When author Terry Pratchett wrote about his time working as a publicist for a nuclear plant, he described how he came to realise that there’s no funnier phrase than “two completely independent failsafe systems”. The extent to which everything goes as wrong as it can go because a madman easily exploits a supposedly foolproof system is at the heart of the satirical brilliance of Stanley Kubrick’s DR STRANGELOVE.
When a fanatical and unhinged Air Force officer orders a nuclear strike on the USSR, it’s up to a pushover RAF Captain (Peter Sellers) the President of the United States (Peter Sellers) and a mad scientist (Peter Sellers) to prevent nuclear Armageddon. The only trouble is that the foolproof failsafes put in place do not allow for an active bombing wing to be contacted, let alone recalled…
This is Kubrick at his leanest, punchiest and most mischievous. He exaggerates to ridiculous degrees for comic effect but clearly hit a nerve given the US Government’s overblown response. I’m sure he found being put on a watchlist hilarious, and deeply satisfying.
You might find yourself asking if it’s sexist that the only visible female character is a secretary in a bikini. But then you think about it and realise that of course everyone else in this farce is a man: no woman could be this stupid. Speaking of Miss Scott (Tracy Reed) her scene has her repeat and shout high-end military secrets delivered over the phone to her general/lover in the bathroom.
Absurdist gems are scattered throughout. Bombing wing officer Major Kong’s (Slim Pickens) cowboy hat is kept in the safe next to the military codes. Captain Mandrake doesn’t have enough change to call the president with vital intel to prevent Armageddon, so has to ask the poor operator tasked with connecting him to the White House to reverse the charges. The titular character’s…quirks.
Captain Mandrake might be a character Sellers could have performed in his sleep with the cut glass accent and nervous tics, but the way he plays being forced to humour a psychopath is mesmerising. Dr Strangelove as a character is an excuse for Sellers to explore the art of over-the-topness and President Merkin Muffly is Sellers as his best straight-man, acting with utter incredulity at the escalating situation. His one-sided phone conversations with the (unheard) Soviet Premier play out like Bob Newhart routines with the President faltering and becoming increasingly embarrassed at his own country’s sheer incompetence.
Several key members of the ensemble threaten to steal the show from Sellers, Sellers and even Sellers. Of particular note are Sterling Hayden’s paranoid conspiracy theorist, and main antagonist, General Ripper. Hayden walks that knife-edge of playing madness convincingly, terrifyingly, without turning into a parody of a dangerous and severely mentally ill man. George C Scott is also great as the posturing blowhard, nuke-first-ask-questions-later General Turgidson (see a trend with these names yet?). Considering how much of the film takes place at the American airbase on lockdown or in the war room, you’ll rarely not be entertained by Hayden or Scott playing off one of Sellers’ colourful creations.
This is one of the few films where we’re cheering, nay praying for, the classic war movie heroes not to succeed. The teamwork, camaraderie and improvisation in a tight spot demonstrated, not to mention the matching song played throughout their scenes runs counter to what we know they are trying to achieve. The movie language runs counter to what we’ve learned over the course of the story, it’s mocking our expectations of a war film.
It’s a comedy, and yet everyone dies. We’re destroyed by our unbelievable stupidity. It has to be up there with the bleakest movie endings ever. Kubrick clearly thinks we as a species deserve no better. At least we’ll go out (slightly uncomfortably) laughing. SSP