Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Movie Review: Dr. Strangelove

or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Directed by Stanley Kubrick. 1964.

Dr. Strangelove neither sweats nor abets squishy notions about the high-ranking peckers of the political order or the sanity of anyone up and down the military chain of command. Strangelove, however, doesn't smother its subjects in finger-wagging or withering scorn, but allows the crew helming the ship of fools to shine in their own bizarre blaze of imbecility. In fact, so absurd are both the characters and the stage that I don't know whether there's a single straight line in the whole movie.

The first drops of Kubrick's inky black comedy paint General Buck Turgidson, whom we meet not at  command desk or astride one of the military's great steel steeds, but amidst his pre-coital primping. So occupied is the tumid general with his preparations, in fact, that it's not he but his squeeze-cum-secretary, Miss Scott, who answers the phone. Unmoved by the gravity of the situation, the general has Miss Scott relay to him the facts of why there are strategic bombers en route to Russian targets.

The scene plays riotously for several reasons. The first is the sight of the bikinied Miss Scott inserted into the chain of command. Second is how she seamlessly switches between proper secretarial protocol when talking to the lieutenant on the phone and shouting at the general who's in the bathroom. Third is of course George C. Scott barking questions from his off-screen orifice. The scene climaxes when Turgidson flies out of the bathroom in an open Hawaiian shirt and shorts to answer the phone. The country's in the very best of hands.

The best character introduction in the film, though, is the shortest, and it's for the absurdly proper Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake, from the service's exchange program. When his base commander has ordered the nuclear strike and impounded personal radios so they can't be used to seed commands to spies, Mandrake finds one and in the process of impounding it, traipses throughout the base with the little box blaring its easy listening tunes. The scene is a perfect metaphor for Mandrake's cluelessness and ineffectual manners, and both contrast Mandrake as foil to the phlegmatic General Jack T. Ripper.

One of cinema's great characters, Jack T. Ripper is the grizzled general who, fed up with a feckless Washington and the corrupting communist infiltration which threatens not only the purity of the American polity but also the "precious bodily fluids" of her men, makes the very reasonable decision to buck the chain of command and begin a nuclear war by means of a preemptive strike on the Soviet Union. Sterling Hayden's performance at first seems simply the work of caricature, but it's much more than cigar-chomping and distended faces. There's a detached quality to General Ripper which at first seems pure insanity but also reads as a hyperbolic romanticism. Ripper is concerned with the manly duties, martial virtues, and the purity of the male essence. He prefers to do things himself and is prepared to take losses. The problem is that he's trying to live his old romantic vision not with a symbolic duel at twenty paces but by means of the most powerful weapons in human history.

Still, Ripper is as much out of his mind as out of his time, for romance aside, his conspiracy theories and apparent, if occasional, understanding of the cataclysmic results of his actions, just plain disturb us. In fact we share Mandrake's flabbergasted, flat-faced response to Ripper's serene hysteria. As General Ripper lectures about water fluoridation and forcing total American commitment to the end of days, we can only look on in horror. Yet all the while his confidence, the way he seems to chisel each penile pronouncement into the Washington Monument itself, America's great endowment, gives these bizarre epigrams a lapidary profundity.

God willing, we will prevail in peace and freedom from fear and in true health through the purity and essence of our natural fluids
I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids. 
And as human beings, you and I need fresh, pure water to replenish our precious bodily fluids.
Frightening as it is that General Ripper has his finger on the button at farcically-named Burpleson Air Force Base, where we are frequently reminded by a grim running gag of signs that, "Peace is Our Profession," the meat and potatoes of Dr. Strangelove are the exchanges in the war room.

Here Turgidson butts up against President Merkin Muffley as they try to deal with General Ripper's atomic insurrection. Muffley, the second in Peter Sellers' hat trick of performances in Strangelove, might be the straight man here, but he's no hero. Once he's been briefed on the details of Plan R, which we discover puts all and irrevocable authority in the commanding officer, who just happens to be General Ripper, he asks who ever approved such an idiotic plan. President Muffley is gently reminded, "You approved it, sir." Once everyone in the War Room realizes there's no turning back, Turgidson delivers the bleakest line and most outrageous understatement of the movie. "The human element seems to have failed us here."

Turgidson, however, rapidly reveals himself as one nut saner than General Ripper as he compulsively stuffs his mouth with chewing gum and articulates his plan to capitalize on Ripper "exceeding his authority" by proceeding with the strike. In a chilling moment, Turgidson, amidst articulating his plan, answers a telephone call from Miss Scott. He proceeds to pacify her randy whimpering by telling her that he'll be back shortly, and then proceeds to discuss his plan for "pacifying" the world (Remember: Peace is our Profession) by reading from his binder, titled, "World Targets in Megadeaths." When an outraged President Merkin objects, Turgidson replies:

Mr. President, I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed. But I do say... no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh... depended on the breaks.
Certainly not enough cause to let, as Turgidson cautions, "One incident invalidate the program."

Finally the Russians get involved, but only to hilarious effect. Ambassador Sadesky arrives and immediately begins taking reconnaissance photographs. The now manic Turgidson tackles him giving rise to Strangelove's most famous line:

Gentlemen you can't fight in here, this is the war room!

The heavy satire, though, lies in Muffley's conversations with the Russian president. The genius of conception here is all Kubrick's in seeing just how foolish we look when talking on the phone. Neither man takes on the gravitas of a statesman delivering an epoch-making oration but rather a frustrated, average man trying to get his take out order right. The genius of execution, however, goes to Sellers, who manages to escalate the ridiculousness of the conversation and imply of the Russian president's foolishness all by himself. Addressing his interlocutor simply as Dimitri, who the ambassador tells us has been satisfying his manly needs, Muffley talks to the man as if Dimitri is either drunk or of the mind of a child. Sellers' timing is impeccable here where Dmitri "interrupts" him and he assures his sensitive Russian counterpart that the call is not simply business and that, "Of course I like to speak to you. Of course I like to say hello." The very best of hands.

Now we get the last piece to the absurd puzzle. The Russians have a "doomsday machine" which will blanket the world in a radioactive cloud if even one missile hit its target. The ultimate and perfect deterrent, with one hitch. Dr. Strangelove, Sellers' last and most outrageous creation, wheels out from the shadows to shine an incensed light on the obvious.

The whole point of the doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret!

We seem to be averting disaster, though, when Captain Mandrake manages to decrypt General Ripper's doodles and discern the recall codes. One lone plane, however, is out of contact and its captain, Major King Kong, is going through with his orders. Never mind that he's about to start a nuclear war, he trusts in General Ripper enough to press on with the attack. Like his dense counterpart Colonel Bat Guano,  who nearly derailed Mandrake's attempts to forward the recall codes, Major Kong is oblivious to the situation. Unlike Col. Guano, though, who is simply oblivious to the obvious and impervious to common sense, Kong has been insulated by both technology and the chain of command from understanding or altering the situation.

With the unstoppable underway, the politicians in the war room seize on Dr. Strangelove's plan of last resort, wherein prime samples of the human species will be sequestered away underground to repopulate and emerge when the radiation has settled. No sooner has the end begun, though, then the politickers begin prepping the next war. What happens if the Russians tuck a nuke away and whip it out when the radiation has cleared? Better save a few.

Finally the men belie their disinterested judgment and verify their quality when they unanimously support the plan which requires them to do "prodigious service" repopulating the Earth with women selected for their "highly stimulating nature."

Best. Of. Hands.

No comments:

Post a Comment