a film by Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens, Peter Bull Directed by: Stanley Kubrick Produced by: Stanley Kubrick Written by: Terry Southern, Stanley Kubrick, Peter George.

There's a new boxed set of Kubrick's masterpieces and near-masterpieces on DVD, and That Lucky Dawg found it under the Yule Pine. Lolita, 2001, Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket are all included, but my first viewing was a no-brainer: Dr. Strangelove, that deliciously macabre rejoinder to Fail-Safe.

Strangelove is deeply, dangerously funny, of course. The movie's first image is that of a high-tech phallus, and the opening credits, on the off chance you've never noticed, are laid over the image of two warplanes Doing The Nasty. And those whacky, whacky characters. ..

But are they really that whacky? No. They're really not.

And that's why Strangelove, after forty years, remains deeply terrifying. What's so scary about Strangelove is that all the characters--except one--do exactly what they are supposed to do. Major Kong (Slim Pickens) and his crew are a case in point. It's easy to dismiss Kong, with his ten-gallon hat and cheesy speeches and folksy asides, as a clown, a cutup. But watch him carefully. Kong is intelligent, dazzlingly competent, courageous, and relentless in his pursuit of the mission objective. He's been told to nuke them Russkies and, goddamit, that's what he's going to do, come hell or high water. He carefully authenticates and verifies his orders. He flies into enemy territory. He speaks openly and honestly with his men, like a leader, and perhaps he even inspires them ("Heck, I reckon you wouldn't even be human beings if you didn't have some pretty strong personal feelin's about nook-ee-ler combat.") He goes through his checklists. In a feat of steely-nerved aeronautical virtuosity, he gets his plane through a devastating missile attack. Denied his primary target, he goes for the secondary, and when that falls through he doggedly identifies and attacks a target of opportunity. Kong is no clown. He's a freakin' hero.

And that's what's scary. Kong does exactly what we pay him to do, with courage and cunning and skill, and that's why the world goes up in smoke. It's the same with the other characters. The President (Sellers) does what presidents do--he confronts the crisis with ineffectual diplomacy and moralistic hand-wringing. Mandrake (Sellers) does everything in his power to persuade Ripper to back off, short of shooting him (which would be rude) and in the end makes the brilliant deductions that uncover the Recall Code. Buck Turgidson (Scott) is a caricature, but he's true to form as the Cold Warrior trained to make tough, cold-blooded strategic decisions. The more you think about his suggestion that, since we're committed anyway, we should nuke the Soviets and "catch them with their pants down," the more you realize--to your horror--that it's not an entirely unreasonable alternative. Given the circumstances. And Strangelove himself (Sellers), slyly presented by Kubrik as an Neumannian Angel of Death, doesn't create the crisis--he simply regards it as another puzzle to be solved, an interesting set of variables and facts. Yes, he's emblematic of the problem--sterilising human evil by casting it into cruel equations--but he's not the problem itself. Everybody does their best. Everybody does their duty, and they do it well.

And everything still goes to hell, because, as Turgidson says, "the human element seems to have failed us here." The one wild card, of course, is General Jack D. Ripper. In a way, he too does exactly what he has to, but it can hardly be defended as his duty. So what's scary here is that Ripper's psychotic deployment of the Wing is the only irrational act in the entire movie--a stone dropped into a pond, sending out ripples of implacable human excellence and duty, propelling everybody toward disaster. After all these decades, it should still send a chill down your spine and keep you up at night. ..

Except it's so goddam funny.


Fail-Safe meets A Comedy of Errors.
Sullydog Approves.

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