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

casey Of all the classic movies we’ve discussed to date, Dr Strangelove is the first that we’d already seen. It’s one of my very favorites.

brooke True story. I believe you first showed it to me three or four years ago.

casey AAAAaaaaaaand?

brooke I really liked it then, and it was fun to watch it again.

casey I think it’s one of the funniest movies ever, almost effortlessly so…although Stanley Kubrick is not the kind of director who does “effortless.” But his cold war satire is entertaining on the surface while offering a sharp rebuke of the lunacy of Cold War ideology.

brooke Which is a perfect segue into a description of the movie…
As the movie begins, General Jack Ripper issues the attack command for dozens of nuclear-armed planes flying near Russian airspace. Ripper also shuts down all contact with the outside world, leaving only his second in command, British officer Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), to convince the general to give the cease fire code. Meanwhile, the President (also played by Peter Sellers) has no choice but to call a meeting in the War Room to solve the problem along with various military officials, the Russian ambassador, and the ex-Nazi nuclear expert Dr. Strangelove (again, Peter Sellers).

casey There are so many great characters. Ripper is my favorite: a hard nosed John Wayne-style military man whose dialogue mixes war cliches and Bircher conspiracies—in particular, the need to protect our “precious bodily fluids” from communist contamination (also known as fluoridation). He delivers every absurd line with total conviction and gravity, creating a hilarious dynamic with the genial Captain Mandrake, whose attempts to reason with Ripper give way to increasing desperation throughout the movie.
it’s funny, is what I’m saying.

brooke It’s perfect. And behind General Ripper you can always see a sign that boldly proclaims, PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION

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casey The War Room decides that attacking Ripper’s base  is the best option (thus pitting American soldiers against other Americans who’ve been told that the invaders are disguised Soviets), and variations of that sign show up in most of the battle scenes. It gives everything a nice layer of irony: It’s a literal reminder that the military can’t do the job it’s been tasked with. Also, “peace” is what every character professes to be working toward as they contemplate ever-escalating violence, including launching a pre-emptive ICBM strike to cripple any Soviet counterattack if the planes can’t be recalled (“no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops!”). So the word “profession” is a dual-layered rebuke, I think.

brooke We need to talk about the phone conversations, especially those between President Muffley and the Soviet Premier, who the president refers to by his first name, Dmitri.
We never see or hear from Dmitri, but Sellers kills it as the frustrated President talking to him like they’re a curmudgeonly old married couple.
“Let me finish, Dmitri… Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?… Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri?… Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?”

casey Meanwhile, General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott), one of the President’s War Room advisors, is a clownish figure who mugs and overacts in every scene, and he’s also great. He’s given one of my favorite lines, once Ripper’s plan becomes apparent and the president chastises the military for enabling one rogue general to initiate a world war: “Well, I, uh, don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.”

brooke Buck is hilarious. How about when the President invites a Russian ambassador into the War Room and Buck proclaims, “You can’t let a Rooskie in here! He’ll see the big board!” as he gestures towards a giant map of the USSR.

dr._strangelove_-_the_war_room

 

casey The movie is full of funny interactions between various oddball characters, but it’s not an extremely jokey film. Instead, the humor is often subtle and measured (which says a lot given there’s a character named Col. “Bat” Guano).

brooke A lot of the names are funny, from General Jack Ripper to Major TJ “King” Kong, and I’m sure the President’s name”Merkin Muffley” is supposed to be a joke.
Really, the joke is on the US, the USSR, and the military machine as a whole. Kubrick depicts the War Room as little more than boys in a pissing contest. And in spite of all that, the Library of Congress laughed at it alongside the rest of the world and included the film in it’s first round of inductees into the National Film Registry in 1989

casey Fun fact: the movie was originally supposed to end in a literal pie-fight. You can actually see a pie-covered table in some background shots.

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brooke  Instead it ends with the slow regression of Dr. Strangelove to his Nazi ways, barely able to control his right arm from making the “Heil” gesture, and with the doom of humankind.

casey The closing scene is a montage of nuclear explosions over a doleful rendition of “We’ll Meet Again.” It’s sobering as it is funny, because that exact ending was a real life possibility for decades. You have to wonder what people thought when the movie was released in 1964.

brooke It’s interesting to consider. I mean, a huge part of the plot is that the USSR had just built a Doomsday Device that would automatically nuke the entire world if a bomb landed on Soviet soil. I wonder how many people saw the movie and thought, “Oh my goodness, what if they actually have a Doomsday Device?”

casey Kubrick was able to capture how so much of the Cold War came down to petty egos and absurd oneupmanship.

brooke Exactly.
Geez, we haven’t even talked about the crew onboard the B-52 bomber that drops the first bomb.

casey Featuring a young James Earl Jones! The bomber crew is basically in their own separate movie, and until the end their scenes are played with dead seriousness. The only funny moment is when Major Kong, after being forced to manually open the bomb bay doors, finds himself literally riding an atomic bomb like a cowboy in the movie’s most iconic scene.

Slim-Pickens-riding-the-Bomb

brooke Complete with a cowboy holler.
And you have to love the music every time the movie shifts back to the bomber. The low humming of “The Ants Go Marching” is beyond perfect.

casey A lesser movie would’ve struggled with Strangelove’s tonal shifts, or leaned harder on the goofiness. But I think Dr Strangelove succeeds because of its restraint. When it’s trying to be funny it’s hilarious, and when it’s serious it’s almost funnier, albeit in a much darker way.

brooke I couldn’t agree more.

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