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Dissecting the Classics – Dr. Strangelove

September 15, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Dr. Strangelove

Kubrick Month continues as we take a look at one of the finest directors of all time. This week we look at his highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes and one of the greatest comedies of all time.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics , where I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Wide Release Date: January 29, 1964
Produced and Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Written By: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern and Peter George
Cinematography By: Gilbert Taylor
Edited By: Anthony Harvey
Music By: Laurie Johnson
Production Company: Hawk Films
Distributed By: Columbia Pictures
Peter Sellers as Lionel Mandrake, President Murkin Muffley and Dr. Strangelove
George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson
Sterling Hayden as Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper
Keenan Wynn as Colonel Bat Guano
Slim Pickens as Major T.J. “King” Kong

What Do We All Know?

While Stanley Kubrick is perhaps best known for his disturbing psychological thrillers, the man dabbled in several genres over the years. This week’s pick is a political satire and black comedy, loosely adapted from Peter George’s 1958 novel Red Alert. Set in the height of cold war paranoia and featuring an impressive cast of character actors, the film deals with the absurdity of certain doom by laughing about it. It’s also proof that Kubrick had a keen sense of humor, even about the deadliest of subjects. Or perhaps, especially about those subjects.

The film received was a critical and commercial success when it was released, being nominated for Best Picture and several other Academy Awards and winning several British awards. It was one of the first films selected for preservation by the U.S. Library of Congress, and ranked at #26 on AFI’s initial list of 100 Years… 100 Movies. But it also holds up over fifty years later, and still feels depressingly relevant.

What Went Right?

After romantic plays over the credits (a suggestive non-sequitur where a plan is refueled), the story proper revolves around a group of airplanes receiving orders to bomb their Russian targets. This is the fault of rogue Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper, who believes the Russians are responsible for his inability to perform sexually. Because they have poisoned our water supply to affect our bodily fluids, you see. Unfortunately, the bombing of Russia will set off a Doomsday device that assures mutual destruction. We follow one plane’s journey into Russia, the U.S. President’s attempt to cancel the mission, and Ripper’s ill-fated defense of his base. And hilarity ensues.

A plot summary really doesn’t sell Dr. Strangelove, as the film is primarily a satire of cold war paranoia and the primal urges that tend to make humans pursue and glorify war. Sexuality is closely tied to acts of war; in many ways, Kubrick is equating the arms race to a dick measuring contest. In a sense, Kubrick is taking a highly sophisticated potshot at a group of traits that some modern reviewers might call “toxic masculinity”. Our preoccupation with both sex and violence and our insecurity about being proficient at both is the source of almost every joke.

And make no mistake; despite the deadly serious stakes, Dr. Strangelove is a comedy. Peter Sellers gives three excellent performances, George C. Scott is manipulated into a gloriously over the top portrayal, and character actor Slim Pickens carries the scenes on the bomber plane. I won’t spoil any lines for those who haven’t seen it, but these guys have excellent material to work with and deliver the lines spectacularly. And, since this is a Kubrick film, you probably won’t be surprised at the meticulous attention to detail in the background. In this case, it means more jokes for the keen eye.

What Went Wrong?

As far as I’m concerned, nothing is wrong with the final product. It’s one of Kubrick’s best, and it moves along briskly instead of his usual measured pacing. Behind the scenes though, Kubrick did manipulate George C. Scott into doing over the top “practice” takes and using those instead of Scott’s intended performance. The dishonesty soured Scott on working with Kubrick again, which I think is unfortunate because I would have liked to have seen them work together again. Stories like that seem to be the norm with Kubrick. While I am definitely a fan of his work, I feel I must acknowledge that his directing style was often harmful to his actors.

And In Summary…

I really wish I could say you need to understand the context of the U.S. back in 1964 to really appreciate Dr. Strangelove, but that really isn’t the case most of the time. Most of what is being discussed and roasted is still alarmingly relevant in today’s world. It might not be the best way to escape the fear of nuclear annihilation, but it might be the best way to cope with that fear. It’s a genuine classic, one of the best comedies ever made and a standout in Kubrick’s filmography.

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Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining

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I log reviews for every film I see, when I see them. You can see my main page here. Recent reviews include 2017’s Ghost in the Shell and a Stanley Kubrick film I’m not spotlighting this month: Spartacus.