Classic Movie Review: Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Bomb (1964)

Posted: September 14, 2013 in Comedy
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General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) is a general with a hair trigger.  He’s responded to a U.S. training exercise, by locking down Burpleson Air Force Base, and ordering attack R, a scenario where a U.S. fighter wing goes deep into Soviet territory, and drops its payload of nuclear weapons on Soviet cities.  Ripper’s British liaison, Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) is convinced there is no attack coming, because he can hear civilian music on the radio.  Mandrake begs Ripper for the recall codes for the fighter wing, but Ripper lets the attack go forward unabated.

In the Pentagon War Room, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) tries to get the Soviet Ambassador, (Peter Bull) to contact the Soviet premier Kisov on the phone to tell him that the US has launched a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union by mistake.  Muffley is also trying to get someone into Burpleson Air Force Base to get those recall codes from Ripper, so he orders an attack on Burpleson with different US forces.  Ripper takes this to be the Russian attack and fights back, with Mandrake in tow, still pleading for the recall codes.  At the war room,, a bad situation gets worse, when the Soviet Ambassador reveals that his country has developed a doomsday device, and it will be triggered automatically in the event of a U.S. attack.  Muffley calls in Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) a holdover from WWII, to confirm the existence of the doomsday device.  Can Merkin Muffley recall the fighter wing before they enter Soviet territory?  Can the Soviets stop their doomsday device?  Will a nuclear catastrophe be averted?

Dr. Strangelove is an exceptionally good satire of the whole political and military mood of the U.S. and Soviet Union in the 1960’s.  There’s the American military’s paranoia about the Soviets keeping secrets, the Soviets desire to reach nuclear parity with America, the US generals advising that America can survive a nuclear attack, and both sides almost blundering into nuclear war, reminiscent of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  In fact George C. Scott’s character was based on a real General in the Kennedy administration.  JFK  talked about a missile gap, George C  Scott’s character talks about a mineshaft gap.  There are  also theories floated about surviving a nuclear attack and repopulating the earth, that were popular in the 60’s.  A right wing conspiracy about fluoridation of water is also lampooned.  This is political satire at its finest.

Sellers gives a tour de-force performance, playing three characters British officer Mandrake, a typical British stiff upper lip character, who is at his wit’s end with the loony Ripper. Merkin Muffley, who might be an amalgamation of Hubert Humphrey and Adlai Stephenson, is a clueless president stuck in an impossible, no-win situation.  Muffley says the classic line, “You can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!”  But by far, my favorite character was Dr. Strangelove, an amalgamation of Werner Von Braun, and other WWI era Germans, whose arm has a mind of his own, and who shows a little too much gusto for his previous regime.  Peter Sellers is much more well known for his Inspector Clousaeu , but these roles are much more complex and much more satisfying to me.

There are many more good performances in this movie.  Sterling Hayden pays Jack D. Ripper as a man whose mind dances on the edge of sanity.  George C. Scott gives a hilarious performance as a general devoted to the military strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, and adamantly against letting the Soviet Ambassador into the War Room.  Who knew George C. Scott had impeccable comedic timing? Slim Pickens is also excellent as the proverbial cowboy pilot of one of the planes of the fighter wing.

Stanley Kubrick deserves a lot of credit for this movie, he co-wrote and directed it.  There are some amazing shots in this movie, the wide shot of the War Room, the low angles and close-ups of Sterling Hayden, showing his flop sweat, the interplay of innocuous music with military scenes, like  “Try A Little Tenderness” while the planes are refueling and a montage of bombs dropping while “We’ll Meet Again” is playing in the background, all add to the satirical edge in this movie.  And of course the iconic scene of Slim Pickens riding that bomb, this is a scene that is etched in every true movie fan’s mind.  And the whole movie is filmed in glorious black and white.  This movie is a masterpiece.

Dr. Strangelove.  A blast.

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