Why do terrible things happen? Sometimes, there is no reason. Sometimes, terrible things just happen, and we can do little but mourn and move on. Yet, there are some terrible things which should be easily within the controlling grasp of man. War, for instance. Notice I write should. War has happened, is happening, and continues to happen across the world. It is distressing, devastating, and at this point it seems like it is simple destiny. We can’t avoid it! I’d say no matter how hard we try, but how hard are we really trying? This is true now, and it was certainly true when Stanley Kubrick directed Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb in 1964. I know this to be the case because with such an absurd inevitability comes a fierce desire to laugh in its face – and that is exactly what Kubrick delivers, a laugh in the face, a thickly black comic look at war, of the nuclear kind. He turns his expert eye on the futility and stupidity of men and allows the audience to laugh at an absurd series of events, that upon reflection border dangerously close to the truth.
General Jack D. Ripper (all of the names here are just as ludicrous) issues an order to a fleet of consistently airborne B52 bombers to encroach on Russian airspace and initiate Plan R. This Plan has been constructed as a response to a devastating attack on key American military and political infrastructure, so when the crew of the bombers receives the orders, they are led to believe that their home nation has been attacked. It has not. Ripper is a paranoid anti-communist who believes that American water supplies have been poisoned with fluoride and that the commies are attempting to steal his…natural bodily fluids. As such he intends to force the United States into a nuclear war with Russia in order to destroy the perceived communist threat. He has the only code which could recall the bombers, and locks down his base to the highest degree to protect himself from the forces that bear down on him once President Merkin Muffley (one of three Peter Sellers performances) and his War Room of Generals and diplomats realises the mess that they are in.
Sadly, the way in which these events play out feels terribly relevant today. The movie, unsurprisingly, ends in nuclear disaster, and the cause of this boils down to the decision-making of arrogant and deluded men. Ripper is the most obvious culprit, but he exhibits the traits of someone who is genuinely mentally disturbed. His constant references to bodily fluids, his paranoia which leads him to drink only ‘grain alcohol and rain water’, and his generally disturbed manner, makes you think: how did this guy get here? In fact, the President even asks this question of General Buck Turgidson (played brilliantly by George C. Scott) who apparently ran ‘human reliability tests’ on his top staff. When the President questions the legitimacy of these tests in the light of Ripper’s mutiny, Turgidson doesn’t think it is fair to condemn the whole programme because of one slip-up.
Yes, just the one slip-up. One slip-up…that leads to nuclear war.
If this movie advocates anything, it is most certainly not ‘human reliability.’
And although Ripper bears the brunt of responsibility for the disaster, Kubrick certainly points a lot of blame at the bumbling, but entertaining, Turgidson. Scott delivers a completely bonkers performance, with energy up the wall, but manages to make it convincing. He is, despite his quirks, absolutely believable as a symbol for American arrogance. When the news is delivered of Plan R’s initiation, his response is not to attempt to work out a method of recalling the bombers, but to double down on the assault on Russian territory. He attempts to reason this with the timid President by suggesting that the death counter will level out at a cool twenty or thirty million, tops.
When the Russian ambassador is invited to the War Room he panics and declares: ‘He’ll see the big board!’ pointing at the map which indicates the fleet of nuclear bombers bearing down on a nation of human beings to extinguish life: past, present, and foreseeable future.
I will write here that at the time of forming this review President Donald Trump falsely declared a national emergency, attempting to drive fear of the criminality of immigrants into overdrive in order to build further support for his plan to build a wall on the US-Mexico border. I am not an American, and do not know an awful lot about politics, suffice to say sometimes art imitates life, and sometimes life imitates art.
Donald Trump, name and all, would sit comfortably in Kubrick’s War Room.
For all that is disturbing about how relevant this film remains today, there are more basic pleasures to be derived from it. It is shot superbly, and it is wickedly funny.
Kubrick layers his shots with character, light, internal frames, and structure, meaning that there is never a single shot which is not interesting to look at. The film moves between four principle locations: the air base exterior, Ripper’s office, the interior of the B52, and the War Room. Each has its own individual visual style.
The exterior of the air base becomes a war zone as troops from a nearby base attempt to reach Ripper and the recall codes. Much of the action is shot from afar, and the most striking moment is when soldiers shoot and fall down dead in front of the entrance sign to the base which reads: ‘Peace is our Profession.’
The office itself is not particularly interesting in terms of design, but in black and white, Kubrick makes the most of the smoke from Ripper’s cigars and some typically practical lighting to form dense and interesting imagery.
The B52 is shot with a more documentarian sensibility, the camera wobbles and shakes, and as Kong reads off a never-ending list of checks and measures the camera crash zooms in on switches and nodes and buttons. When the plane is damaged the lights strobe and flicker and the sensation of being cramped in this little vessel of death becomes very real.
Compare this with the vacuous War Room. A great ring of light hangs over the famous table, and often the camera comes out above this light, framing the President and his men within the ring. From here, and from other wider shots the sound become echoed and spacious and the futility of these arrogant men sitting and yelling each at other across their stupendous table becomes apparent. Here still Kubrick is not afraid to come up close, and with the quality of the acting on show he is right to not be. Sellers provides three strikingly different performances. Mandrake is a stiff-upper lip sort who sees the foolishness of Ripper’s plan, the President is a timid fool who has allowed his subordinates too much leeway, indirectly causing the disaster, and Dr Strangelove is a bizarrely pained man whose right arm appears to remain an active member of the Nazi party, struggling against his will to erect itself into a salute to it’s deceased fuhrer.
For me however, it is George C. Scott who steals the show. His facial acrobatics and bombastic vocal delivery are endlessly entertaining, yet he never allows the character to fall into something unbelievable. He is an outrageous buffoon throughout, but I never lost the sense that his character absolutely believed in all the mind-boggling things that he was saying, and as such it made complete sense for a man like to him to act in the way he acted: barrelling around with such moronic intensity that he could barely keep his feet on the ground, literally and metaphorically. He is in such a state of constant arousal on the subject of communist destruction that he loses track of the mission, and of the consequences of failure. In the end, when it seems that a retreat into deep mine shafts to hide from upcoming nuclear fallout may be necessary, he finds the plan quite intriguing, particularly when he hears the suggested ratio of ten women to every one man – but he can’t help but think: what about the commies? What if they’re stockpiling weapons for the war after this one? When they come out of the mines, they must be ready to go to war again. He is an abhorrent character, but I couldn’t help but laugh at his consistency, and applaud the performance.
And I haven’t even mentioned the classic line: ‘Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here, this is a War Room.’
So, the big question: should you watch Dr Strangelove now, in the year 2019?
Absolutely. It is still funny. It is still striking. It is still, disturbingly, relevant. It would perhaps be more encouraging if I could say it is a well-shot film with some classic laughs, but hey, the issues it tackles just aren’t our issues anymore.
But I can’t.
Dr Strangelove was released in 1964. It remains a film of today.