Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, Peter George
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens
In times of countrywide stress and panic, different valves will begin to release complete looniness and we can only hope our leaders aren’t the ones to worry about. Especially considering they have the power to launch an entire country into war with another sovereign nation. Dr. Strangelove posits this doomsday scenario when an irreversible act of paranoia puts everyone at risk, thus showing the buffoonery of the people selected to lead the nation.
With constant fears of Russia’s nuclear power, tensions are high amongst military personnel to the point where General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders a nuclear strike on the European nation invoking Wing Attack Plan R. News of this reaches the President and his military advisors as they attempt to stop the attack from happening before the potential of World War III and the end of the world becomes a reality.
It serves as quite the testament to this film’s success and satirical achievement, where the opening credits serve as a disclaimer by the United States Air Force stating the events the audience will see would not be possible with their command structure. Surely, you would hope so considering the events occurring within Dr. Strangelove demonstrates the ills paranoia can bring to people with so much power in their hands. Paranoia sets the story off with the call from General Ripper and the rest of the film dives into hilarious dark comedy to display the true meaning of dropping bombs and how fragile masculinity sits at the center of it all.
As the camera pans around the Air Force station Ripper has taken control, plenty of signs posted display the phrase, “Peace is our profession.” A statement very much indicating the hypocrisy of the armed forces when their names have a connotation for aggression. Take the Air Force, as used in the film. If peace were really the end goal then why would such a name be utilized to describe a whole branch of the “Armed Forces.” The rest of the film seeks to make fun of the banners in a hilarious manner, as it displays the inner fighting that can occur between men of honor and how some individuals want to drop a bomb on another nation merely for the thrill and exercise of it all.
The settings utilized in the film are the office of General Ripper, the war room, and the plane that received the call to deploy the nuclear bomb. In each of these rooms, different conversations get held and all of the actions have their consequences. On the plane, there are soldiers just following their duties. They receive the code corresponding with a specific game plan, which gets questioned but they follow the orders given to them just as training has prepared them to do. Ripper’s office shows a completely unhinged man, who has found a way to deter anyone from stopping this attack, even holding his executive officer, Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) hostage with him. The war room is where all of the best moments because of the characters within it, including General Turgidson (George C. Scott), President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers), and the titular character Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers). Each scene spent in these three spaces indicates the power held and where communication fails in each particular instance. The lack of this critical component to any operation allows for negative impulses and influences to take charge in instances where cooler heads should prevail. Potentially, the end result could be catastrophic, but the film sure knows how to make it so darn hilarious to experience.
Hypocrisy jumps off the page in a comedic manner, as the screenplay comes loaded with double meanings for phrases and statements one would never imagine elected officials would spout. It demonstrates the biting nature of the feature and how it cuts into the inherent flaws of masculinity in these positions of power. This gets seen mostly through Turgidson and Ripper. Specifically, Turgidson’s story begins with him out of frame with his secretary and mistress laying in bed wearing lingerie. She answers the phone for him but he cannot answer as he’s indisposed. From the onset, the sexual nature of Turgidson displays itself and informs the outlandish statements he will later make. The way he speaks on using nuclear weapons has a bit of a sexual edge with how it can be used as a tool. It makes for some uncomfortable moments because George C. Scott plays into the strangeness of Turgidson’s obsession with getting the opportunity to unload on another nation. Ripper literally has a moment where he indicates, he found the idea to complete this heinous act through the act of making love and how his conspiracies about the Russians directly impact his sex life. Virility plays such a concerningly integral factor in the story, especially when you consider the phallic nature of the missiles themselves.
So many lines can be easily quoted such as “Gentlemen! you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” and “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.” They work so well to demonstrate the different levels of decision making and the larger impact it has. While the men in the war room battle for all of the details, they fail to factor in the real human components, which get displayed to the audience when panning back to the soldiers having to actually drop the bomb. Conflicting statements come galore, as it seeks to truly humanize the men in charge of the nation and how much they can falter when the going gets tough.
Not enough can be said about the multiple outstanding performances put on by Peter Sellers. By portraying Mandrake, President Muffley, and Dr. Strangelove, he takes on three very distinct men and stands out in each of them. I honestly did not know when initially watching the film that he stepped into each of these roles because he’s such a chameleon in each. He captures the more passive and proper demeanor of Mandrake, the weakness of the President, and the complete zaniness of Dr. Strangelove seamlessly. He serves as a comedic force of nature with these three characters to an almost alarming degree. He along with George C. Scott anchors much of the ridiculousness this film has to offer because they deliver the satirical dialogue with complete seriousness, which would make many question their sanity.
With each Stanley Kubrick film I review, I attempt to vary the ways I appreciate him as a filmmaker because what more can be said more than him being my favorite director ever? With Dr. Strangelove, he demonstrates he can jump into any genre of his choosing and completely wreak havoc. This film, in particular, stands out as a satirical comedy but he would later make science-fiction, horror, and war masterpieces along with him crafting one of the greatest heist films in The Killing. His versatility knows no bounds and his meticulous nature allowed him to create such piercing and impactful work. He decided to take a dive into some political satire and ended up making one of the funniest and sharpest films ever made.
Dr. Strangelove embodies excellence in every frame in how it criticizes the dangers of toxic masculinity in the military but also how incompetence can run rampant even in a room with the most trusted individuals in the nation. It all results in the creation of an instantly quotable story that shows the hypocrisy of these men and also displaying how a communication breakdown can literally cause the end of the world. Nuclear weapons are not something to take lightly unless you swing with the metaphorical bat of this film.