Starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, James Earl Jones
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Expectations: High. I adore Kubrick and I’d only seen this once before.
Stanley Kubrick is one of my favorite directors, but this film has always been something of an enigma to me. I only saw it once, about 10 years ago or so, and at the time I enjoyed it but I just didn’t think it was as amazing as everyone else seemed to think it was. It had been built up as one of the great screen comedies, but for me it didn’t deliver at that level. I got the satire, but it’s more of a slight smile throughout kind of movie, instead of a raucous laughter kind of movie. I was really into Billy Wilder comedies at the time so I guess subconsciously I went in expecting something in that vein. This time around, obviously, I knew what I was getting myself into. That helped quite a bit and my second viewing of Dr. Strangelove was a much more pleasant experience.
The plot follows three separate but connected stories. There’s the story of Gen. Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) who orders his planes to commence “Wing Attack Plan R.” There’s also the story of the B-52 Bomber crew on their run towards their target inside Communist Russia. Finally, we have the War Room, where the President and many top advisors, including Gen. Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) argue the fate of the world. The plots are skillfully intertwined and perfectly play off of one another. Sterling Hayden is fantastic and reminds me a lot of Clint Eastwood in this cigar-chompin’ role. I’ve always felt that he is one of the great actors that doesn’t get enough credit these days and his performance in Dr. Strangelove is one of his best.
Peter Sellers plays three roles in the film. First is Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, an RAF officer stationed at Gen. Ripper’s base. Next is President Merkin Muffley, who has his scenes entirely in the War Room. The last role is the title character, Dr. Strangelove, a wheelchair-bound, former Nazi scientist. Each role is distinct and fun to watch, but my favorite is probably the mild-mannered President. His hilarious phone call with the Soviet premier was one of my favorite scenes in the film. The meek nature of the character also plays incredibly well off of George C. Scott’s exaggerated, wild performance. I read that Kubrick had to tell Scott that they were filming warm-up takes to get him to go so over-the-top. Scott felt disrespected and vowed never to work with Kubrick again, but the performance stands near the top of his career and it’s one of my favorite parts about the film.
The satire present in the film still resonates in the current global climate, which is an achievement for a 46-year-old film, but in the real world we should see this as decidedly less than an achievement. 46 years is long enough for times to have changed and moved on, problems resolved, wounds healed. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case, and is at least in part responsible for the continued success of Kubrick’s film.
As I think about each element of the film, I am realizing that I like the film a lot more than was first apparent. All of the performances are great and the three-story nature of the film keeps it endlessly interesting. And it would be wrong of me not to mention how awesome Slim Pickens is in his role as the bomber pilot. Originally, Peter Sellers was to play this role also, but I’m so glad it didn’t work out. Pickens is perfect and lends a realistic credibility to the film. He’s pretty much the only one in it that plays their part straight, without any hint of the comedic. This was the character I latched onto when I first saw the film and his final moments on-screen, riding the bomb, are among the most famous in film history.
It’s one of the great satires and I feel that after watching it a second time I have peeled back another layer of its onion-like structure. I can see myself enjoying this more and more every time I watch it. It’s not my favorite Kubrick movie, but it’s still damn good.