B-52? B-52, B-53, Whatever it Takes: Dr. Strangelove

Nov 21, 2001 (Updated Nov 21, 2001)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Direction, Sellers, Photography, Script

Cons:The character Dr. Strangelove is pretty dang strange.

The Bottom Line: Excellent look at the chilling possibility of nuclear war without taking itself too seriously. I had belly laughs almost the entire 94-Minute running time.

I avoided seeing Dr. Strangelove for years. I admit I was prejudiced against it because it just seemed odd to me.

First, I was turned off by the odd title, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Second, an odd (to me) director, Stanley Kubrick, directed the film. Finally, an odd actor, Peter Sellers, was the star. Since I am not one who likes oddity for oddity's sake, none of these particulars gave me much hope of a great viewing experience. Finally, I was down to watching either Dr. Strangelove for the first time or a rerun of something else. It was time to confront my unreasoning prejudice. Steeling myself for the ordeal, I popped the film into the VCR…

What I found was a well done black and white narrative about the Cold War, very '50s looking. Those of us who lived through that era can well appreciate the posturing and vast sums invested by the Super Powers in the Arms Race, raising world paranoia to a fever pitch.

Kubrick basically equated the Arms Race with male sexual power. From the opening scene showing an in-flight refueling of a long-range bomber, images symbolic of sexual potency abound. The names of the characters also hint at sex, the cigar chomping Jack D. Ripper (a London sexual killer) Mandrake (an herb reputed to stimulate sexual performance), and so on.

We are shown Strategic Air Command (SAC) with its fleet of nuclear-armed B-52 intercontinental bombers. It begins to dawn on the viewer the odd life some people live as the narrator informs him that the U.S. keeps a large fleet of B-52 bombers aloft 24 hours a day to prevent surprise nuclear attack. Each B-52 carries a payload of 50 megatons; 16 times more destructive force than the entire explosive power expended during WWII! Faced with this unfathomable statistic it is no wonder that Americans during the '50s were paranoid! Oh yes, all B-52s hover within two hours of targets within the Soviet Union.

After this glimpse into the twilight-zone world of SAC we are introduced to the crew of one of the B-52s. The captain (Slim Pickens) is looking at Playboy as the plane hovers on station somewhere in the Arctic Circle. The commander of SAC (Sterling Hayden) has issued orders to attack, then shut down all communications so the order cannot be rescinded. The plane's crew begins the standard attack procedures under Plan R. Meanwhile, the President of the United States has called his chief advisors to the War Room. The War Room shows a huge map of Asia with the paths of the myriad B-52s indicated by dotted lines. The film then alternates between these three scenes, the airplane, the War Room, and SAC HQ.

Through savvy writing and direction Kubrick effectively compares the arms race with a boys' pi$-sing contest, only this pis-$ing contest is capable of destroying the entire world! The characters are all depicted as preoccupied by sex or victims of sexual dysfunction. The bomb is symbolic of sexual potency. The military leaders are bombastic caricatures of overgrown boys. The reason the movie works so well is that the stereotypes are true. We all know people who go off the deep end. Kubrick juxtaposed these bombastic one-sided characters with the sexual imagery and the high tech bombers, illustrating the absurdity of giving power to such moral imbeciles.

Peter Sellers starred, appearing in three separate roles. His performances are so good that unless the viewer is pretty familiar with the actor, he may not realize it is Sellers. Kubrick originally cast Sellers in a fourth role, that of Major Kong, the B-52 pilot. That would have made Sellers a major player of each of the three scenes, the president in the War Room; the adjutant at SAC HQ; and the pilot of the B-52. Unfortunately, or fortunately, Sellers broke his leg and Kubrick had to find a replacement pilot. He chose stereotypical cowboy Slim Pickens who did not see the script or know that it was a comedy. Pickens therefore played the role straight and was doubly funny as the super patriot who attacks Russia at all costs, sitting atop the bomb in order to free the stuck bomb bay doors, he gets an unforgettable ride when they suddenly pop open.

Though Dr. Strangelove is almost forty years old, I find it extremely timely in light of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The movie shows just how much is at stake when crazy people get their hands on the levers of power.

Recommend this product?

Read all comments (6)

Share this product review with your friends   
Share This!