A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Monday, September 19, 2016

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)

In 1964, Stanley Kubrick told us that the world would end not with a whimper but a "Yeehaaa!" And given the bullying and posturing jingoism currently on display in the American presidential campaign, he may have been right. A lot of Dr. Strangelove has dated: There is no Soviet Union anymore, and the arms race has gone underground (where it may be more dangerous than ever). Some of the gags in the script by Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern have gone stale, such as the jokey character names: Jack D. Ripper, "Bat" Guano, Merkin Muffley. (Although to fault Dr. Strangelove for that is as pointless as faulting Ben Jonson for naming characters in The Alchemist Sir Epicure Mammon and Doll Common. Satire loves its labels.) Where Dr. Strangelove has not dated, however, is in its attitude toward power and those who love and seek it to the point where it becomes an end in itself. Those in Kubrick's film who are capable of seeing the larger picture are ineffectual, like President Muffley (Peter Sellers) and Group Capt. Mandrake (Sellers). They are invariably steamrollered by those in pursuit of the immediate goal, like Gen. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) defending his precious bodily fluids, or Gen. Turgidson (George C. Scott) devoting himself to getting the upper hand on the Russkies, even to the extent of getting our hair mussed a little, or Dr. Strangelove (Sellers) himself, enraptured by the wonders of military technology. But the film really works by Kubrick's mastery of his medium: We find ourselves, against our better judgment, rooting for the bomber crew to reach its target, thanks to the way Kubrick, with the help of film editor Anthony Harvey, manipulates our love of war movie clichés. The film is full of classic over-the-top performances, especially from Hayden and Scott, and of course Sellers's Strangelove is a touchstone mad scientist character, anticipating Edward Teller's selling Ronald Reagan on "star wars" by a couple of decades. In fact, if the film seems to us have dated, it may be that reality has outstripped satire. Who could have invented Donald Trump?