politicians and scientists debate that particular (ludicrous) future and their roles in it, this world -- our world -- comes to an end in a series of fiery (but oddly beautiful...) nuclear mushrooms. Bombs explode in a gorgeous montage, to the tune "We'll Meet Again"...

In case you can't tell from that synopsis, Dr. Strangelove is a cold, bleak movie with a black, merciless, unforgiving heart.

As a form, satire is often cold and dispassionate, so this approach is to be expected to some degree. But Kubrick's film work almost ubiquitously features an icy, cerebral disposition all its own, a fact which makes Dr. Strangelove doubly chilling.

With an unflinching eye and total lack of compassion, Kubrick walks the audience through nuclear apocalypse and is so blunt, so matter-of-fact, so unforgiving in his depiction of the fools causing this disaster that we have no choice but to laugh. The bigger the disaster...the more we laugh. This occurs, in part, because we register the utter absurdity of the situation; and it dawns on us (slowly at first) that we have no one to blame...but ourselves. This is the world we made.

So Nuclear Armageddon is nigh, and stiff-upper lipped British exchange officer Mandrake (Sellers once more...) doesn't have enough small change to call the President on a pay phone and provide the recall code that could avert disaster.

So General Turgidson (George S. Scott) chews gum incessantly during a Pentagon Briefing and suggests that if nuclear war can't be averted then Hell, we should try to win it!

So a B52 pilot is seen studying something (off-screen with extreme scrutiny in the cockpit of his war plane...but a reverse angle reveals not the complex workings of technology, but a Playboy Centerfold.

So an idiot foot soldier, "Bat" Guano (Keenan Wynn) distrusts the heroic Mandrake because he is British (and possibly a "prevert"). So Gauno worries at a time of international crisis about shooting a vending machine because he's afraid to answer to "The Coca-Cola Company."

So the President himself is an Egghead Intellectual. He can't even bring himself to inform the Russian Premier what's occurred ("He went and did something silly, Dmitri...").

So His generals are warmongers and lunatics (paging General Boykin!), the Russians get all their inside information from The New York Times, and Dr. Strangelove is an unrepentant Nazi who twice mistakenly calls President Muffley "Mein Fuhrer."

Everyone involved in this debacle, it seems, is a dolt. These men aren't exactly profiles in courage (and, perhaps by design, there's only one woman who appears in the film, landing blame squarely on the less-fair sex...).

What one can detect so clearly here in Dr. Strangelove is a deranged patriarchy of destruction and blood lust marching blithely along, literally on "auto pilot," ready to spur worldwide destruction...even if no nation (and no official government...) consciously seeks such destruction. With sharp eye, and sharper dialogue, Kubrick exposes a seemingly-basic quality of men: his compulsive flirtation with self-destruction. That flirtation is even more dangerous in the Cold War Age of computers, ICBMs, and other modern "conveniences." The machines don't cause the end of the world; they just make the end of the world that much easier for men to accidentally start.

Kubrick gets terrific performances out of his cast here, particularly the multi-talented Peter Sellers, but equally memorable is his ironic use of music. "We'll Meet Again" is a paean to man's cycle of war and death, which never seems to end. "Try a Little Tenderness" transforms a mid-air warplane refueling procedure into something akin to robot sexual intercourse, and "Johnny Comes Marching Home" is continuously played to mock the blind patriotism of "our boys" on their fool's errand.

If the sound design of Dr. Strangelove is undeniably brilliant, Kubrick's mastery of images is even more so. The now-famous composition of Slim Pickens riding a nuclear warhead like a bucking bronco at a rodeo is fully part of the American pop culture lexicon at this point. However, it actually says something important about our country too. It reveals how the American "cowboy" mentality has become dangerously coupled with frightening, destructive technology. Swaggering machismo and technological terror are a bad combination, as we've seen in the years since Dr. Strangelove...and Kubrick understood that fact at a relatively early date.

Kubrick's War Room (created by frequent James Bond production designer Ken Adam) is another memorable image: the ultimate smoke-filled room; the ultimate boy's club. There are technological toys and blinking lights aplenty (like General Turgidson's beloved "Big Board") but nothing really gets accomplished here. The War Room is nothing but an elaborate sandbox, where the boy with the loudest voice holds sway.

I also admire the language of Dr. Strangelove. The U.S. Army has a motto in the film: "Peace is Our Profession." Yes, it's absolutely Orwellian, and again, we've had some experience with that in recent years. And if the events of the movie are any indication of that slogan's veracity, then the Army is utterly incompetent.

