Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/30/07 w/ Additional Edits.

Based on a novel by Peter George, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb tells the story about a delusional U.S. general who plans an attack on Russians as a bomber plane is on his way to bomb the Soviets. During a meeting, the President tries to talk to the Russian premier before all hell breaks loose while a RAF officer tries to intervene. Directed by Stanley Kubrick with an adapted script written by Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern with uncredited contributions from James B. Harris and the film's star Peter Sellers. The movie is a satire on the paranoia about an outbreak in the Cold War. Done with irreverent humor, cynicism, wit, and a tense atmosphere, Dr. Strangelove marked the beginning of Kubrick achieving greatness. With an all-star cast that includes Peter Sellers in three roles plus George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, James Earl Jones, Keenan Wynn, Tracy Reed, and Slim Pickens. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a superb yet hilarious film from Stanley Kubrick.

RAF officer Colonel Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers) is called upon by his superior General Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who has become paranoid about the Cold War that he ordered a bombing attack on the Russians. Notably as he claims that there's a conspiracy by the Russians in order to destroy bodily fluids. Mandrake learns that Ripper uses a secret emergency plan that isn't authorized by the joints chief of staff as well as the American president. Ripper's claims become more troubling as he claims that the Russians are here as his troops are getting ready to fight the Russians in their Air Force base. Mandrake realizes that Ripper has no proof since there is no warning on the radio and demands Ripper to give him the recall code. Unfortunately, it's too late as the code is reached to bombers making their way to Russian including one led by Major T.J. "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) and his team that included Lieutenant Goldberg (Paul Tamarin) Lieutenant Lothar Zogg (James Earl Jones).

Back in Washington D.C., a secretary named Miss Scott (Tracy Reed) receives a call for General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) who is needed in the Pentagon with a special meeting that included the President. Turgidson meets President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) who learns that bombers are on their way to Russia as Turgidson thinks it's a good opportunity to attack. Muffley is aware that things are going to hell with the Russians going to retaliate. Making things worse, Muffley invited Russian ambassador Alexi di Sadesky (Peter Bull) to the war room as Turgidson claims he's here to spy on the war room. The look at the attack brings tension as Muffley tries to talk to the Russian leader and learns that if the bombers reach their proposed target, a doomsday machine will be triggered. The ambassador explained that the machine is created by computers to trigger a series of nuclear bombs that will mark the end of the world.

Muffley immediately wants the recall code but the paranoid Ripper is already in battle as he's joined side-by-side with Mandrake. Mandrake understands why Ripper prefers to drink a certain brand of water and stuff while revealing his own issues with bodily fluids. The battle rages on as Mandrake eventually gets the recall code but finds himself in trouble with Army Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn) who was fighting in the battle. The President meanwhile, calls upon a strategy expert and former Nazi named Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers) about what to do. Dr. Strangelove reveals his excitement for the doomsday machine. The President finally receives the code though aware that four planes were shot but one of them managed to survive. The plane revealed to be Major Kong's as he lost communication and everything as he attempts to bomb a base. Just as things look great for both the Americans and Russians, the President receives a call from the Russian leader about one of the bombers on his way. There, everyone ponders what is about to happen.

During those times of the Cold War, many people feared about how something like Communism would spread onto American soil while wondering about the aftermath that would lead to World War III. What Stanley Kubrick and his writers chose to do was pretty much make fun of these things. Notably the paranoia starting with General Ripper's claims of the Russians poisoning American water supplies. What the film is really about is misinformation and mis-communication. It's in those two themes where the film's humor and satire lies.

The screenplay that is co-written by satirist Terry Southern reveals the way American politics often duel with each other. You have the more patriotic General Turgidson wanting to help the American cause while he's often clashing with the more peaceful but timid President Muffley. Muffley represents a moral conscience of the film while also reveal the lack of strength he has as a world leader whenever he's trying to talk with the Russian president.

Some of the film's humor in both the war room scenes and in the bomber scenes with Major Kong reveal the absurdity of the Cold War. Notably on how a war against the Russians can be provoked. Some of the dangers about the missiles and most of all, the doomsday machine show how bad the Cold War was at the time and how close the Russians and Americans had gotten into some serious conflict. It's in Kubrick's observant, eerie direction that really captures the tension, morality, and humor of the movie. His camera always is on some kind of moment whether it's Turgidson wanting to go at with the Russian ambassador or Mandrake trying to understand Ripper's paranoia. Some of the film's most memorable sequences is definitely in the bomber scenes with Major Kong that is really the funniest in the film. Notably because Major Kong is a gung-ho American pilot wanting to bomb the Commies while things go wrong.

The film's most horrifying and funniest moment is included in an iconic image that's often parodied throughout pop culture. It is afterwards that Kubrick gives the audience an open interpretation of what might happen after this as Muffley, Turgidson, the Russian ambassador, the staff, and Dr. Strangelove discuss the future. It is there that Dr. Strangelove has his moment which ends on a funny but dark note.

