Americana Movie Month: "Dr. Strangelove" Review

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Stanley Kubrick directs this 1964 black comedy film/satire, which is based loosely on Peter George's thriller novel "Red Alert". The plot follows a psychotic Air Force general who orders a first strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The U.S. President, his advisers, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a RAF officer all try to recall the bombers to prevent a nuclear apocalypse.
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Americana Movie Month: "Dr. Strangelove" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 95 minutes
Release Date: January 29, 1964
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Genre: Comedy/War

The world has nearly ended several times. The most recent half-dozen or so incidents have largely been the result of an intense half-century standoff between the world's two most aggressively hostile power blocs, which, in the end, didn't even really seem to have anything to fight over. When the Soviet Union and the United States got down to waging their decades-long shadow war, the world of opinion reacted in one of two ways, both very serious. The major propaganda systems, which consisted of everything from yellow journalists working for hire to major movie studios and even fake human-rights groups, typically screamed at the tops of their lungs that [insert whichever faction wasn't signing the checks] had gone too far and was trying to provoke a nuclear holocaust, while the supposedly serious and apolitical news organizations reported every move in the Great Game in a kind of breathless hush. The daily to-and-fro at the U.N., the petty homicides over Greek politics, and the obsessive posturing of the Cuban Missile Crisis may have been frightening, but they were reported on with respect, as if these were the proper affairs of mankind in the age of global war.

Another, quite different, reaction would occasionally be glimpsed as well. In the darkest days of atomic brinksmanship and nuclear blackmail, a few voices appeared in the mainstream to treat the entire spectacle as what it was: high farce. A century of massive industrial development, purchased and defended at the cost of hundreds of millions of human lives, fell into the hands of generally incompetent buffoons who squandered their resources by trying to build increasingly powerful weapons for the noble project of driving human beings into extinction. "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" was one of the first major works to treat the entire situation with the sneering contempt of a wrestling match between sideshow freaks.

Never has such a grave subject been mocked so mercilessly or with so little underlying respect for even its supposed protagonists. In what was then the modern day, the entire United States Air Force is mobilized and given orders to cross their fail-safe lines to strike targets deep within the Soviet Union. These orders are given without authorization by an insane American general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden). From his fortified command center at Burpelson Air Force Base, General Ripper has decided that filthy communists are infiltrating America's precious bodily fluids via the involuntary fluoridation of municipal water supplies. The only answer he sees to the dilemma is full-scale nuclear war. Meanwhile, his superiors, General Buck Turgidson (a magificent George C. Scott) and President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers, in one of three credited roles) have to use their limited intellects to avert the crisis and save the world.

A more vicious send-up of cold war politics could hardly be imagined. Officially, the film is intended-per its somewhat timorous prologue-to act as a farcical dramatization of wholly fictional characters who find themselves in an utterly impossible situation, but in reality, the intent of the film is to cruelly skewer actual people and institutions with such thoroughness that they become utterly discredited in the populace's eyes. General Ripper is clearly intended to be a cinematic representation of real-life Air Force General Curtis LeMay, the leader of the Strategic Air Command who distinguished himself during the Cuban Missile Crisis by calling for all-out nuclear war against the Soviets. The caricature sketched by Hayden is complete down to General Ripper's ever-present cigar. General Turgidson is an obvious parody of then-JCOS Chairman Lyman Lemnitzer, who is now known to have advocated the staging of false-flag terrorist operations in Florida to justify war against Cuba. On it goes, with each character more ridiculous and dead-on than the last, until-literally-the world blows up, leaving the powerful men who created this mess to manage the devastation they've caused by retreating to airtight bunkers with a bevy of nubile females to repopulate the world.

"Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" is that rarest of movies: a devastating commentary wrapped up in an over-the-top comedy and delivered with a deadpan worthy of Dante. The rather extreme topicality of the film, which was the source of much of its power in 1964, has aged noticeably, but to anyone old enough to remember the air-raid sirens roaring at noon every day, "Dr. Strangelove" is and will remain one of the classics of modern political satire.

Rating: 4 out of 5