Dr. Strangelove (****)

Posted on December 2nd, 2002 in Commentary,Movie Reviews by EngineerBoy

The River Oaks Theatre here in Houston showed Dr. Strangelove on the big screen at a midnight showing last night. There was a surprisingly large crowd of very appreciative filmgoers. Although I’ve seen Dr. Strangelove many, many times on TV, VHS, and DVD, it was an exhilarating experience for me to see this film on the big screen for the first time while in the company of other fans. The print was slightly scratchy and the sound was slightly fuzzy in parts, but the River Oaks showed the film in the cavernous main theatre with its faded-but-still-impressive old movie palace ambiance, so the overall experience was quite satisfying.


The film itself is not only still a masterpiece, but it just keeps getting better and better with age. Not only am I getting older and understanding more of the darkly comedic, political, military, and sociological themes, but the world continues to blindly stumble down the unwise and destructive paths that are the grist for Kubrick’s mill.


********** SPOILERS AHEAD **********


For those unfamiliar with the story, the premise is that some time in the late 1950’s an American Air Force base commander has…well…gone a little crazy…and has ordered his wing of B-52 bombers to attack their targets within Russia. Attack as in drop nuclear bombs upon. The base commander has become convinced that there is a massive Communist plot currently causing harm to all Americans (I won’t reveal the hilarious details). In the film, there is a loophole in the chain of military command that gives Ripper the ability to unilaterally send his wing in for the attack, and to prevent the bombers from being recalled by anyone other than himself. His plan is that once the President and Joint Chiefs figure out that there’s no way to stop his initial surprise attack, they will have no choice but to commit the entire US nuclear capability in support of his bomber wing. If they don’t, the Russians will retain enough retaliatory capability to destroy the United States.


The film focuses on three locations. The first is the War Room, where the President (Peter Sellers), the Joint Chiefs, and various military and political advisers are gathered, including General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and the eponymous science adviser Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers again). The second is Burpleson Air Force Base, where commander Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) and his executive officer Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers yet again) are stationed. The third is the interior of one of the B-52s of the bomb wing, piloted by Major (King) Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew (including the debut of a young James Earl Jones).


********** END SPOILERS **********


The film moves between these three locations, deftly showing the dawning realization, the hard decisions, and the inherent hypocrisy and insanity of military organizations in action supporting their motto of “Peace is Our Profession”, while possibly hastening the end of life on earth. It’s shot in black-and-white, even though it was filmed well into the color age, but black-and-white sets the perfect mood for the story. The film also contains some of the darkest and blackest humor ever put on the screen. Dr. Strangelove was nominated for Oscars in the Best Actor (Sellers), Best Director (Kubrick), Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay categories, but did not win any of them. George C. Scott should have been nominated for his performance, one of the best of his illustrious career, and certainly the funniest.


I have found that most people either love or hate Kubrick films, with very little middle ground. I’ve never really understood this reaction. I, myself, love almost all of his films, with the glaring exception of Eyes Wide Shut, but I don’t love them because they are “Kubrick films”, I love them because of what they are, which are some of the most well-made, entertaining, and thought-provoking films I have ever seen. If you’ve seen one or two Kubrick films and been unimpressed (2001 is very austere, Clockwork Orange is hyper-violent, etc), do yourself a favor and check out Dr. Strangelove. It is, like all Kubrick films, different from all other Kubrick films, and it is a darkly funny satirical masterpiece.

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