Dr. Strangelove, Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Kubrick’s only sustained comedy opens with fornicating planes and ends with a bouquet of nuclear explosions, representing its two dominant tones: farce and war film. A trenchant satire that posits international power players as goofy, dim-witted and mad, Dr. Strangelove is above all a showcase for the dynamic Peter Sellers, who was never given as strong a project as this in which to display his masterful comic range.
Sellers takes on three roles: a nervous R.A.F. officer, the bumbling president of the United States, and the eponymous, riding-crop-carrying Kraut at war with his autonomous, Nazified right hand. All those characters, and others, spend the film coping with the machinations of a renegade, quasi-Kurtzian general, Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a cigar-chomping, pistol-brandishing, Clemenceau-quoting officer convinced of an international communist conspiracy to fluoridate the drinking water and corrupt “our precious bodily fluids”. In retaliation, he launches a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union that can’t be called-off.
Ripper’s madness is rooted in an episode of sexual malfunction; General Turgidson (an exuberant George C. Scott) fields personal calls in the War Room to placate his needy mistress; and talk of Doomsday inspires a convoluted plot to scrap monogamy for a repopulation scheme with 10 fertile women for every man. In short, the filmmakers cheekily reduce mass-scale matters of life and death to relatively petty psychosexual affairs. It’s hilarious — and frighteningly plausible, though exaggerated. But with cool-headed academic types now running the show in Washington, the very Cold War Strangelove doesn’t feel so relevant at the moment — unless we apply its nuclear anxieties not to American politics but to, say, Pakistan. Then, it’s as current, hysterical, and terrifying as ever.
May 22-28 at Film Forum