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Thursday, April 7, 2016

AFI Film Review: Dr. Strangelove

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.



Grade: A

I had seen everything Stanley Kubrick had made from The Killing onward except for Dr. Strangelove. I caught glimpses of the movie once in 7th and Grand bar[1] but the sound was turned off. I had avoided the film even though it has the hilarious Peter Sellers and one of my all-time favorite actors Sterling Hayden. I was (am?) a Kubrick devotee. My admission essay to film school was on A Clockwork Orange, a movie I stumbled onto at the age of 14. When I first arrived at film school I watched Full Metal Jacket everyday for a month. In retrospect what I liked about these movies was the fact that the humor of the film turned into “horrorshow” but the comedic tone never completely goes away; even after Pyle blows his head off and Alex is rehabilitated there is still the "too beaucoup" scene and the convulsions of Patrick Magee. In Dr. Strangelove there is no “horrorshow”, or rather the horror in the film isn’t played for horror.


As a millennial[2] it’s easy, and futile, to look back and say that preceding generations had more bravery, valor, honor, chutzpah, etc. It’s probably safe to assume that if the world were threatened with a crisis like World War II the young people of 2016 would rise to the occasion[3]. Still, there is the undeniable fact that when The Great War happened people like Jimmy Stewart and Sterling Hayden and baseball players and everyone else fought in the war. Hayden and Stewart fought willingly. Imagine Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio (or I for that matter) willingly fighting in Afghanistan[4]. Hayden and Stewart interrupted lucrative careers to fight in World War II which is as selfless an act as I can think of.

Our personal character traits notwithstanding, I always identified with Sterling Hayden because he’s big and it’s not easy being big. I’m about three inches shorter than Hayden but I get mistaken for being taller all the time. Hayden wasn’t just tall he was wide, he wasn’t just big he was huge and he had what everyone looks for in an actor: presence. It’s hard not to have presence when you’re a 6’5” Adonis who likes to go on globetrotting adventures. Anyway, a cursory glance at Hayden’s life story or his book Wanderer reveals that I am not like Sterling Hayden, my globetrotting adventures take place on the (relatively) safe confines of an airplane and not at sea.

Given Hayden’s personal history and his other films that I’d seen (noirs, westerns and whatever genre you put The Long Goodbye in) I thought he couldn’t be funny. I avoided Dr. Strangelove because I assumed it couldn’t be as good as people said and I assumed Hayden couldn’t pull off a comedic role. Contrary to my expectations he was brilliant. As General Jack D. Ripper Hayden plays the character straight, a man with real beliefs, a zealot but a man with a creed, not unlike the film noir heavies, living by the code of the criminal, he portrayed before hand. He made the General’s fears real; it’s Peter Seller’s reactions that allow us to laugh because otherwise we’re watching the ravings of a madman. I bet that appealed to him, the ravings of a madman not because he was one but because he must have felt like that’s how people thought of him at times. Or was he drawn to the role as a way to expunge his sins after naming names before the HUAC? As Roger Wade in The Long Goodbye he added alcoholism to the ravings and then finally in the documentary Leuchtturm des Chaos life imitated art and there was no Peter Sellers to tell the audience to laugh.

There’s no real reason to mention Peter Sellers again; his legacy and reputation haven’t been tarnished nor miscalculated. He’s brilliant in Strangelove. If there is one complaint it would be that his multiple performances may have led to whatever it is Mike Meyers and Eddie Murphy did to film in the 1990s. Sellers, like Hayden, also may have been a willing participant in World War II, the records are unclear. Their military service is important to me because it means that they were satirizing an entity of which they had been a part; it wasn’t uninformed and it wasn’t done without serious consideration.

Stanley Kubrick is revered for being a genius, for creating abstruse, intellectual works which required meticulous planning and an absurd level of detail. Fans of Kubrick or his films devote countless hours to divining what Kubrick meant in 2001 and The Shining. Artificial Intelligence, Zoroastrianism, The Holocaust, centaurs; there is no end to the supposed embedded information in Kubrick’s films. The intellectual part of Kubrick’s oeuvre never appealed to me. If I want to watch an intellectual film I’ll opt for Tarkovsky or Bergman. It’s not to say that Kubrick couldn’t be intellectual, but it’s not the best thing that he did. To me the best thing he did was make me laugh in the worst moments. On the surface the statement “I watched Full Metal Jacket everyday for a month” sounds like the confession of a lunatic, but that’s only if you ignore the humor in the film[5] or the humor in A Clockwork Orange or the humor in The Shining. What makes all of the horror so effective in these films is that at some point before the horror you were laughing. The film’s aren’t just scary, violent or moralistic, they are also funny. In Strangelove the formula is inverted; the film is mostly funny with the serious bits sprinkled in to highlight the humor. It’s not a departure from Kubrick’s other work but merely a readjustment.

It’s well known that George C. Scott[6] and Kubrick had a falling out after Strangelove. The reason is sensible[7] but given how well the movie came out you would think Scott might have forgiven him. His portrayal of General Buck Turgidson actually made me want to watch Patton which I will eventually have to do as it is also on the AFI’s 100 years...100 Movies list.

Dr. Strangelove more than lived up to its reputation. I only wish I had seen it earlier.




[1] A whiskey bar in downtown Los Angeles and the absolute perfect bar in which to watch Dr. Strangelove or anything in black and white.
[2] Did the baby boomers hate their name as much as we hate ours?
[3] You could argue that global warming is just such a crisis, but….
[4] Or giving up fossil fuels to extend the metaphor.
[5] Up until Pyle shoots himself; I would usually turn off the movie before that.
[6] Also served in the military.
[7] Kubrick used the “practice takes” that he told Scott he wouldn’t use. 

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