By Brian Smith
Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of my favorite films, and actually feels terrifyingly apropos as to what's happening in the world today. Call it what you will: a dark comedy, a political satire, or a macabre Cold War masterpiece. While the film's director Stanley Kubrick had already made a strong name for himself in Hollywood by directing critically acclaimed films like Spartacus, Paths of Glory and Lolita, it was Dr. Strangelove that took Kubrick to the next level. He would follow it up with 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange and those three films in succession would help to solidify Kubrick as one of the greatest and most innovative filmmakers in Hollywood.
There are four in particular things that make this film essential viewing.
1. The Thoughtful Satire
Dr. Strangelove is one of the greatest pieces of satire of all time, and calls into question the idea of peace through strength. Whether it’s the phrase outside of Burpleson Air Force Base that says, “Peace is our Profession” or the nuclear bombs names HI THERE! and DEAR JOHN that are labeled, “Nuclear Warhead: Handle with care”, Dr. Strangelove has many subtle moments of satire that go along with the overt dark comedy that make this film as thoughtful as it is funny. The satire also took a hard look at the men that we’ve entrusted to keep us safe, and dared to show that they may not have our best interests in mind when making life and death decisions. The scene where Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley talks on the phone to Russian Premier Kissoff about the imminent bombing is a brilliant piece of comedy, but also shows the precarious nature of the Cold War world. It also shows the absolute absurdity of how easy it would have been to assure our mutual annihilation.
An online dictionary defines satire as “the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people's stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues”. Dr. Strangelove takes the very serious issue of nuclear holocaust and used the absurdity of it to create an incredibly funny film.
2. Dr. Strangelove is One of the Funniest Movies Ever Made
You don't have to just take my word for it, as AFI has it at #3 on its list of 100 years, 100 laughs trailing only Tootsie and Some Like it Hot. This is one of those movies that makes you laugh in moments that you know you shouldn't be laughing at, like the iconic moment where Colonel Kong (Slim Pickens) waves his hat and yells, "Yahoo!" as he rides the nuclear bomb down to his death, and the likely destruction of all mankind. This movie is so funny that there's even a scene where one of the actors has to stifle a laugh. Peter Sellers, one of the great comedic actors of the 20th Century plays 3 roles. Along with the weak and foolish President Muffley, he played the sophisticated yet awkward Lt. Mandrake, who first discovers that General Ripper (Sterling Hayden) has gone insane and ordered his bomber wing to attack their targets inside the Soviet Union. Sellers also plays the title role, a crippled Nazi scientist who is now in the employ of the United States military and is an advisor to the president. Let that sentence sink in for a moment.
One of the things that made Sellers so great was that he was not only the great physical comedian that many people are familiar with from his bumbling Inspector Clouseau from The Pink Panther series, but he was also brilliant at creating more subtle and more cerebral comedy. Kubrick was famous for demanding that his actors stay on script. Sellers was one of the few actors that he let riff, and there are a couple of scenes in Dr. Strangelove where Sellers brings the house down, both with his physical comedy as Dr. Strangelove, and with his more cerebral comedy like his telephone conversation as Muffley and many of his scenes as Mandrake. That leads me to…
3. The Acting
Another thing that's brilliant about this film is the surprising comedic performances from two actors not necessarily known for their comedic chops. George C. Scott was about as serious an actor that ever lived. He made a career out of playing tough men in tough situations and responding in tough ways. Other than the animated The Rescuers Down Under in which he played the villain McLeach, I can't think of another comedic role that he played, but comedy clearly came very naturally to him. In Dr. Strangelove he plays General Buck Turgidson, a staunch anti-communist, sexist brute who is as fanatical about the military as he is about national security. His performance in this film is boisterous and filled with extreme facial expressions and over the top pantomime. When you compare this role to, say to Bert Gordon, the quietly intense pool shark in The Hustler which he played just two years earlier, you can see the incredible range that he had. There may have been a lot more Gordons than there were Turgidsons over the course of George C. Scott's career, but his performance in Dr. Strangelove is right up there with Sellers in terms of how funny it is, and I find it to be disappointing that he didn't do more comedy throughout the rest of his career.
The other actor that I'm referring to is Sterling Hayden, who most people will remember as the crooked cop who punches Michael Corleone in The Godfather or the gunman helping pull a heist in The Asphalt Jungle. He also starred in one of Kubrick's very early films, The Killing, as an ex-con trying to pull a heist on a horse racing track. In Dr. Strangelove he did exactly the opposite of what Scott did in that Hayden played his character absolutely straight. There were no pratfalls, no garish facial expressions, and ironically he was the character who went insane. He was flat emotionally and tonally, and that was exactly the right way to play that character. It was his dialogue and the straight manner in which he delivered his insane lines about communist infiltration threatening our precious fluids and how he wouldn’t allow women to capture his essence. He played straight insanity opposite Sellers' Mandrake who was manically trying to get Ripper to divulge the secret code that could call off the nuclear attack on Russia. The juxtaposition and the irony of these performances is a full-on tutorial on compelling story telling. We have the calm, measured, calculating character who has lost his mind and is unleashing Armageddon against the frantic, frenetic, nervous sane character who is trying to stop him. That tension does what not every comedy is able to do and that's create drama.
4. The Humor Matched with the Tension
Ultimately, what makes Dr. Strangelove such a great film and what has allowed it to stand the test of time is that it’s a comedy that is loaded with tension and drama. One of the techniques to creating great drama is giving your characters obstacles to overcome. Kubrick and co-writers Terry Southern and Peter George created obstacles for their characters at every turn. The funniest of which is when Mandrake is arrested by Col. “Bat” Guano. After figuring out the recall code, Guano refuses to allow Mandrake to make a phone call to Washington, calling Mandrake a “deviated pervert.” There are far too many other obstacles in this film to do any of them justice by going through the list, but the obstacles in this film do a ton to create not only drama, but a lot of the comedy as well. The drama and the comedy go hand in hand in this film precisely because they're co-created by the obstacles that have been organically put into the script.
Overall, this is a superb film. It takes perhaps the most serious topic of the 20th Century and used it as a back drop to create one of the funniest films ever. It has actors that were best known for their dramatic roles and bringing gravitas to the screen , and yet gave among their greatest performances in this bitingly satirical dark comedy. Dr. Strangelove is a film fan's film and should be essential viewing to anyone who is a fan of cinema.
Classic Film Correspondent
Brian has been a professional screenplay reader since 2006, and has written coverage for over 1,000 scripts and books for companies such as Walden Media and Scott Free Films. Scripts and books that Brian has read and covered include Twilight,Touristas, Nim’s Island, Hotel for Dogs, and Inkheart. Brian has worked in the entertainment industry since 1999, and he has credits on 23 films and television series for Disney, Universal, Sony, and DreamWorks Animation.
Brian is a life-long fan of good stories and he’s spent years studying the techniques and principles of good story telling. He believes that great cinema and great story telling go hand-in-hand. He studied animation and screenwriting at the University of Southern California, receiving an MFA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1999. With that knowledge and his appreciation of good stories, Brian gets real satisfaction in helping writers get the most out of their stories through their screenplays.