Movie Review: Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Harbinger of 2012 October? ___ 10/10
Review by Brian Wright

Dr. StrangeloveDirected by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick

The subtitle for Dr. Strangelove is ‘How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.’ The form of which I find comes in handy for any number of acts of state excess: e.g. “how I learned to stop worrying and love drone surveillance,” “how I learned to stop worrying and love my RFID biochip,” “how I learned to stop worrying and love my FEMA internment camp”… you get the picture. In the 1950s and 1960s the threat of ‘nukuler war toe to toe with the Rooskies’ was a constant anxiety among all segments of American society, and no doubt other countries in the line of fire. It sure the hell scared the hell out of me.

Peter Sellers … Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake
Peter Sellers … President Merkin Muffley
Peter Sellers … Dr. Strangelove
George C. Scott … Gen. ‘Buck’ Turgidson
Sterling Hayden … Brig. Gen. Jack Ripper
Keenan Wynn … Col. ‘Bat’ Guano
Slim Pickens … Maj. ‘King’ Kong
Peter Bull … Russian Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky
James Earl Jones … Lt. Lothar Zogg
Tracy Reed … Miss Scott

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Why then does watching Dr. Strangelove for the umpty-umpth time, and every time, cheer me up? Nor am I the only one. In my second year of entry to the Free State (modern New Hampshire), ca. 2006, young Matt Simon (incrementalist superstar who created shared a house in Amherst with Jack Shimek (AltExpo) and me: Strangelove was one of his DVDs and after we fired it up, he said to me, “Whenever I get depressed, I can always count on this movie to pick me up. Something about watching this satire that so completely destroys its object, i.e. war and its psychological roots, makes the world right and restores my faith in human intelligence.” Words to that effect.

I agree with Matt that the film’s ‘purity of logic,’ ‘purity of essence,’ —especially for its time—devastates the pretensions of madmen… leaving the actual, valid fears of their highly possible lunatic acts somehow less scary. The subtitle of the movie, How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb, is apt. For the one or two politically active individuals who have yet to see the classic 1964 film, I’m going to avoid giving away any plot resolution. Still, some context: A rogue American Strategic Air Command (SAC) officer General Jack T. Ripper (Sterling Hayden)—the canted names in Strangelove are priceless—preemptively launches a wing of B52 nuclear bombers on the Soviet Union.

Most of the remainder of the movie shows what the president, joint chiefs, and other officials gathered in the War Room attempt to do to solve the problem:

General “Buck” Turgidson (George C. Scott): General Ripper called Strategic Air Command headquarters shortly after he issued the go code. I have a portion of the transcript of that conversation if you’d like me to to read it.
President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers): Read it!
Turgidson: Ahem… The Duty Officer asked General Ripper to confirm the fact that he *had* issued the go code, and he said, uh, “Yes gentlemen, they are on their way in, and no one can bring them back. For the sake of our country, and our way of life, I suggest you get the rest of SAC in after them. Otherwise, we will be totally destroyed by Red retaliation. Uh, my boys will give you the best kind of start, 1400 megatons worth, and you sure as hell won’t stop them now, uhuh. Uh, so let’s get going, there’s no other choice. God willing, we will prevail, in peace and freedom from fear, and in true health, through the purity and essence of our natural… fluids. God bless you all” and he hung up.
Uh, we’re, still trying to figure out the meaning of that last phrase, sir.
Muffley: There’s nothing to figure out, General Turgidson. This man is obviously a psychotic.
Turgidson: We-he-ell, uh, I’d like to hold off judgement on a thing like that, sir, until all the facts are in.
Muffley: General Turgidson! When you instituted the human reliability tests, you *assured* me there was *no* possibility of such a thing *ever* occurring!
Turgidson: Well, I, uh, don’t think it’s quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.

So who says there’s no humor in nuclear attack scenarios?! The problem is the General has sealed himself off at the SAC base and will not reveal the recall code for the Wing. Ripper conveys his motives and his whacked out personality to a subordinate officer on loan from the British Royal Air Force (RAF), Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (also Peter Sellers)—Ripper holds Mandrake in Ripper’s office against Mandrake’s will. Mandrake, of course, is horrified that Ripper has unleashed a potential End of Species (EOS) attack, and tries desperately to learn the code.

Back in the War Room, General Turgidson holds forth, recognizing what General Ripper intended for his upline chain of command to understand: “Hey, since war is inevitable, why not go for it! Launch everything.”[1] The parody level ratchets up with every scene, even with incidental frames, such as reference books spread around General T. entitled “Megadeaths by Country” and “Radiation Decline Rates.” [As if the plans had been exhaustively laid out by the thinktank world, which in the movie is the ‘Bland Corporation’… yuk, yuk. In reality the preemptive attack scenario was exhaustively studied, by companies such as the Rand Corporation.]

The president becomes increasingly desperate to put the nuclear genie in back in the bottle: from bringing in the Russian ambassador to the War Room and contacting Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov via the hotline to asking the former German scientist, Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers) what postwar options exist for us. At every dramatic moment, comic-relief counterpoint is provided. Such as what President Muffley says when Turgidson confronts the Russian Ambassador over a miniature camera:

You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!

The performances are so uniformly wonderful, especially the triple play by Peter Sellers: Muffley, Mandrake, Strangelove. Sterling Hayden is literally perfect as Ripper. [The neoliberal angle is light and reasoned, with the exception of the fluoridation attribute (evidence is overwhelming that water fluoridation is harmful to human health, though no doubt doesn’t ‘sap one’s precious bodily fluids’ as Ripper maintains).] And of course George C. Scott delivers arguably his best performance short of Patton.

[1] Interestingly, in the late 1950s culminating in the early 1960s, several high Pentagon officials, led by Curtis Le May, set an agenda for just such a preemptive sneak nuclear attack. President John F. Kennedy stood in the way of these ‘Unspeakably’ horrific men, which James Douglass argues convincingly is the reason Kennedy was assassinated.

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