"Dr. Strangelove" is incontestably the best feel-good nuclear apocalypse comedy ever made. Director Stanley Kubrick's dark comedic touch and the superb cast have made this a beloved cult film. This week "Dr. Strangelove" returns, quirks and Commies intact, for a 30th anniversary run at the Brattle, on a screen almost as wide as the "Big Board" itself.
The film, shot in an cerily matter-of-fact documentary style, records the last hours in the history of the world. It begins in the heat of the Cold War, just as General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has manipulated routine Air Force procedures into a full preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. The general is the kind of man who carries a machine gun and artillery belt in his golf bag. His companion in his final hour is Captain Mandrake, a young Peter Sellers in the role of a British officer at the mercy of commie-phobic Yanks.
Kubrick's vigilant camera follows the 843rd squadron into the air, where expatriate Texan "King" Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew are shocked by their orders to deliver approximately 60 megatons of nuclear devices to sites in Russia within two hours. Over the strains of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Slim's Texas drawl offers a few inspirational words to the crew: "I reckon you wouldn't even be human beings if you didn't have some pretty strong feelings about nuclear combat." The boys drop their new issue of Playboy, Slim replaces his flight helmet with a Stetson, and the crew is battle-ready, hell bent on serving their country by destroying the world.
In Washington, the War Room is buzzing with news of Ripper's strike. Things have reached such a frenzy that the bearish Russian ambassador de Sadesky has been admitted to the top secret chamber, spy camera and all. Peter Sellers appears again, this time as the balding President Muffley, a sort of Mister Rogers with backbone, who is determined to keep Russian Premier Kissoff from executing a retaliatory strike. Surrounded by hard-core war-mongering generals, his touchy-feely Red Line conversation with Kissoff, the missile attack blinking ever closer on the Big Board behind him, seems surreal. "Yes, I am sorry," he soothes, "I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are, Dmitri."
Meanwhile, things are deteriorating rapidly in General Ripper's paranoid world. The president has sent an Army squadron to reconnect Ripper's phone lines to the War Room. The Air Force soldiers use a huge bill-board cheerfully proclaiming, "Peace is our Profession" as a shield to return the Army's fire. "Strangelove" is a minefield of such details.
As the artillery shells crack outside, Ripper finally shares exactly why he has begun World War III. Under the stark black and white camera, in a hushed tone of inspiration, he tells Mandrake, "I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids." This is a man with a mission.
Apparently Ripper precipitated nuclear destruction when he became aware of the Communists' plan to destroy the free world through a program of strict water fluoridation. Hayden is brilliantly earnest, champing on a cigar, hand on Mandrake's knee, arm cozily around his shoulders, explaining how he thwarts the commies by drinking "only pure grain alcohol and rainwater," to maintain his purity of essence. "Women," he confides to the bewildered captain, "sense my power and seek my live essence. I don't avoid women, but I do deny them my essence."
Peter Sellers pops up yet again in the War Room to unleash the comedic genius held in check by uptight Captain Mandrake and the Boy Scout president. His Dr. Strangelove is the crazed head of the American weapons program, apparently because he considers it the closest modern equivalent to his beloved Third Reich. Strangelove holds the audience in thrall as he goes further over the top with every line, straining in his wheelchair to extract himself from the death grip of his own right hand, a powerful character actor in its own right. This is the classic Sellers--black leather glover a demonic twinkle in his eye, and a thick German accent that can't help rolling over the word "slaughter" with special relish.
Released soon after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the film's manic portrayal of the players in the American Cold War machine is no less relevant today. The "failure of the human element," as the president so delicately puts it, does not create the bomb crisis of Strangelove. It is the dreaded "Doomsday Machine," irrevocably set to detonate Russia's entire atomic arsenal at even the slightest nuclear strike and destroy every organism on the planet, which ups the stakes of the Cold War. This is the ultimate Bigtoy in the race for deterrence.
Today, as we listen to the Russian ambassador's sheepish explanation of why his country would build such a device, the circumstances sound strangely familiar, "In the end we could not keep up with the expense involved in the arms race, the space race, and the peace race. At the same time, our people grumbled for more nylons and washing machines. The Doomsday scheme cost us just a small fraction of what we had been spending on defense in a single year."
It is certainly your patriotic duty to revel in Kubrick's extraordinary film. Don't be surprised if you come out of the Brattle more thoughtful about the nuclear arms race. But you won't by thinking about such trivialities in the theater. Kubrick and his cast will fix Dr. Strangelove's own death grip on you--uncontrollable laughter.