DR. STRANGELOVE or: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG for Thematic Elements, some Violent Content, Sexual Humor and mild Language

Strangelove poster

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George

(based on the novel RED ALERT by Peter George)

Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones & Tracy Reed

Stanley Kubrick was a master behind the camera. Directing war films, period pieces, philosophical science fiction, and a terrifying horror masterpiece, Kubrick was never typecast into doing a certain genre or one type of film. He tried his hand at dark comedy with 1964’s DR. STRANGELOVE. Starting as a thriller based on a serious novel, Kubrick and the book’s author Peter George saw the inherently silly nature of how convenient and ludicrous the plot details were…so it was transformed into a satirical blend of goofy laughs and bleak subject matter. Though it won’t have everybody rolling in the aisles, STRANGELOVE offers a satirical view on war and politics. It also features plenty of funny scenes that made me chuckle and the plot was compelling enough to hook my attention from start to flawed finish.

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When the insane General Ripper activates the top-secret Plan R for aircraft to attack Russia with nuclear missiles, a meeting of powerful individuals is held in the War Room at the Pentagon. There is no easy way to deactivate Plan R and time is short before the Cold War turns into a fiery one. To make circumstances even more dire, Ripper ordered his men to attack anyone attempting to enter his base (regardless of uniform) and a super weapon Doomsday Machine will activate if nukes are dropped in the Soviet Union. The meeting in the War Room turns to truly desperate measures, Ripper’s base is being turned into a battlefield of its own, and a crew of pilots are determined to reach their target which could mean the end of humanity as we know it. To say DR. STRANGELOVE is a dark comedy would be putting things lightly.

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DR. STRANGELOVE almost feels like a stage play in a few areas. The story is split between three different locations: a plane, General Ripper’s base, and (mainly) the War Room. If it were purely within the War Room and Ripper’s office, then I could imagine a DR. STRANGELOVE play being performed on Broadway. To keep things a tad more action-packed, the plane sequences are thrown in and show off Slim Pickens (known for his Western roles) as a not-too-bright pilot who’s a little too eager to bomb the Russkies. As for the rest of the cast, George C. Scott is great as war-hungry General Buck Turgidson. Scott’s character is more than happy in taking advantage of the dire circumstances to knock potential civilian casualties down to an “acceptable” number in Russia to protect the good old US of A. Sterling Hayden is just as entertaining as the insane General Ripper and gets some of the best scenes in the entire movie. Finally, Peter Sellers plays three separate roles as three unique characters. Playing a British captain stationed at Ripper’s base, Sellers is anxiously trying to keep calm and not be killed by the machine-gun-totting lunatic. As the feeble President Muffley, Selllers is unrecognizable and uses small mannerisms to capitalize on his character.

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I would be an idiot not to mention the title character of Dr. Strangelove also played by Sellers. The biggest and most obvious jokes with his character come in the final third and nearly had me cracking up. Sellers was awesome in this standout role. The slight touches of sight gags and absurd dialogue plan the film firmly in comedy country, but the plot is gripping in its own way. It’s fairly apparent to see why Kubrick would want to direct a thriller with this kind of plot, but I’m glad he turned it into satire fueled by bleak laughs. However, the only flaw I have with this film is the ending. It feels like a few scenes should have been rearranged to make the conclusion work (not to overly criticize the work of a cinematic genius), but it almost felt like the story shrugged to a stop, used a montage and cut to credits. There was originally a different ending filmed, but deemed too absurd for the dark quirkiness the entire film is layered with. After reading up on it (involving a giant custard pie fight), I’d agree that it belongs in a THREE STOOGES skit and not in a satire. Aside from a “that’s it” conclusion, DR. STRANGELOVE holds up ridiculously well as a product of its time.

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Stanley Kubrick used the Cold War (and a piece of fiction centered around it) to create a hugely enjoyable satire that has become a classic and rightfully so. Ridiculous arguments, pissed off idiots doing dumb things in the name of patriotism, some hick riding a bomb, a former Nazi losing control of his right hand, and insane conspiracy theories make for a fantastic experience. The ending left me a little cold, but I love everything else in the film. Check out DR. STRANGELOVE if you want to see a master storyteller using very dark material for great laughs that poke fun at nuclear panic Americans and Russians in equal measure.

Grade: A-

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