As cynical satires go, there is nothing as audacious, thought-provoking and
scary as "Dr. Strangelove," Stanley Kubrick's superb film on what if the
United States and Russia were involved in an accidental nuclear attack, and
what if it was the fault of the U.S.
The unstable, loony General Jack D. Ripper (played by the commanding,
towering presence of Sterling Hayden) is the C.O. of the Burlepson Air Force
Base who has access to the code that can send an SAC (Strategic Air Command)
wing on its way to bomb Russia. The general initiates the order to bomb
Russia, but the irony is that no immediate war is taking place and Russia has
no intention of bombing the U.S., though they have every intention to
counterattack with their prodigious Doomsday Machine. This is cause for
concern at the Pentagon where the President of the U.S. (Peter Sellers) has a
meeting in the War Room trying to pinpoint why this unplanned attack was
initiated. The President is joined by an ex-Nazi strategic adviser, Dr.
Strangelove (again played brilliantly by Peter Sellers), and the stubborn
General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott), the head of the Joint Chief of
Staff, among other officials. General Buck sees no harm in destroying the
Commies and risking the lives of innocent people whereas Dr. St
rangelove sees a future where mine shafts will have to be utilized to
accomodate the population before being affected by radiation ("Ten women to
every man.") In the meantime, the President calmly explains to the Soviet
Premier that it all boils down to a crazy man who went and "did a funny
"Dr. Strangelove" was released back in 1964 at the height of the Cuban
Missile Crisis when nuclear missiles were a worlwide threat - a "Fail-Safe"
error could possibly happen and there is nothing in the film that exaggerates
that possibility. That is why it was so controversial - the satire in it bit
everyone loud and clear. In fact, outside of 1983's "Testament," "Dr.
Strangelove" is one example of what can go wrong in a nuclear crisis and why
all nuclear weapons should be disarmed. We may be at peace with Russia now
but back then, the potential for such a disaster was a strong reality (in a
sense, it could happen today since nuclear weapons still exist).
The suspense builds and becomes wire-tight in the hands of director Kubrick,
who helmed the similarly chaotic, suspenseful "The Killing" - both films
dependent on time as a factor in a crisis. Here, it becomes a chaos for the
audience since the attack is inevitable unless the code is revealed to recall
the several nuclear-armed planes. One of them is led by the B-52 pilot, Major
"King" Kong (Slim Pickens), who reminds his crew that medals and promotions
will be handed out when all is said and done. Naturally, Kong has his
reservations about the deliberate attack, but his questioning it is reserved
in favor of his patriotic duty, even if it means to literally ride on one of
those bombs himself.
General Ripper, however, has no intention of revealing the code, especially
to the British military attache (also played by Sellers), and they have a
couple of humorous scenes together where Ripper explains that distilled water
and preservation of bodily fluids is essential in the face of the Russians
who want to control everything.
"Dr. Strangelove" is an anti-war, anti-nuclear weapons statement done with
biting humor and bitter irony, but it is more effective than Sidney Lumet's
serious "Fail-Safe" because it takes such a no-holds-barred approach with its
satirical pull. As Kubrick said while writing the film with Terry Southern
("Candy"), "the things you laugh at most are really the heart of the
paradoxical postures that make a nuclear war possible." From its phallic
symbols of B-52 planes to the sexual connotations of Ripper's philosophies
and General Buck's relationship with his secretary ("Of course, it is not
just physical") to the hysteria and absurdity in the War Room (a memorable
set piece), "Dr. Strangelove" pokes fun but remains scarily real - the threat
and the inevitable doom of nuclear fallout is felt from first frame to last.
Like Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," you are left unsure whether to laugh or
to take it seriously. But when you hear Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again," you
can feel Kubrick's pathos of a world at war
Copyright © 1996 Jerry Saravia