It is the stated position of the U.S. Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurence [sic] of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.That's the disclaimer that runs across the screen before the film begins. Re-watching Dr. Strangelove for what must have been my seventh or eighth time, I was floored by its presence. Why didn't I remember that being there? I'm not sure if it was required by Columbia Pictures or the U.S. government, or whether it was might have even been inserted voluntarily by Kubrick as an opening knock-knock to one gigantic joke. All I know is this: without putting that disclaimer at the beginning of such an incendiary political satire on nuclear warfare, the military-industrial complex, and the nightmare scenario, Dr. Strangelove might have come across as an actual horror film.
Officially, of course, it's the longest film title most people know by heart: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It ponders out-loud just how chaotic it might be if the general overseeing the nuclear fleet went absolutely crazy and sent the bombardiers to pre-emptively attack Russia. The rational president discovers he is helpless. The military advisers are predicting the best-case scenario – "getting our hair mussed" – is "ten to twenty million dead, tops!" A Russian doomsday machine can't be turned off. And the top weapons specialist has a right hand that not only wants to heil Hitler, but also apparently wants to strangle the specialist himself.
Kubrick might have been the most idiosyncratic of all directors. He set out to make a cold war apocalyptic thriller, but it was only after he dug his fingers into the material that he saw the potential for razor-sharp satire. (Terry Southern, writing a profile of Kubrick for Esquire magazine, was brought in as a co-writer.) It was the right decision on his part, and Dr. Strangelove is, in my opinion, probably his best film. It has an utterly memorable and simplistic visual style, some of the best comic performances from the 1960s, and a knock-'em-dead script.
The film weaves three stories together. In the first story, General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has finally cracked. Believing the communists are "sapping and impurifying all of our precious bodily fluids," he orders the launch of a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union and locks down the military base, holding his British air force adviser Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) captive. In the second line, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickins) leads his squadron with the bombs on board. And in the third story, an emergency military meeting is convened in Washington, D.C., by President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again), who discovers from Gen. Buck Turgidson (George S. Scott) that, short of a miracle, there's nothing that can be done about the bombers. Muffley also discovers from the Russian ambassador (Peter Bull) that their doomsday device cannot be turned off and a counter-strike is inevitable. This all true, says the president's Nazi émigré weapons expert, Dr. Strangelove (again Sellers, in his smallest but most memorable role).
The performances are stellar across the board, due in large part to Kubrick, who coaxed the right stuff out of his actors. As a comedian, Sellers was never better than his triple-play in Dr. Strangelove. Each of his characters are memorable and remarkably different from one another, from the egg-headed Muffley to the schizoid Strangelove. (He was to play Major Kong in the original planning, and there are numerous reasons cited for his withdrawal.) It is one of the Oscars' great, great errors that he lost Best Actor to the star of My Fair Lady, Rex Harrison, who had already been given numerous accolades for his stage performance.
Lest we forget the wonderful supporting cast: Hayden, impeccably stern as he chews his cigar and spouts his purity-of-essence philosophy, and Scott, who famously wanted to act as a straight man but whom Kubrick convinced to shoot scenes a little too fast and a little too loose. Scott's hyperbolic Turgidson (based in part on real-life, hot-headed, drop-the-bomb U.S. Gen. Curtis LeMay) is crazy-eyed and paranoid, worried the Russian ambassador will "see the big board" of projected flight paths, and whose bloodlust for warfare literally seems to be borderline lustful. At times it is hard to believe that Turgidson says the things he does, but it works because Turgidson himself seems to find it hard to believe everyone else is apparently so oblivious.
A few technical details merit mentioning: The opening credits are written in one of the most memorable fonts of all film credit sequences. The art direction and set design are shockingly simplistic but highly effective and give the film a surprisingly feel of accuracy (although it was filmed on sound stages in London). The war room is essentially a round-table topped with lights and set in front of gigantic maps of the United States and Russia, decorated with flashing light bulbs. Ripper and Mandrake essentially stay in an office room for the entirety of their storyline, and Kong and his air force men stay in the belly of their B-52 bomber. The art direction won a BAFTA Award, and Dr. Strangelove was named the Best Picture of 1964 in Britain. (In America, the film was nominated for four Oscars, losing Picture, Direction, and Sellers's acting to My Fair Lady, its director George Cukor, and Harrison, respectively. It lost the Adapted Screenplay category to the historical drama Becket.)
The sorest spot in Dr. Strangelove today is the question of whether it is still timely. It is without question dated. From a historical viewpoint, the U.S.S.R. is dissolved, Russia and the United States are no longer embroiled in the cold war, the arms race is over, and to the best of the public's knowledge, the nuclear war-games are at a standstill (although certainly more countries possess nuclear capabilities than this writer would like). Its lack of any substantial female characters is noticeable, although for being 1964, kudos goes to having a prominent character of color, played by James Earl Jones in his film debut.
But as I see it, timeliness and relevance are two separate phenomena. Dr. Strangelove, particularly during the last decade, has perhaps never been more relevant. Its apocalyptic fears seem astute in a millennium born of the deadliest act of terrorism on American soil. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many nations with strong antipathy toward the United States have attempted to develop nuclear weapons. Where the film departs foreign policy and enters into pure philosophy and sociology, however – the fragility of life, the cautionary tale of technology gone wild, the triviality of mankind when seen stacked against devices meant to kill widely and instantaneously – is a fear I'm sure won't be leaving our minds any time soon.
What hasn't faded with time is that Kubrick managed to make one of the best comedies out of such a bleak subject. It is satire of the highest order, on par with Swift, Pope, Twain, and Bierce, and is perhaps the definitive 20th-century satirical work. It is incredible enough to make us laugh and grounded enough to make us wince. Talk about achievement.