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Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

STANLEY KUBRICK’s 1964 satir­i­cal black com­edy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Wor­ry­ing and Love the Bomb is, most of the time, an exer­cise in see­ing how far absur­dity can go while still main­tain­ing the sense of real­ism that comes inher­ent with play­ing on Cold War anx­i­eties and alarm. The notion of an Air Force com­man­der in the throes of anti-Communism passion-slash-paranoia order­ing a decid­edly uni­lat­eral pre­emp­tive bomb­ing of the Soviet con­ti­nent and kick start­ing World War III, because “war is too impor­tant to be left to the politi­cians,” still has the potency to make one uneasy and queasy. That the mav­er­ick Colonel Jack Rip­per goes over the edge out of fear for the san­ity and safety of his pre­cious bod­ily flu­ids makes Ster­ling Hayden’s per­for­mance, played dead straight if unre­strained in its lunacy, seem like one long dead­pan skit of comedic gold. Indeed, Dr. Strangelove suc­ceeds as so much more than how it seems on paper because it melds together humor and drama ele­ments con­gru­ous to cre­ate some­thing alto­gether unique.  Case in point: when the actors play it straight—even Slim Pick­ens as the cow­boy Major T.J. “King” Kong—the sequences in the B-29 Super­fortress as the crew doggedly under­takes their first-strike mis­sion (insin­u­at­ingly under­laid with a sub­dued, solemn adap­ta­tion of the Civil War tune “When Johnny Comes March­ing Home”) have a sim­ple human poignancy and doomed noble­ness to them that match the beau­ti­ful end­ing, where the mush­room clouds of nuclear explo­sions rise to Vera Lynn’s cozy “We’ll Meet Again.” But when­ever the manic gum-smacking the­atrics of the bel­li­cose, Soviet-leery Gen­eral “Buck” Turgid­son, who George C. Scott plays with an endear­ing go-for-the-gold nut­ti­ness, dom­i­nate the screen, Dr Strangelove is the film with the best ratio of mem­o­rable zingers to lines of dia­logue. Peter Sell­ers, of course, is bril­liant in his triple roles, most espe­cially in that of U.S. Pres­i­dent Merkin Muf­fley; when Muf­fley, ever the prag­ma­tist, calls Soviet Pre­mier Kissoff on the hot­line, Sell­ers shows how to make a one-sided con­ver­sa­tion a side-splitting laugh riot. Mr. Kubrick’s spec­tac­u­larly razor-sharp film is a bit­ingly sub­ver­sive social com­men­tary about nuclear anni­hi­la­tion and the stu­pid­ity of the human race that man­ages to be so hys­ter­i­cally funny  you for­get how smart it is. Now that’s some­thing you don’t see every day.