The allure of postnuclear life
by Dan Moray
Could a film as pointedly satirical about our government and its appetite for war as Dr. Strangelove be made today? It's not as if we don't have the material, but which director could skewer the times as thoroughly as Stanley Kubrick did in his fabulous 1964 film Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb?
The story revolves around one Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden), a deeply psychotic army general he's convinced that fluoridation of water is a communist plot to sterilize the American male who sets in motion a plan to drop a nuclear bomb on Russia. His assistant, Colonel Mandrake (one of three roles played by Peter Sellers), regards Ripper's views with a mix of terror and playful amusement, but he is determined to obtain the code needed to bring back the American bombers before they deliver their payload. George C. Scott plays the commie-hating, gum-chewing, highly sexed general Buck Turgidson, who wants to seize the opportunity presented by Ripper's rashness to fight World War III. President Merkin Muffley (also played by Sellers) is horrified at the prospect of war, but he's intrigued by the scenario of postnuclear life at the bottom of mine shafts presented by the deranged Dr. Strangelove Sellers again, playing a character based on Wernher von Braun, the ex-Nazi who ran the U.S. space program.
When asked how he played Strangelove, Sellers replied, "Stanley suggested I wear a leather glove because it would look sinister on a man in a wheelchair. I gave the arm a life of its own: that right arm hated the rest of the body. That arm was a Nazi." The Nazi arm is hysterical, and so is everything else in this movie. Consider Kubrick's classic close-ups from below of Sterling Hayden with his huge phallic cigar, his well-chiseled masculine face ringed with smoke, as he unfolds his insane theories. Of course, the image of the cowboy-hat-waving, hootin'
and hollerin' Slim Pickens riding the bomb to its destination will never be forgotten.
The film's main theme that paranoia can be a greater menace than the dangers that provoke it has considerable contemporary resonance. When you see President Bush arrive via navy jet on an aircraft carrier and emerge dressed in a flight suit and looking archly virile, or when you hear him say things like "Bring 'em on," it's easy to imagine you're watching excerpts from a remake of Kubrick's masterpiece.
Dr. Strangelove completes a week's run at Madstone Theaters on Thursday, October 2.
[Originally published in October, 2003.]