Monday, December 21, 2015

AFI Top 100: #39 "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb"

Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove (1964)

We're coming up fast to #1 on the AFI List, venturing now into the thirties with the tongue-in-cheek Cold War comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, coming in at #39. Expertly directed by Stanley Kubrick, who makes a regular appearance in the AFI Top 100, and even more expertly led by chameleon actor Peter Sellers, Dr. Strangelove is unique in its satire, so jet-black it edges on not being funny at all. It takes a knowing viewer to understand the delicacies at play here, but if you do, it can elicit the most unexpected laughter.

At the height of Soviet / US tensions, both nations sit with their fingers trembling over the red button. Fed up with the United States' lack of action, the well-positioned and paranoid Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) uses back channels to send the B-52 bomber planes filling the skies outside of the U.S.S.R. on an unsanctioned mission: drop all nuclear bombs on their targets within the Soviet Union—with no way to turn them around. With a fail-safe built into his plan—the code to stop the attack is locked away in Ripper's head—Gen. 'Buck' Turgidson (George C. Scott) gathers every government official into the War Room, including the squirrelly President Merkin Muffley (role #1 played by Peter Sellers), in a desperate attempt to come up with a plan to stop the inevitable.

As British Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake (role #2 played by Sellers) is locked in the room with a Gen. Ripper growing ever-more insane, he tries to accomplish directly what the U.S. government can't: talk the son of a bitch down. As madness and hilarity ensue, President Muffley turns to the eccentric Dr. Strangelove (role #3 played by Sellers), a nuclear scientist and former Nazi, for suggestions on what to do. A serious, all-too-real part of history told through possibly the most absurd cinematic lens imaginable.

Peter Sellers is a Kubrick favorite, having appeared in his Lolita two years previous, and trusted with conveying the director's stories almost completely through improvisation. It is because of Sellers that this film's most memorable scenes are so successful, inventions of his own mind, while Kubrick's vision for the government, the army, and total nuclear destruction create the foundation where Sellers works. Joke shots (i.e. the one pictured above) are littered throughout, but none of them deliver the level of comedy that Sellers creates. In what is arguably the most famous comedic monologue of all time, Sellers as President Muffley calls the President of the U.S.S.R., whom he affectionately and informally calls Dmitri, and warns him about the impending nuclear attack on his country. What follows is undoubtedly the funniest scene you'll come across on this AFI list.

Now, identifiable, brilliant moments aside, the scenes that fill the gaps between them don't have enough oomph to keep the momentum going. At times, boredom will creep in on you before being shooed away by another one of Sellers' random lines or George C. Scott's hysterical facial expressionsno one delivers a reaction shot like Scott as Turgidson. Kubrick's knack for long takes, wide shots, and perfectly timed edits exemplifies his talents, but the film's overall morbidity is a hurdle that, at times, drag the pacing and limit the storytelling. Granted, it's a minor dilemma, but it more readily highlights who on screen adapts best to the material (Sellers, Scott) and who doesn't (Hayden).

This is a film I enjoy watching most with someone who hasn't already seen it. I find less joy in repeat viewings alone, finding myself eager to push forward to the next scene, that funnier scene, my favorite scene, etc. First-time viewers are almost as fun to watch as the movie itselfbaffled expressions, uncomfortable laughter, questioning head-tilts... Dr. Strangelove isn't a film for everyone, but there is certainly at least one comedic bit for everyone to enjoy. For me, as brilliant as Peter Sellers is in his multiple, drastically different roles, it's George C. Scott who steals the show. Who knew the guy who played General Patton could be so funny?

Ridiculous and frightening, Dr. Strangelove is still a masterpiece despite not being flawless. Kubrick had the balls to make light of the prospect of nuclear war that terrified the world, making us laugh and scaring the pants off of us in the process. The potential for this film's significance to dim in the eyes of a changing audience is likely, though, putting into question if it has the legs to find a new generation of viewers who could grasp its situational horrors. Classic film lovers may always come back to this one, but will that be enough to keep it relevant? I certainly hope so.

Lastly, if you still need more of this delightfully weird movie, check out these pictures from the cut finale which featured a custard pie fight in the War Room. For reals.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Universal Pictures]

Check back next time for #38 on the list, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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