Stanley Kubrik’s classic film, Dr Strangelove, starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, is a savage satire on the nuclear arms race. But, does it still speak to us today?
Like Gentlemen’s Agreement, Dr Strangelove is a movie I’d not seen for years, even though I frequently quote it in conversation. Since Dr Strangelove had a big impact on my youthful mind I jumped at the opportunity to re-view the film, which is currently screening as part of a Stanley Kubrick retrospective, here in Hong Kong.
This screening reminded me of how unrelentingly misogynistic Dr Strangelove is. I’m not sure if this reflects the director’s vision or is a satire on the times. But, women exist in this film only for the purposes of decoration, recreation and procreation.
Despite this, the Dr Strangelove’s comedy still works, largely because of the genius of Peter Sellars. The film is famous for the maniacal Nazi Dr Stranglelove but on this viewing the Sellers’ low-key performance as President Merkin Muffley (no subtlety in that name) stood out as well.
Still, as a work of satire, Dr Strangelove feels dated. The film addresses that the policy of Mutuall Assured Destruction and makes its case well that the nuclear arms race was insane. It does a great job of showing how military industrial complex that drove that arms race was not that far from the worldview of Nazism. As a consequence, anyone who supports this militarism is either naive and misinformed (President Muffley, Group Captain Lionel Mandrake), insane (Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper), psychopathic (General ‘Buck’ Turgidson, Dr Strangelove), or just stupid (Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano).
Whilst we should still be concerned by the military industrial complex, the dangers of vast standing armies and the risks inherent in nuclear weapons, it seems too simplistic to imagine a cast of geopolitical leaders who are so morally black and white. I laughed at many of the jokes and smiled in agreement at much of the satire, but I also found myself frequently reminded of how much more complex and fraught our world has become.
Too much of Dr Stangelove now feels easy and superficial. Or maybe the problem is satire itself as an art form for unmasking the dangers of corrupt political systems.
What did surprise me was how compelling the combat sequences were. Kurbick always had a great eye for battle and an equally keen sense for the drama of characters at odds with the surroundings. Dr Strangelove, has few sets, but they are memorable. Kubrick uses them masterfully, with lots of off-kilter medium shots and powerful close-ups. It gets us close to the characters and in some few scenes close to real tension – it’s just a shame many of the players are so cartoon-like.
All that aside, I would love to see a Dr Strangelove-esque satire on our current global malaise. Something like Fail Safe (included the Clooney et. al. remake) but harder. The war on terror and the Rumsfeld/Cheney doctrine have become every bit as absurd, corrupt and potentially dystopian as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. But, for such a film to hit home today, it would have to also be more ambiguous, complex, well-drawn, and populated with believable characters than Dr Strangelove.