by Judith Crist
Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is one of the most cogent, comic, and cruel movies to come along in many a year, and one of the best. Don’t miss it—provided that you have the wit and stamina to withstand a savage satire on any number of our society’s untouchables, the courage to hear a howl of outrage at the supersonic supersecurity idiocies of our time and the readiness to share Stanley Kubrick’s realization that ironic laughter and ferocious caricature are the only possible responses of a sane man to the insanities of the international race toward nuclear self-destruction.
In this age of superautomation there has been the general suspicion that fool or madman could trigger the atomic holocaust on whose brink we hover; Kubrick has chosen to have it triggered by a madman—General Jack D. Ripper, of Burpelson Air Force Base, who sends a missile-laden wing of Strategic Air Command bombers off to attack the Russians, declaring his own war against the triple-pronged threat of communism, fluoridation, and sex. “Well, boys, I reckon this is it—nuclear combat toe to toe with the Ruskies,” drawls the airborne wing commander, Major T. J. “King” Kong, swapping his flight helmet for a Stetson as the Red Alert Go-Code is transmitted—and off they go into the big-boom yonder.
And there’s not a thing anybody can do to stop them—not with all the supersecurity, chain-of-command, automated secrecy that is the order of the day. And there’s not a facet of the civilian and military involvement in this order on which Kubrick does not cast a scathing eye as Ripper’s war sets off an American counterattack on Burpelson, international intrigue in the Pentagon’s War Room, and intercontinental defensive plotting to have the Russians destroy the planes before they reach their targets.
For there are fools, bigots, and madmen in high places, Kubrick points out, and men of good will are at their mercy and at the mercy of the push-button scientific know-how that controls our future. And so a well-intentioned President Muffley copes with a besotted Premier Kissoff on the hot line (“Now, then, Dimitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb—the bomb, Dimitri, the hydrogen bomb . . General “Buck” Turgidson urges a follow-up on Ripper’s attack (“It is necessary to choose between two admittedly regrettable but nevertheless distinguishable postwar environments: one where you’ve got twenty million people killed and the other where you’ve got one hundred and fifty million people killed”); Ripper’s executive officer, arrested by Burpelson’s conquerors as a “deviated prevert [sic],” is finally allowed to phone the President with the Stop-Code, only to find that he hasn’t the right change for the toll call—and Kong’s plane, sole survivor of the mission, goes bravely on, dodging missiles and radar detection, heading for its target in the grand tradition, because “There’s folks back home is a-counting on you, and, by golly, we ain’t about to let them down.”
Know-how, something that “bunch of ignorant peons,” the Russians, haven’t got, Turgidson points out, will undoubtedly enable Kong to get his disabled plane through to target, and that will trigger the Russians’ “doomsday” machine. And here, emerging in pure admiration of the nihilism of this ultimate weapon, comes Dr. Strangelove, the “kraut” scientist with the artificial arm that has a will of its own as it swings to a Nazi salute or gropes for its owner’s throat. Strangelove has The scientist’s sunny hope for the future, for the survival of several hundred thousand people, carefully selected, of course, in some of the country’s deeper mine shafts, with males polygamously repopulating an earth that would be fit for human habitation in about a hundred years. . . .
For this is the way the world will end, in a welter of mechanical failures, human bloopers, jargon, and gobbledygook. And the sheer insanity of it all bubbles forth as Ripper babbles on about the purity of life fluids, a gum- chewing Turgidson grapples with the camera-clicking Russian ambassador (“Please—gentlemen—you can’t fight here—this is the War Room,” the President protests), an officer who has blasted his way into an Air Force base questions the propriety of breaking open a soft-drink machine, and Kong’s crew cheerfully checks survival kits, from pep pills to tranquilizers to a combination Russian phrase book and Holy Bible.
And behind the flashing needles and knives that Kubrick wields against the sacred cows, there is a gripping suspense thriller, sharply-unfolded, tightly told, neatly cut from climax to climax. And beyond the laughter and the tension there is as bitter a little morality tale for our times as we have had to face in a long time, neatly tucked between the opening bars of “Try a Little Tenderness” as an airborne B-52 is refueled, and a grand finale of “We’ll Meet Again (Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When) . . .’’as mushroom clouds fill the sky.
Kubrick earns further distinction as a model of self-discipline in his triple roles as coauthor, director, and producer, maintaining a fine balance throughout the film’s taut 93 minutes. He has, of course, a superb cast at hand. Peter Sellers tops his past record for versatility in three diverse roles, as Mandrake, Ripper’s British aide, embodying understated sanity in the face of madness; as President Muffley, a man made neither fool nor hero but simple and decent; and as Strangelove, the fascist supreme feeding on even the possibility of annihilation. Sterling Hayden, as the pleasantly paranoid Ripper, and George C. Scott, as the military mind of Turgidson at large in a civilian world, are perfection; and Slim Pickens, as Kong, Keenan Wynn, as the officer hunting “preverts,” and Peter Bull, as the Russian ambassador, are outstanding.
Dr. Strangelove is irreverent to a point of savagery; it is funny and it is engrossing. And it’s heady stuff for movie-goers, for Kubrick, boy genius that he is, assumes that we’re grown-up enough to share his bitter laughter.
Source: Herald Tribune (New York), January 30, 1964; p. 21.
Reprinted as “The Strangelovian age” in Judith Crist, The private eye, the cowboy, and the very naked girl; New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968. (p. 43-46)