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Dr. Strangelove (1964)::rating::5::rating::5

Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest examples of telling truth to power in all of cinema.  For 94 glorious minutes, Stanley Kubrick and his co-conspirators use comedy to permanently prove that the entrenched dogmas of the Cold War were, you know, stupid.  Characters in this film speak of “missile superiority” and “mutually assured destruction” with an almost frighteningly comfortable casualness.  And every time we laugh at their stone-faced commitment, it comes with an undercurrent of anxiety.  Turn the dial of this outrageous comedy just a little bit, and it could still become our reality.  Or, as the man once said:  “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

The story is based on Red Alert, a serious Cold War thriller by Peter George.  Kubrick (who co-writes with George and Terry Southern) makes the correct decision to reorient that tale of nuclear annihilation into a hedonistic satire.  Even better, the characters still act as if in they’re in that simmering drama.  They deliver every wacky line with a completely straight face.  Make no mistake:  We’re to laugh at these people; never with them.

We open on a squad of B-52s, out in the middle of nowhere.  These planes are stocked with hydrogen bombs, and they’re always within striking distance of Soviet targets.  A coded message comes over the hotline, ordering the planes to drop their payloads.  Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens) verifies his orders, puts on his lucky cowboy hat, and dutifully steers the plane into Russia.

Turns out, these orders are the handiwork of a madman.  General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), an unhinged base commander, goes rogue and orders his attack wing to provoke WWIII.  Ripper believes the commies are using fluoride in the drinking water to sap our precious manliness and must be stopped at all costs.  (And yes, this was a real conspiracy theory from this era.)  It falls to Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), Ripper’s perpetually flummoxed executive officer, to talk some sense into his bloodthirsty superior.

Predictably, Ripper’s attack sets off a wave of chaos in Washington.  The wimpy, ineffectual president (also Peter Sellers) desperately wants to recall the B-52s, but nobody seems to know how to do that.  Another complication:  Some of the top brass, like Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), are warriors in desperate search of a war.  For them, Ripper’s leap off the deep end represents a surprising opportunity to catch the Soviets off guard.  In the end, the president must turn to Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers), a loopy ex-Nazi scientist, from some…alternative ideas.

From that description, you can probably see an edgy, foreboding suspense flick. Indeed, every actor plays it as if that movie is happening around them.  (In fact, Sidney Lumet was making Fail-Safe at the same time as this production.)  Kubrick is one of the smartest directors we’ve ever had, and he knows the difference between tragedy and comedy can be razor thin.  He gives this material the slightest tweak, which sends it barreling in a completely different direction.

What’s more, his all-star cast vibes right into it.  Peter Sellers dives into all three of his parts with reckless abandon:  President Muffley is a dithering tenderfoot, who hems and haws at the approach of nuclear winter.  His hotline conversation with the Russian premier is now part of cinematic folklore, and it would make even Bob Newhart proud.  (“I can be just as sorry as you are, Dmitri!”)  Captain Mandrake maintains his affable British gentility, even as his boss has clearly gone off his rocker.  And then, there’s Dr. Strangelove.  The blathering, histrionic mad scientist is really just a playground for the madcap Sellers, and he obliges Kubrick by flying completely off the merry-go-round.  Strangelove shouts Nazi gibberish, all while his right arm goes rogue and attempts to strangle him.  (Look carefully, and you’ll see the actors around him trying hard not to laugh.)

While Sellers gets the glory, let’s not forget the other key players:  Sterling Hayden brings Marlboro Man bravado to his impotent, cigar-chomping psycho.  In another movie, he’d be a frightening villain.  (Hell, he’s a little frightening in this one.)  George C. Scott almost steals the War Room scenes away from Sellers, as the wild-eyed, warmongering General Turgidson.  He looks and sounds a lot like some of the war hawks in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Turgidson’s loopy logic for continuing Ripper’s attack sounds a little too real.  (“We’ll lose 20, 30 million, tops!!!”)  Finally, Slim Pickens plays Major Kong as if he’s fresh from the set of a John Ford Western.  Pickens even gets the movie’s most iconic scene, riding the H-bomb like it’s a thermonuclear mechanical bull.

Taken in all, Strangelove remains a movie for the ages.  It forces us to face uncomfortable truths:  Even now, the world is replete with madmen.  Thousands of ICBMs are still out there.  It’s just a shot away.  Sadly, Doctor Strangelove remains completely relevant.

94 min.  Max.  NR.

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