The direction by Kubrick is really the highlight where he puts humor in places that often doesn't have humor. The comedy feels natural and relatable. Even in the paranoia and tension in the war room scenes, the Ripper sequences, and of course, the bomber scenes are just amazing and none of them overshadow anything. Kubrick really brings it all together as the film moves very leisurely while letting the audience to sit back and enjoy. Overall, it's a really damn good film that's very funny and spot-on about the times.

Helping Kubrick in his visual presentation is cinematographer Gilbert Taylor whose black-and-white photography showcases the dark intimacy of the war room with its wonderful shades of light. Taylor's photography also works in the intimate, hand-held work in some of the scenes in the bomber while adding tension to the scenes with Mandrake. Taylor's camera work is amazing in conveying the sense of horror. Longtime production designer Ken Adam and art director Peter Murton do amazing work in creating the war room with a circular table and screens that looks so eerily authentic that it almost looks like a real war room.

Adam's work is just amazing for capturing the atmosphere and tension, even in the bomber where things are cramped and no one really knows what's going on. Editor Anthony Harvey does great work in bringing all three stories together to convey the sense of chaos while making it nicely paced in the film's 96-minute running time. Even the use of stock footage and the scenes with the bomber plane are wonderful to convey the absurdity. Sound editor Leslie Hodgson also does great work in capturing the tension of each sequence to reveal its chaos.

Music composer Laurie Johnson creates a wonderful opening score that starts off as very serene and dreamy only to put the audience off of what is coming. There's a great music theme by Louis Lambert that plays to the humor of Major Kong getting ready for battle while a song by Vera Lynn in We'll Meet Again appears in the end to convey what had just happened.

The film's cast is wonderful featuring memorable small performances from Shane Rimmer, Paul Tamarin, and in an early film appearance, James Earl Jones as bombardiers in the war plane trying to understand what Kong is doing as well as their destination. Tracy Reed is memorable as her brief appearance as General Turgidson's secretary/mistress Miss Scott while also appearing in a Playboy spread that Kong is reading. Peter Bull is great as the Russian ambassador who tries to help things out though in reality, he is a spy of sorts while trying to think about his own leader and the future of the world. Bull is funny for how he reacts to the absurdity in which, he makes the Americans feel a bit stupid. Keenan Wynn is also great in his small role as Col. Guano who captures Mandrake who doesn't believe what is going on really while having a funny moment that involves a Coke machine as Mandrake tries to persuade him about what's really happening.

Sterling Hayden is wonderful as the paranoid, mis-informed General Ripper whose talks of bodily fluids and water makes him a complex yet sympathetic character who loses grip with reality while trying to protect the recall code. Hayden is great in his role for being the man who causes trouble but didn't mean to. George C. Scott is also great as the patriotic, war-loving General Turgidson who is more concerned about American pride rather than what's right for the people. Scott, who is often seen in dramatic films, really showcases his talents in comedy both physical and in word play as it's a great performance from the late yet legendary actor. Noted character actor Slim Pickens is hilarious as the gung-ho Major Kong with his Texan drawl and determination to nuke the Commies with all of his might. Pickens is just a hoot to watch in every scene he's in, notably when a missile causes an error for the plane that would lead to one of the film's iconic images.

Finally, there's the late Peter Sellers in one of his greatest performances in playing not one but three roles in the film. In the role of Colonel Mandrake, Sellers plays it straight as his character is the least-humored of the three. Sellers plays Mandrake with a sense of morality and intelligence while often being frustrated in how he's trying to handle things. Sellers performance as Mandrake is amazing. In the role of President Muffley, Sellers again plays it straight but with a lot of humor that is restrained. Sellers not only sells the American accent just right but shows Muffley's timid, frightened expression when dealing with the Russian during the hysteria of what's happening. In the title character, Sellers' comedic talents is very evident with a German accent, being on a wheelchair and wearing strange blond hair. Sellers exudes the psychotic humor and excitement of Dr. Strangelove as he has some of the film's best lines including the last one. The character of Strangelove is very funny and downright strange since he brings all kinds imagery to a character that is dark.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a funny, intelligent, and haunting film by Stanley Kubrick. This film is no doubt one of the must-see films ever made thanks in large parts to its humor, Kubrick's eerie direction, the script, and the cast, notably Peter Sellers. Fans of satire will no doubt enjoy this film while for those new to Kubrick and Sellers will find this movie as a nice place to start. Particularly in how relevant the film is in relation to today's time as the world is in chaos. In the end, Dr. Strangelove is a powerful and funny film from the late, great Stanley Kubrick.

(C) thevoid99 2012


Alex Withrow said...

Great review. Love Dr. Strangelove... it's a flick I can revisit often and always appreciate more.

Also, I just passed the Ten Best Directors of All Time blogathon over to you. Have at it! (But leave my Bergman be haha)

thevoid99 said...

It's definitely one of the best films that is often great to re-watch.

I will definitely work on that thing in an hour. I just have a review to finish.

David said...

Sterling Hayden and Peter Sellers are two of the few actors who appear twice in Kubrick films,I think they are both brilliant.It was such a joy to find Hayden in The Godfather when I re-watched it last month.

thevoid99 said...

@David-the scenes with Sellers and Hayden are gold. The sheer mix of dark humor and drama. Only Kubrick could create something like this.