Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Directed Viewing. This weekly series looks at the filmography of a given director, in chronological order, and talks about the merits of each film. Not only are we concerned with the obscure gems in a person’s body of work, but the goal is to find a deeper understanding of the artist through the complexity of a career’s worth of movies. Auteur-driven? Sure. But it’s also great fun!
We’ve been making our way through the first half of Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, and so far it’s definitely been an upward swing in quality with each successive film. It took a while, but we finally got to the Kubrick of cinematic legend, a difficult, detail-driven director with a taste for the darkly comedic. I said at the end of last week’s article that Kubrick’s last film, Lolita, was in some ways the best comedy he ever made. Which should tip you off as to how I feel about today’s movie, the only actual comedy he ever directed.
I feel like Dr. Strangelove is the kind of movie everyone knows about, but I’m not sure most people (at least of my age) have seen. Kubrick’s satirical look at the cold war and nuclear policy is one of those films that is firmly of it’s era, and as a child of the 80s I’m not sure it’s ‘for me’. I’d even go so far as to offer up the excuse of those four dangerous words when you try to seriously talk about movies: I didn’t get it.
Dr. Strangelove is the story of misunderstanding and incompetence. An armed B-52, flying alert near Russia, receives an order to drop the bomb. These orders come from Air Force General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who locks down the air force base in response to some perceived threat. The only person who seems concerned about this action, who is willing to question the order, is RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers, as close to dapper as he gets, playing stuffy but earnest).
In Washington, General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) gets the call that nuclear war is eminent and rushes to the War Room to brief President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again, this time bald and officious). It’s quickly revealed that there seems to be no actual threat to the US from Russia, meaning this whole thing is some sort of misunderstanding. As they discuss what to do, it’s revealed that the US nuclear launch protocol is a mess of red tape. The ability for the general to issue the order for a first strike was signed in by Muffley himself, a way to counteract fears of being unable to respond if Russia was to destroy Washington. Since General Turgidson is in lockdown, they can’t guess at the recall code in time to stop the attack.
Turgidson offers the not-so-helpful suggestion of just going with it and attacking Russia with everything the US has in order to prevent this one mistake from triggering all out nuclear war. This is quickly discarded, especially when it’s revealed by the Soviet Premier over the phone that the Russians have developed a massive network of underground bombs that will destroy all life, triggered automatically if there’s an attack against the Soviet Union. Muffley, horrified, wonders aloud how they never saw this coming and built their own.
Thus enters Dr. Strangelove (Sellers, in a wheelchair with a thick accent and wild Dr. Frankenstein demeanor), former Nazi and current resident US mad scientist. He notes that they had thought of building this doomsday weapon, but had decided that it would be too dangerous to keep around, but admits it would be an amazing deterrent. Questioning why the Soviets kept it a secret, since it’s whole purpose is to dissuade attack, the Russian ambassador admits it was supposed to be a surprise announcement the following week.
The army converges on General Ripper’s air force base, trying to fight through our own military in hopes of getting to Ripper in time to get the code. Inside the base, Captain Mandrake has been listening to Ripper expound on his insane theory that the Communists are linked to flouridated water in an attempt to sabotage the US’s supply of ‘precious bodily fluids.’ When the army finally begins to win against Ripper’s forces, the General commits suicide in order to keep the code secret, forcing Mandrake to try to piece together the code from obsessive hints Ripper left.
Code in hand, they input it just in time to be too late, as anti-aircraft fire from the Soviets has already disabled the fail safe devices on the last remaining plane. The plane, going off course due to damage, ends up where nobody expects it when it finally drops its payload, and as the bomb falls and everyone begins to argue about the merits of shielded mine shafts and breeding programs, the movie ends in a montage of nuclear detonation footage. Adios, humanity.
So, back to the not getting it part. Maybe it’s the distance I have through age to this kind of cold war paranoia, where the concept of poking fun at a doom that seemed very real to many people was inherently subversive. To a post-Vietnam America, poking fun at government and the military seems like the safest form of satire. Or maybe it’s that I don’t have a particular fondness for Peter Sellers and his endless bag of disguises.
( In an amazing vintage example of film studios missing the point even in the 60s, Sellers plays 3 roles due to the idea that Lolita was successful largely because in it Sellers adopts a disguise. Kubrick was initially obligated to cast him in four roles, but Sellers protested and an injury kept him from playing the role of Major T J Kong, the bomber pilot that eventually went to Slim Pickens. )
The problem for me is that despite the near-farce the movie sometimes holds itself to, it’s not that different than Fail Safe, a 1964 Sidney Lumet film that covers a similar nuclear mistake and stalemate with far better actors and a far more serious tone. That movie far more smartly lampoons the awful situation that a nuclear arms race and belief in mutually assured destruction gave us, and it didn’t have to hammer its point in with a bunch of really obvious, on the nose jokes. There’s something far more absurd, and far scarier, about the concept that this mess could happen to genuinely competent people, too, due to just how complex national defense and international politics are.
That’s not to say Dr. Strangelove is a bad film, but it’s one that I feel falls very flat to my sensibilities. I haven’t really covered a ton of comedies in the course of writing about movies in general, and that’s because I simply don’t find a lot of movies that try to be funny all that funny. So I’m willing to chalk up my utter disconnect with Strangeloveas more a problem with me than with the movie itself. Certainly plenty of people seem to like it. Hell, it’s considered an obvious classic.
And when I get my personal feelings about the message and tone out of the way, there’s a lot to recommend the film. I’ve already stated more than once I think Kubrick shoots beautiful movies, and this being his last black and white movie it shows just how well he had taken to putting beautiful images on the screen. The obvious example is the War Room where much of the movie takes place, a giant space with a massive screen and even bigger circular table, a set that’s on an unreal scale, riffing on the kind of monolithic set design of German silent films. It reminds me of Metropolis, of all things, a comparison I would never have expected to make.
And I’ll admit that many of the roles that aren’t played by Sellers are often played by actors known for playing very serious roles. Seeing George C Scott make a damn fool of himself on film is something of a delight in and of itself, especially when you learn that those are takes Kubrick coerced Scott into making, saying they were just for rehearsal, daring him to do things he would never do if he thought the cameras were rolling.
In the end, sometimes I have to chalk things up to taste. I don’t like disagreeing with the conception of what a ‘classic’ film is, because it means a sort of opinion exile, always defending yourself from the assumption that of course something is good. But as we’ll see in the future, this isn’t the last time I’m going to feel that way about a fairly beloved Kubrick film.