Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic satire is a time capsule from the Cold War which unfortunately still feels fresh today, with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ “Doomsday Clock” back in the news. With the wacky full title Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the film was scheduled for a late-1963 release but was hastily postponed by several months in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination. Attempting to adapt the nuclear war novel Fail-Safe as a straightforward thriller, Kubrick was struck by absurdity of the entire strategy of mutually assured destruction and instead created a bleak comedy set in the cockpit of the Strategic Air Command’s bombers and the war room of the Pentagon.
Legendary film comedian Peter Sellers plays three different roles, but the stars of the film are two very serious actors playing ridiculous USAF generals. George C. Scott clowns in the role of the suggestively named Buck Turgidson, alternately scowling like a scolded child and lighting up like a kid on Christmas. The best performance in the film is Sterling Hayden, pulled out of retirement after a hiatus spent sailing to Tahiti after a bitter divorce, defying a court order by bringing (kidnapping?) his four children (an amazing true story). As the insane general who unilaterally starts World War III, Hayden slowly chomps a cigar and gives dramatic, under-lit soliloquies about the evils of fluoridation of water and purity of essence.
Despite the absurd scenario, many of the film’s characters are closely based on real figures of the time. Sellers’ feckless President Muffley is modeled on Adlai Stevenson, the presidential runner-up in both 1952 and ’56. Scott plays a caricature of notorious nuclear brinksman Curtis LeMay. The character of Dr. Strangelove is an amalgam of several people, combining the backstory of reformed Nazi rocket scientist Wernher von Braun with the calculating and cynical worldview of Herman Kahn. In fact, almost everything in Dr. Strangelove was true. It’s still a very relevant question as to how easy it would be for one megalomaniac to impulsively launch an all-out nuclear war that would end life on Earth as we know it, and Strangelove is one of the 20th century’s most memorable attempts to tackle that question.
Screening this week at the Museum of Fine Arts at 4:00pm on Saturday, Feb. 17 as part of “Stanley Kubrick Day”.