Tuesday, April 06, 2004

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

We know this is a film of the modern era from the first moment because of its disclaimer in a crawl that slides up the screen before we see anything else:

It is the stated position of the United States Air Force that their safeguards would prevent the occurrence of such events as are depicted in this film. Furthermore, it should be noted that none of the characters portrayed in this film are meant to represent any real persons living or dead.

In the present day, I would take such a warning as a parody of the litigious age we live in, but in 1964 when the film was made, it was no joke. The Bay of Pigs crisis had just passed; in fact, the delay of the film itself was delayed by Kennedy's assassination. The Air Force felt like it NEEDED a disclaimer because a nuclear accident did not seem far-fetched enough to risk. That alone should be proof enough for the development of dark comedy.

The basic storyline goes like this: the airmen who patrol the American skies regularly (as they do today, post-terrorist attack) are without warning given an order to attack the Russians. The colonel of the base is shown shutting it down according to the instructions given for an emergency attack by the Russian enemy. These instructions require the base to be sealed with no outside communication possible and for the soldiers to shoot at anyone--enemy or apparently friendly--who approaches the base. The only person who holds the secret code for communicating with (and potentially stopping) the airmen with the neutron bombs is the colonel, and he seems to have gone completely crazy and ordered the attack for no reason other than to provoke a war. The only person who is able to determine the colonel's state of mind is Mandrake, a British officer (played by Peter Sellers). Unfortunately, Mandrake can neither trick the secret code out of Colonel Ripper nor subdue him. So it becomes a comic drama of the mad American hell-bent on destroying the world. This film is eerily clairvoyant, and while the technology is evidently out of date, the senseless bureaucracy and decision-making based on idiocy is extremely timely.

The film then flips among frantic scenes of the U.S. President (also played by Sellers) and his advisory council in the basement of the Pentagon frantically negotiating with a drunken Russian prime minister, trying not to start the war; as well as the General and his girlfriend (the only woman in the film, who is blissfully unaware of the danger); and Mandrake and the colonel locked away on the base. It's a nail-biter as we watch the moments tick away. If they do not believe the Americans are attacking only by accident, then the Russians will use the Doomsday Machine, which will blow everyone up.

The advisory council asks for the input of weapons expert, Dr. Strangelove (also played by Sellers), who is a thinly disguised Nazi who enjoys the torture and killing people, who keeps slipping up and referring to the president as "Mein Fuhrer!" With the aid of his poor advise, as well as the bad advice of Dr. Kong and the general incompetence of the president and others, the result is a surprise: A mushroom cloud at the end, with an unlikely soundtrack of "We'll Meet Again Someday..." in the background, an "incongruous juxtaposition," according to one reviewer.

The humor here is on a broader scale than it was on Catch 22, even though the subject is the same. The humor, to my mind, is larger in Dr. Strangelove, because it requires us to look at the whole picture of war as foolish, as an overgrowth of the potential in testosterone. Kubrick communicates this idea of folly from the beginning, where the sights of missiles we get are so obviously phallic, and by the names of the characters, who so clearly refer to farcical things (like Colonel Jack D. Ripper, named after the infamous...or of Buck Turgidson, referring to the stiffness of a certain manly organ...or of Merkin Muffly, the shapely young woman whose both first and last names refer to the female anatomy). The names are sexualized in a silly way to seem to imply that the things surrounding war seem to be part of a testosterone party and not part of any serious thought or consideration--the very thing we all fear.

This is an unsettling message. On the International Movies Database, a few people posted angrily that this movie was anti-American and that the director should have gone ahead and burned some flags while he was at it. Then, just like now, calling into question the integrity of the government called into question one's loyalty to the country.

We see other elements of humor as well: the silly incongruity of Merkin, the general's girlfriend, calling him in the war room to see when he can come and crawl back in bed with her is funny because we know such a thing shouldn't or couldn't happen. The same goes for the entire existence of Dr. Strangelove. It's so wrong, it's funny. Ultimately, I don't find this movie as entertaining as Catch 22, although I am finding it hard to articulate why. For one, Catch 22 has a protagonist we can relate to, one we are meant to relate to. We see the pain he is caused by having to drop bombs on people and we want it to stop. On the other hand, with Dr. Strangelove, I don't feel the same sympathy for any character, except maybe Mandrake, who is the only one who seems to realize the whole war thing is nonsense, but even he is not a sympathetic enough character to really care about. In addition, while in Catch 22 we see real suffering and some attempt to show things in a realistic light, Strangelove has characters that are over-the-top types, the kinds one finds in a movie that is set on making a point.

There's nothing wrong with making a point, mind you. Dr. Strangelove is probably worth seeing just to see Sellers in his three comic roles (and to try to imagine him playing General Kong as well, who he would have played as well, had he been able to master the Texan accent). It's the kind of movie that makes one wonder how much has really changed in the last 40 years.