Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writer: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern, (novel by) Peter George
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
Dr. Strangelove is brilliant satire, and while it deals with themes of apocalyptic importance, it never fails to be riotously funny. In 1963, burgeoning auteur Stanley Kubrick won the rights to adapt “Red Alert,” a serious-as-hell paranoid fantasy about the beginning of a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia. He and screenwriter Terry Southern struggled to adapt the novel, eventually coming to the decision that the events described in the novel were so terrifying that they could not be handled seriously. So the two of them changed course, creating one of the most brilliantly hilarious pieces of political satire ever conceived. In the film, an American base commander launches a surprise nuclear strike on many targets inside Russia, unwittingly triggering a Russian “doomsday devise” that could wipe out all life on Earth. This film, brilliant as it is, could never have worked without the efforts of certified comedy genius Peter Sellers, who tackles three of the film’s central roles.
Using his native British accent, Sellers first plays group captain Lionel Mandrake, whose put-upon stammer provides the audience with its clearest surrogate. This character is desperate, terrified, and absolutely professional. Later in the film Sellers reappears as the eponymous Dr. Strangelove, using a ludicrous German accent and seemingly random vocal emphasis to portray the character’s madness. His greatest performance of the film, however, comes in his portrayal of U.S. President Merton Muffley. The sequence in which Muffley, on the verge of tears, explains the situation to Russian head Premeir Kissoff, is an absolute comedic masterpiece. Though Sellers’ powerhouse performances dominate the film, three other brilliant and likewise hilarious performances are turned in by Sterling Hayden, George C. Scott, and Slim Pickens.
Slim Pickens plays T.J. “King” Kong, the American pilot ordered to attack Russia, and he fills the role with good-natured flair, portraying a man who, just by doing his job as well as he can, may end up destroying the world. George C. Scott plays General “Buck” Turgidson, a towering buffoon who chews gum as if it owes him money. Sterling Hayden’s performance as General Jack D. Ripper is hilariously stern and insane. I’ve seen the film more times then I can recall, but I can never not guffaw when General Ripper speaks of “The international communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”
Beyond these masterpieces of comic acting, Kubrick filles the screen with visual jokes as funny as any I’ve ever seen. In the war room General Turgidson (Scott) sits in front of a binder labeled “World Targets in Megadeaths,” and as a large machine gun constantly fires, we see directly behind it a billboard that reads “Peace is our Profession.” General Ripper pulling a gigantic machine gun out of his golf club satchel, and Kong (Pickens) describing the contents of his own survival pack (“…Two lipsticks, two pair of nylon stockings…”) all add to the comedically enhanced reality of the film. Dr. Strangelove is satire at its highest form, saying important things about meaningful topics, and it makes me laugh every time I see it.