If you ask me what my ten favorite films are, chances are 9 of them will change every time I hear the question. But two films have stayed there without fail no matter how often I change things up' incidentally, both were directed by Stanley Kubrick. I have seen Dr. Strangelove at least 15 times, and each viewing offers up something I hadn't noticed before, a bit of visual irony or a line I missed, that makes the whole thing even funnier.
The finest piece of political satire ever filmed (and certainly the second best piece of satire of the 20th century behind George Orwell's Animal Farm), Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove paints a hilariously over-the-top yet terrifyingly plausible picture of nuclear holocaust, brought on by an exploitation of complicated and self-defeating "safeguards." The President is the only one with the authority to order a nuclear strike, but the military so feared the Reds and what they could possibly do that they created a number of preventative measures that would allow generals to take matters into their own hands if Soviets managed to incapacitate the President.
As the opening credits roll, Kubrick inserts shots of a nuclear bomber refueling in midair as a tanker locks into an intake valve in a sort of ballet. He plays on our romanticizing of war by making the shots strangely beautiful and serene. Then we go inside the bomber. An operator checks today's codes for their instructions; the orders come in and decode as Wing Attack Plan R. He contacts the plane commander, Major "King" Kong (Slim Pickens), who dismisses it out of hand. No one would order Wing Attack Plan R. But the code checks out, and Kong rallies his men as he sets a course for a Russian target.
Meanwhile, back at Burpelson Air Force Base, Group Caption Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), an RAF pilot working on the American base, impounds radios on the order of base commander General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), who also ordered the nuclear strike. Mandrake switches on one of the radios out of boredom and hears music on civilian broadcasts instead of news bulletins on a Communist attack. Mandrake reports this to Ripper expecting a recall of the bombers, only to find that Ripper knew perfectly well that nothing was wrong and ordered the bombers into Russia of his own volition.
The third and final location is the War Room. President Merkin Muffey (Peter Sellers) meets with his chiefs of staff to figure out what's going on and how to get the recall code to stop the bombers. The only general who ever gets a word in is Air Force General Buck Turgidson, commander of Strategic Air Command. He reads out Ripper's rambling, incoherent call to arms but does not want to "pass judgment" on whether or not Ripper's gone mad. He views the strike as opportunity to catch the Russians off guard. Instead of figuring out how to recall the planes, he urges the President to mount a full-scale attack; if those bombers drop their loads and Russia retaliates, losses will be astronomical, but if they send in every bomber in the fleet American losses will be "10, 20 million, tops" he says with a grin.
Kubrick uses these three main locations and the characters in each to put forward a vicious satire on Cold War politics and the general nature of war. When the Army sends soldiers to break into Ripper's base for force the code out of him, Ripper convinces his men that the attackers are Commies in disguise, and to shoot on sight. Mandrake tries to talk Jack down, and eventually learns that Ripper ordered the attack because he believes that Communists have fluoridated the water supply, and he blames this for his impotence. As a result, he ordered the attack to protect the "purity of essence," "essence" in this case of course being semen. Plenty has been said on the phallic nature of weapons and the need for males to mask inferiority, but Ripper is willing to end the world in shame.
But of course the War Room is where most of the comedy plays out; George C. Scott excels as Turgidson, and in many ways is representative of the film itself. He hams it up for the camera, but does so intentionally. Like the film, he makes OTT theatrics work almost as realism because he works within the logic of many Cold War generals: it's not his fault--or Kubrick's or satirist Terry Southern's--that the reality is so bizarre. When Muffey calls in the Russian ambassador to inform him of the situation, Scott goes wild. "Mr. President, he'll see the big board!" as he flails wildly. The second the ambassador arrives, Turgidson flies into a stream of insults directed at Communists and accuses him of trying to take photos of "the big board." Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky (supposedly a play on the Marquis de Sade), connects the President with Soviet Premier Dimitri Kissov, and the resulting phone call is, in my humble opinion, the funniest scene in the history of cinema. When Muffey turns to his ex-Nazi nuclear expert Dr. Strangelove (Seller yet again), it sends the film into the comedy stratosphere.
What I see more and more as I rewatch the film is how brilliant Kubrick uses visual irony and juxtaposition between the three sets that compliment the tight script. Ripper launches the attack because of his impotence, and the base itself looks very sterile: white walls and harsh lighting, signify his inability to "perform." When soldiers attempt to take back the base, the two factions of Americans battle as a large sign reading "Peace is Our Profession" looms in the background. Conversely, the scenes on the bomber are not inherently funny; Kong and his men believe that the Russians have already attacked America, and they move forward into enemy territory under the notion that they're going to be heroes. Kong tells his men that they'll all get commendations out of this "regardless of your race, your color or your creed" as "When Johnny Goes Marching Home" softly but boldly plays over the scene. It rams home the tragic irony of these men's lives, that they are but pawns in a game they can never understand, not because they're stupid but because the people who invented the game never thought of its implications. Besides, if for no other reason it's worth it for that shot of Slim Pickens riding the bomb into oblivion.
The War Room itself is widely-celebrated, and deservedly so. Kubrick had the table at which the generals sit lined with the gree felt of a poker table. He knew the film was black and white, but he wanted the room to feel like a poker game, and indeed it does: apart from the table, lights pierce through cigarette smoke in the background, giving the place the feel of a seedy den. These men look at all the figures, and reduce lives to statistics: I've got 30 million megatons! I see your 30 million and raise you a doomsday machine.
Dr. Strangelove applies to nuclear war, but its vicious examination of the nature of war itself gives it a timeless quality that survived the fall of the Soviet Union. It reduces war to the exploits of men whose inferiority complexes drive them to kill. Even when a nuke sets off the Russian doomsday machine and it spells the end of mankind, Turgidson and the Russian ambassador still bicker, and the ambassador sneaks off to take secret photos of the War Room. Why on Earth would he do this? Does he not understand that the notion of politics no longer has any meaning? It's just his job; who knows if Americans will agree to a peace settlement as a band of specially-chosen survivors (including all politicians and military leaders, of course) flee to mine shafts, or vice-versa. Even at the end of civilization, man will look for any excuse to kill someone else.