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Review: Dr. Strangelove

Its status as the film that confirmed both Stanley Kubrick’s reputation and the arrival of beat-sick irreverence can no longer be retracted.

3.5
Dr. Strangelove
Photo: Sony Pictures Repertory

The status of Dr. Strangelove as the movie that confirmed both Stanley Kubrick’s reputation and the arrival of beat-sick irreverence can no longer be retracted. Kubrick and co-scripters Peter George and Terry Southern fashioned a goonish-ghoulish portrait of diplomatic insanity that’s zippy, ruthless, and cartoonish enough that the flick is worshipped even among those who can’t stand Kubrick’s later, fastidiously methodical movies. Boasting three wildly diverse characterizations from Peter Sellers and a terrifyingly enthusiastic performance by George C. Scott (out-Pattoning Patton as a Joint Chief of Staff), Dr. Strangelove checkmates the Cold War’s stalemate by satirizing the joke of institutionalized “preparedness.” With doomsday devices springing up everywhere to prevent defense gaps between America and the Soviet Union, all it takes to bring the entire globe to the brink of nuclear winter is one single loose sprocket in the U.S. Defense Department. Kubrick’s punchline isn’t that the destruction of humanity is one big sunny joke; it’s that humanity has already passive-aggressively done itself in. While the director certainly never regards humanity with the same sense of utter puzzlement and alienation he achieved in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and Eyes Wide Shut, he clearly finds it impossible to take sides. If Scott’s mad-dog bloodlust and Sellers’s frustrating ineffectuality as President Merkin Muffley are a merciless one-two shot against America’s own self-image as the world’s benevolent dictator, Peter Bull’s stoic, consistently stentorian portrayal of the Russian ambassador is no less savage. And Kubrick, George, and Southern’s “say no more” comparison between Sterling Hayden’s impotence as Burpelson Air Force Base’s strategic commander and cowboy-pilot Slim Pickens’s bucking, immensely phallic ride atop an H-bomb still stands as one of the nastiest jokes ever had at the expense of the industrial-military complex.

Cast: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Keenan Wynn, Slim Pickens, Tracy Reed, Peter Bull, James Earl Jones Director: Stanley Kubrick Screenwriter: Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, Terry Southern Distributor: Columbia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 1964 Buy: Video

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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