I also love how the B52's "auto destruct" well, auto-destructs, and how the nuclear warheads are obsessively labeled with such legends as "handle with care" and "this side down." Again, there's a method to the madness: Kubrick is showing us how we have turned the most horrifying weapons of mass destruction into things that we (mistakenly) believe are safe.

Oh yes, handle that nuclear warhead with care! But a nuclear bomb is not a carton of cigarettes: it can do significantly more damage than the label indicates. And, as Kubrick seems to remind us here, some people in politics and the military have forgotten that fact. We have taken for granted the power of the weapons we have created, and done little to assure that they don't come back and bite us on the ass.

Dr. Strangelove is a film that likely couldn't even be produced in today's conservative climate because -- among other things -- it plainly mocks some aspects of the military mentality. And if America is unanimously about anything these days, it's mindlessly "supporting the troops." No matter what their particular endeavor. No matter what their orders.

But God Bless the late Kubrick for pointing out, rightly, that the military is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, only as good as the orders it executes. Importantly, Dr. Strangelove depicts both an obstructionist ignoramus, his "boots on the ground," Bat Guano and a bat-shit crazy General, Jack D. Ripper, who launches a nuclear war because he tends to feel inferior about...something personal; something in the bedroom. The personal deficits of these men have consequences for the world.

Again, the point is made concisely (and in amusing fashion): a soldier must not just blindly follow orders; but follow the right orders. The old excuse "I was just following orders" doesn't quite cut the mustard when the scenario involves global nuclear apocalypse.

Kubrick's targets are many here, but I believe he reserves his most egregious contempt for the macho military man. Dr. Strangelove's opening shot is of a phallus-shaped warplane nose as it refuels in mid-air. That love song ("Try a Little Tenderness") plays over the refueling process and you realize that perhaps this is indeed what "love" is in the Cold War Epoch. Men who can't love, who only love killing, have created machines that love because they can't. They have recreated the "act" of love, subconsciously, in the design and activities of their glorified war machines.

You can see how this conceit plays out again in relation to Jack D. Ripper, the man who precipitates the global nuclear war. More than anything, he fears "loss of essence," and that the Russians are out to steal "precious" American "bodily fluids." He informs Mandrake that he does not avoid women, but that he "denies" them his "essence" (meaning semen). Again, the idea seems to be that certain macho men compensate for certain sexual failings...with killing, with bloodshed, with war.

Gaze just below the surface and you can see how sex and sexual dysfunction are the subtext of Dr. Strangelove, not merely in the graphic "refueling" shot, but in the very names of the dramatis personae. President "Muffley" is a pussy, literally and metaphorically. "Kisov" is Kiss Off. Major Kong rides a bomb to impact...another substitution, perhaps, for the sexual act. General Turgidson even speaks of sex in terms of military terminology, telling his mistress to start a "countdown" until Old Bucky Turgidson "blasts off."

Given this surfeit of sexual imagery and allusion, the final images of Dr. Strangelove perhaps represent a collective orgasm of sorts; the explosive release of all the anger, hostility and hatred these swaggering cowboys have held inside for so long; a nuclear ejaculation that takes down the whole world. If these men can't love -- if they can't create -- they will destroy. All of us.

And "We'll Meet Again" is an explicit warning from Stanley Kubrick. Once we replenish our "essence," we'll likely be ready to go again.

Countdown to blast off, honey, we're all gonna ride that missile...


  1. Strangelove is a brilliant movie, but to me its cold dispassion makes it easier to appreciate than enjoy, unlike near-contemporaries like "The President's Analyst" and "The Loved One" (and "Head", for that matter) which approach equally dark/disturbing subjects with a raw glee that make them delightful to re-watch. In musical terms it's the clinical presision of Zappa vs the abandon of the Fugs or Bonzo Dog Band. I notice as I write that my examples are considerable less successful than those of the "cold" sort of satire. I'm going to suggest that this is because that very coldness allows the audience to place itself above the satire, to distance itself from it, whereas "hot" satire compels the audience to ride along, to immerse itself in the ride, no matter how nuts things get... which might be a turn-off for mass audiences.

    Though it seems to work in cartoons.

  2. John, thanks for the commentary on this fine film which I had the opportunity to see again just recently. It is interesting to note that this film is based on the same book as another nuclear apocalyptic film, Fail Safe, which takes a much more serious and dire look at the arms race. As the story goes, Strangelove hit theaters first and captured the funnybone of America, but Fail Safe did poorly. Perhaps its much more stark look at the possibility of the end of life due to nuclear war was more than audiences of this time period were prepared to digest in theaters. Nevertheless, these films are great pieces of cinema that represent different sides of the coin of depictions of nuclear Armageddon. Thanks again for your commentary.