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ARCHIVE Take 42: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

In July of 2015, the BBC released a list of the top 100 American Films, curated by polling critics all over the world. Inspired by post movie talks with JoeBear and Scott, I’ve decided to explore these movies one by one and write up some thoughts on each one. I’ll be posting where to catch the film screenings in the Boston area, and I hope that someone (anyone??) will join me in watching and reading and thinking about what makes these movies the pillars of American cinematic achievement. Each essay will run rampant with spoilers, and is best enjoyed after watching the film.

Next up, #42 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), dir. by Stanley Kubrick. Available to rent on iTunes, Google, and Amazon. Also available to stream for free on Crackle.

One thing I love about Stanley Kubrick month at Cinemyth is that he was not a man afraid to wade deep into political waters that others might have been too nervous to confront. That is especially true of Dr. Strangelove, which was released in early 1964: on the heels of the Hollywood blacklist, smack in the middle of the Cold War and a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis. National hysteria regarding the threat of nuclear warfare had peaked at the time this film was released, making the inclusion of this opening disclaimer crucial to the comedy’s reception:

This little bit of reassurance did little to restore my confidence in those military safeguards, but Dr. Strangelove eventually does accomplish the goal announced in its subtitle and manages to teach the viewer how to stop worrying and love the bomb, while exploring other elements of war along the way.

The movie is divided between three settings, each dedicated to a different set of men who are the most directly involved in a quickly approaching nuclear holocaust. We begin with the hyper masculine and totally deranged Air Force General, the aptly named Jack Ripper. Ripper grants himself the authority to launch this attack, partly due to his belief that the Russians were contaminating American precious fluids (with the intent to weaken American men) through fluoridation of the water supply. I like to imagine Abbie Hoffman was paying homage to this concept four years later when his counterculture political party claimed to be planning to lace the public water system of San Francisco with LSD in order to seduce the wives of their opponents. Ripper is a pitch perfect parody of a hard nosed military man, whose paranoid delusions stemmed from a misplaced trust in his own authority, power, and sanity. He is asserting himself as the alpha and supreme leader because, in his own words, “war is too important to be left to politicians,” — legality and human lives lost be damned. Peter Sellers’ first character in the film, the Royal Air Force Office who tries to interrupt Ripper’s plot, is goofy and polite enough that the contrast only highlights Ripper’s brusqueness and delusions of grandeur.

Meanwhile in the war room, we’re met with the opposite end of the male leader spectrum in President Merkin Muffley and the deferential ineptitude he demonstrates trying to right the wrong enacted by Ripper through cognitive and diplomatic means. The conversation between President Muffley and the Russian leader Dimitri Kissov is a comedic highlight, because it deftly navigates the distance between the men calling the shots and the ones with their fingers on the triggers. Muffley can afford his meekness and docility because he is protected by the aura and strength derived from the war room. This setting is an impressive display of production design prowess, and how central those pieces are to crafting a great movie.

The centerpiece of the room is the wide, round, table and the backdrop is the all important “big board”, each providing the two biggest sources of light in the room, lending these a tone of grandeur and power — reminiscent of a Leni Riefenstahl Nazi propaganda film. This ambiance highlights the equally funny and petty negotiating being conducted by the leaders of the two countries. That is, until the existence of the “doomsday” machine is revealed and they feel the burden of their own lives threatened.

Dr. Strangelove (also Peter Sellers) is the president’s war advisor and a former Nazi who explains the value of a doomsday device is that it neutralizes the threat of attack through the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction for both the attacker and the target. Unfortunately, the Russians had not yet announced the existence of the device, removing the deterrent factor and rendering the mechanism only a threat to everyone on earth. Yet, the lesson for the viewer remains in tact: don’t worry, love the bomb, because by shooting first any party is guaranteeing their own destruction. Bringing together the Nazi German and the American President, one country responsible for a massive genocide and instigating World War II, the other the only country to have deployed nuclear weapons during war, illuminates the blood on the hands of those involved and the risks inherent in trusting the preservation of life to the men in the war room.

Meanwhile, the airmen aboard one of the planes bound to bomb Russia form a crew of fresh faced young men who seemed to have thought, like everyone else, that this day would likely never come. The pilot, Major T.J. “King” Kong, is an affable cowboy who rallies the troops by stoking the flames of their patriotism and reminding them “Wing Attack Plan R” would only ever be enacted if the Russians had already decimated the U.S. and they had no real home to return to anyway. As “The Ants Go Marching” drones on in the background, the men begin carrying out the dubious call for retaliation, following orders and disregarding the threat to their own lives. In this case, Kubrick is satirizing the soldiers’ loyalty and gullibility. All of the characters converge to form a portrait of American men at war through twisted representations of symbols we’ve seen in war movies throughout all of cinema, the ones that beat the drum of American sentimentalism during times of national crises.

Dr. Strangelove is a wry, funny, look at political systems, and the players involved in the act of killing on behalf of allegiances to those institutions. When Kubrick later directed Full Metal Jacket in 1987, he’d take a harsher, more realistic, look at those same themes. Many of Kubrick’s films have a bedrock founded on an examination of basic, primal, human instincts and how they have been dressed up in different ways by various factions of society, but have never really changed in substance. The blatant sexual imagery throughout the film serves as a reminder of how elemental the motives behind the set dressings are.

Dr. Strangelove and Full Metal Jacket are about militaries and war, but at a more basic level they’re also about humanity’s fear and aggression, loyalty and obedience. Eyes Wide Shut and Lolita are about sex and desire, exclusivity and inclusion. 2001: a Space Odyssey is about space travel and omniscient machines, but also about human evolution and the role of man in the metaphysical universe at large. Each of these films have demonstrative styling and the power of the atmosphere enhances the elements of show on display, but at their core, the actions of the characters are instinctual — each an ant marching one by one, steered by unseen forces both systemically complex and elementally basic.

3.10.16: Eyes Wide Shut (#61) available to stream on Netflix (disregard the two star rating). Available to rent and stream via iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.

3.16.16: Barry Lyndon (#27) available to rent and stream via iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu

3.23.16: Killer of Sheep (#26) screening at the Coolidge Corner Theater.

3.23.16: Night of the Living Dead (#85) available to rent and stream, also on YouTube and MoviePlex with a cable subscription.

Originally published at cinemyth.com.

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