M. Habibullah Pagarkar

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Dr. Strangelove

November 17th 2010

A great movie’s budget needn’t equal the GNP of a medium-sized country. It also doesn’t need to be shot in New Zealand; or Switzerland for that matter. Dr. Strangelove is set in four principal locations: An office with nondescript furniture, a “war room” with a big circular table and a world map on the wall with some lights, the cramped interior of a B-52 bomber and the perimeter of an air force base. Yet with these rudimentary settings and facial close ups, Stanley Kubrick turned a cold-war play called ‘Red Alert’ into the greatest political movie ever.

In the process he made a seriously funny satire.

Most of the comedy comes from situations that aren’t ‘ha ha’ funny. There is no forced laughter here; that isn’t funny.

USAF’s Brigadier General Jack Ripper’s (Sterling Hayden) paranoia about communist conspiracies to “sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids” goads him to put his air-force base under lock-down and use all 34 nuclear equipped B-52s under his command to strike targets within Soviet Russia. One man stands between him and nuclear holocaust, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), who can’t get out of the room where he is locked with the general, doesn’t have the recall codes for the planes and doesn’t have enough change to notify his superiors from a pay phone because the Pentagon doesn’t accept collect calls. The news finally reaches the American President Muffley (again, Peter Sellers) who gathers his advisors, including a sinister scientist called Dr. Strangelove (Peter Sellers yet again) and the Russian ambassador in the war room for consultation. Here they learn that the Soviets have a Doomsday Machine that will get activated as soon as Soviet soil is attacked and will then destroy the world. Horrified, the President works with the Soviet Premier to shoot down 33 B-52s before they reach their targets. This angers General ‘Buck’ Turgidson (George C. Scott) who wants nothing but American military superiority and he starts fighting with the Soviet ambassador. The President chides them both saying “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.” The last B-52, barreling in low to evade Soviet radar with its big wings outstretched accomplishes it’s mission in one of the most iconic scenes in movie history.

I’m not that unhinged to find nuclear holocaust and world-wide devastation lol-able. What then makes this movie sublime? Is it Stanley Kubrick’s perfectionist style of direction that makes every little scene crisp and outstanding? Is it Peter Sellers' understated sense of timing and the ability to fit into different roles like a snug black glove*? Or is it the satirical commentary on the mind-set of politicians of that era (and this one as well) and their illogical reasoning to logically destroy our world?

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

* You’ll have to see the movie to get the reference.