Kubrick’s pitch-black Cold War comedy is absolute gold, intelligently poking fun at the sheer absurdity of nuclear war and rhetoric.
Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden
Plot: An insane American general orders a bombing attack on the Soviet Union, triggering a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically tries to stop.
Awards: Nom. for 4 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay
Subject Matter: Moderate – War & Politics; Nuclear Rhetoric; Cold War
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
I’ve seen this film so many times it’s impossible to count. Each time, it remains as ironic, delirious and delightful as before.
One of Stanley Kubrick’s top-tier works, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is still the gold standard for pitch-black comedies, starring a deadpan Peter Sellers (in three different roles!) and an excitable if clownish George C. Scott, both of whom give terrific performances.
Amid the Cold War, a mentally-unstable American general decides to order a unit of planes carrying nuclear missiles to attack Russia. If no one can stop them, it will be doomsday for everyone on the planet.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
Kubrick raises the stakes through intricate plotting, intercutting among three narrative threads (in the Pentagon’s War Room, a heavily-guarded military airbase, and onboard one of the nuclear-armed planes), but his masterstroke is creating a race against time scenario where the film careens headfirst comically into a seemingly inescapable inevitability, yet there is a sense of calmness, albeit disquietingly, in the air.
In other words, Dr. Strangelove has that rare tone of being unsettling and side-splitting at the same time. It calls on audiences to reflect on the absurdity of nuclear war, satirising each superpower’s antics, ineptitudes and distrust for one another.
Ultimately, Kubrick’s film is anti-war, and like Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe (released later in the same year due to a court order), it is a cautionary tale of how systems and leadership can fail, and as a result, trigger a catastrophe so harrowing that cinema can only help us to imagine.